NEW YORK — Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, Ramona Quimby and…Cynthia Rowley? With her new book, “Slim: A Fantasy Memoir” (Rizzoli), the multitasking designer is positioning herself as the latest in a pantheon of little-girl heroines.
Each chapter spins a tale of the plucky kid from Barrington, Ill., who went on to design everything from glittery cocktail frocks to risqué dishes, and the pages are filled with Rowley’s own watercolor illustrations. Many of the stories and images wade pretty far into the fantastic — a picture of a dress made of helium balloons, for instance, is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek recollection: “No one knows exactly how high or how long I was up there, but they found me in the supermarket parking lot a few towns away.”
Like most designers, Rowley sketches everything on paper before committing it to fabric. “I actually am not a very good fashion illustrator,” she insisted. But her pencil-and-brush evocations of her Midwest childhood contain plenty of stylish moments, from a dress she whipped up from a shower curtain to a pair of legwarmers she made out of old socks. Not to mention the cover image of the seven-year-old designer in vintage Cynthia Rowley: a self-stitched brown paisley dress. “I laid the fabric down on the floor, then laid down on top of it, traced around myself, cut it out and sewed it up. That was my little outfit that I wore every day for an entire summer,” she said. “It wasn’t, you know, couture.”
Still, it was a starting point. Rowley’s childhood inventiveness has lived on in her creative runway shows. In “Slim,” she writes about an early show staged on a Chicago tour boat that had a pirate theme. “That, of course, was a big disaster,” she recalled, “but at the time I was like, ‘That was fantastic!'” The audience reaction wasn’t as great: Most everyone, models included, got seasick. “That’s why I had to leave town,” she joked. “That’s why I moved to New York, I think.”
Once in Manhattan, she hosted her first show in her own Varick Street apartment, a down-to-earth affair where she served fast food. Rowley has since learned “the smell of White Castle hamburgers is not very glamorous,” she said with a laugh. Better received, though, were her spring 2000 men’s collection, a poolside bash featuring a corps of synchronized swimmers and the spring 2007 candy-themed show — the latter, a collaboration with artist Will Cotton.
This story first appeared in the April 26, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The designer may not be best known as an artist, but she and her husband, writer Bill Powers, are avid art collectors and sit on the board of RxArt, a charity that promotes art in hospitals. Meanwhile, fellow artists and friends Rachel Feinstein, Delia Brown, Marilyn Minter, Inka Essenhigh and Ryan McGinness are expected to make appearances at her book reception tonight, which is being held at Bergdorf Goodman. On May 17, Rowley is scheduled to make her own debut at the John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller on the Upper East Side with a series of illustrations she compiled while, she said, she was “bored on airplanes.”
Is she excited? “I’m superscared,” she admitted. Surprising words from a former kid superhero.