By  on January 24, 1994

NEW YORK -- Wearing gold platform shoes to coordinate with a gold motorcycle is not your usual image of a designer. But there's nothing usual about ready-to-wear designer Cynthia Rowley, who recently entered the footwear world with her own collection.

The gold Honda crashed over a year ago, Rowley said with regret, when she was side-swiped by a cab on Fifth Avenue while on her way to a fashion shoot. ("I was pushed into '10 cents for the first quarter mile,' " she recollected.) Besides her, the bike was carrying clothes and her assistant. After making sure her assistant was all right, she sent her on to the shoot. "My legs looked like eggplant," Rowley noted, and so she got in a cab and went to a doctor who determined she had broken her leg and foot. "Other than that, I didn't lose an earring," she said nonchalantly.

You get the feeling that there isn't very much that would stop this intrepid young designer who founded her business on a fluke.

Slight, sinewy and capped with straight black hair, Rowley's wearing a short black dress, black legwear and black knee-high lace-up boots ("Not my own," she conceded.) She has a slightly rakish, tomboyish air coupled with perfect manners. Her formal education was at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied fashion and fine arts and earned a B.F.A.

Nancy Geist of Zeitgeist, who makes the Cynthia Rowley shoe collection ($98-$150 retail), is also a graduate of the Art Institute. Geist and Rowley were not classmates but were introduced by another graduate. Geist, who followed Rowley, said she knew her by reputation. "She was the one winning all of the prizes," Geist recalled.

The Illinois-born Rowley says her whole family -- mother, uncles, aunts, grandparents -- are all artistic. While she was still in school, her grandfather got her a summer job in a studio working in graphic arts. But the job was routine and she felt smothered.

Rowley had been making her own clothes since she was a child. And one day, riding the subway in Chicago, a woman sitting next to her admired her jacket. When Rowley explained that she had made it, the woman, who was a buyer for Marshall Field, said, "Be in my office tomorrow morning." The buyer was under the impression that Rowley had a small business. She raced out, bought some fabric and showed up at Field's the next day with a group of items. "Then the buyer asked me what the style number was. I thought a moment and said, 'one.' She looked at me and said, 'I suppose this is two, and these are three, four and five." It was totally humiliating. But it ended up with her giving me an order. Then she asked me, 'How much?' 'How much can you sell it for,' I asked. 'Have you done this before?' she continued. 'Oh, yes.' Then she said she needed my Dun & Bradstreet number, looked at me and added, 'I know you don't know what that means.' She had caught on and so I confessed. 'If you give me an order I promise I'll deliver it.' She gave me the order. I delivered them to the office in shopping bags. 'Hi, here's your stuff.' I made the clothes myself and they sold because they were inexpensive for what they were. They were re-ordered. That's how I started."

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