Rowley’s Big Adventure: The Daring Designer Takes Her Whimsey To Feet-Level

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...

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.”

Still in school, Rowley won a $3,000 fellowship. She put $1,000 into the business and hired a salesman to go to New York to sell the collection. That became her senior project. “I sold Bendel’s, etcetera, 400 pieces the first week. I made them all myself with a friend. Eventually, I packed up and moved to New York, rented a loft on Varick Street, hired an assistant, made 60 pieces, had a show, invited WWD, Vogue and Andy Warhol (it was 1983).”

That was the beginning, she said, after a WWD story started her on her way. Now she has offices at 498 Seventh Avenue, but she is moving shortly to larger quarters (“our own floor”) at 550 Seventh. Her firm’s sales total about $12 million annually, including a Cynthia Rowley license for patterns with Butterick, her latest license with Zeitgeist “and who knows what’s coming up.”

Shoes, she feels, are the most important accessory. “It’s like a dream come true, my association with Nancy,” Rowley said. “I’m like a shoe fanatic. I don’t buy clothes, only shoes.”

Admitting she has bought eight pairs at one time, she said she likes vintage designs and shopping at flea markets and that she finds really “cool ones” in Illinois. Rowley is also a saver, storing clothes as well as shoes for 20 years, “and proud of it.”

“I tried to save all my vintage shoes. About a year ago my mom sent a big box with all of my platforms from my high school days,” she noted. “They are so absurd the first time around. I saved them.” The collection included giant platforms and glitter sandals — including the silver ones she wore to her prom, coordinating them with her dress and with the silver vest and jacket she made for her date.

Discussing shoes, she noted that it’s difficult designing them so far in advance of r-t-w, “but it’s nice. Shoes can be inspirational for clothes; you kind of work up from there. A lot of times it will take on a whole different look.” Then she added, “I’m glad Nancy is fast… she had a week to put it (her r-t-w footnotes) together. I like the idea of being able to change things on shoes. Change a ribbon and it changes the look. I like doing different things so you can personalize shoes. “I’m experimenting. I like a little Baby Doll feeling but a little bit sexy, like putting it on a little heel.” Rowley heartily endorses boots and wearing them year round: “There are different ways of opening them up for spring.” She also likes heels, “two-inches or so, so you can still walk on them.”

With each season of doing shoes (she’s on her second) Rowley learns more, especially about how ideas have to be practical. She admires Geist whom she says, “tries really hard to let me have a lot of creativity without being stifled. She gives me freedom but she interprets it, changes it so it works. She has great ideas, too. We make a good team in that way. I run my company and am the designer. I live with it and the compromises. I understand that. She does, too. She’s creative and a business woman. It’s nice to have a woman business associate.”

Concerning her r-t-w, Rowley feels she identifies with her customers, believing they represent a broad range of ages and types. She sees them as a little whimsical but still practical, special and creative, “not run of the mill.” “I like to think you can interpret fun and young or more sophisticated designs within the same idea… you can wear it dressed down or up. For Saks it’s a little more pared down, definitely more sophisticated. For Macy’s we do our most special, most avant-garde looks.”

Short hemlines will carry through, she said, noting you don’t want all of that fabric around your legs. “The thinking for fall is the coming turn of the century and what that means,” she added. Rowley believes that while people tend to look backward they are also looking ahead to new technologies. “I’ll be checking into new and exciting materials.” In a looking backward mood, she added, “The most forward customer understands polyester is OK.”

Rowley spends her leisure time in Milford, Pa., with her husband Tom Sullivan, a fashion photographer, fishing and canoeing on a lake. There is also time for gardening and sketching in a book filled with drawings of gadgets and contraptions which she thinks could make life easier. She also keeps her suitcase packed and at the ready as she is an avid traveler. Back on the fast track: Milford is where she keeps her Yamaha 750. She refers to it as her “country” bike. But she is still nostalgic about the Honda 175 (the gold city bike), which she sold after the accident. “I want it back,” the daredevil designer declared wistfully.