Cynthia Rowley, an inveterate traveler, is no stranger to the peripatetic life, flying to far-flung locales and staying just long enough to get her work done and take in the sights. It’s no wonder the designer calls her answer to the retail malaise, Nomadic retail, a concept that’s fast-paced, creative and impermanent.
The Nomadic stores begin as temporary units, but Rowley said, “that doesn’t mean we don’t extend the leases or roll into something a little more permanent. I could see doing about four new Nomadic stores per month. I really think the more, the better. Realistically, we could probably have 20 or more going at the same time.
“I can say with complete certainty that I’ll never sign a 10-year lease again,” the designer said. “It’s not so important to have a grand flagship. It’s more interesting to be in a development that has a curated mix of retail, including restaurants, fitness centers and coffee shops, where you can go and spend the day.”
Rowley conceded that there’s a lot of moving parts to Nomadic Retail. “It’s definitely a little bit crazy,” she said. “Travel and adventure and endless summer makes perfect sense. We take retail on the road and pop up. It makes it all fun. The whole thing with fashion is diversity and being nimble. You can’t do only one thing anymore.”
Rowley could hardly be accused of having a narrow perspective. The designer always has several different projects percolating at once. For instance, Rowley will introduce plus-size surf and swimwear through a partnership with 11 Honoré. “Nobody’s doing sexy surf and swim for plus-sizes, so it’s a great opening for us to be inclusive,” Rowley said. “We’re starting with surf and swim, but we’ll do ready-to-wear and maybe fitness.”
A kids’ collection, Maisonette x Cynthia Rowley, launched on maisonette.com, with the designer’s fusion of California and New York — Cali York — printed on T-shirts and beach totes, and embroidered on sweatshirts. Rowley’s women’s surf and swim line bowed on Farfetch with items such as black Shock Wave surf leggings, with an airbrush-style floral design.
“We curated a pop-up shop for Farfetch,” Rowley said. “Our next launch on Farfech will be men’s with Garrett McNamara, the world record holder for surfing the biggest wave, a 100-footer in Portugal.”
The designer in the spring is opening a “little tiny store on the beach in Portugal. I went there and fell in love with the country,” she said. “It’s a little surf shop. It’s so beautiful, it’s like being in Amagansett, but it’s only 30 minutes from Lisbon.”
The Portugal store, the farthest from home, will be permanent. Meanwhile, Nomadic units in September opened at 3035 Peachtree Road NW, Atlanta; 139 NE 39th Street, Miami; Royal Poinciana Way, Palm Beach, and Platform, 8810 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, Calif. Rowley last month opened a new unit in another part of Platform. New Nomadic stores are set to open this month in Aspen, and Malibu in March.
“We deal directly with the developers in most cases,” Rowley said. “A broker isn’t really able to monetize [the spaces] because they’re so short term. Even if it’s six months, they wouldn’t make that much. Developers know we’re ready to go. We always say, yes. A space may become available on the spur of the moment. That spontaneity may be part of the fun. We have two weeks to agree to the terms and get the store opened the following week. The fast-paced excitement is giving the culture of the company a big lift.
“Downtowns are probably next,” Rowley added. “The thing about being in a development is that they have resources to help us get the word out. They have a network and a community that’s part of the development. It’s easy to plug into their community. It’s a little more like all for one and one for all when you’re in a stand-alone store on a street.”
Rowley, who often is the first among her peers to try new methods, said her stores will start accepting crypto currencies. Until now, Bitcoin, for example, has been embraced by online services such as Expedia, and customers of retailers such as Gap and J.C. Penney had to use their Bitcoins to buy eGifter cards to make purchases.
Back to Rowley’s roaming lifestyle. “We went to Egypt for Thanksgiving. Doesn’t everyone want to see the pyramids before they die,” Rowley said matter-of-factly. “I had a Viewmaster when I was a kid and it would flash pictures of the pyramids. The day after we got there, there was an attack on the Sinai Peninsula. But we saw the Valley of the Kings and the Sphinx.”
The previous year, Rowley was on her way to Jakarta to launch her new furniture collection, when she decided to stop in Qatar. The intrepid designer was fly-boarding in the Persian Gulf, propelled high above the water like a cartoon super hero, but found it “incredibly hard to stay upright.”
Rowley continues to lavish attention on her permanent stores, including the bungalow-style shop she opened in Montauk, N.Y., in 2010, after a decade of vacationing and surfing there with her family. The store sells “surfy cashmere sweater brand Lingua Franca, La Ligne, Feed bags and Martone bikes, which are cool.”
The Nomadic concept is less capital-intensive than permanent stores, but no less interesting. “The build-out is really lean and mean,” Rowley said. “It’s a different attitude. We do some cool stuff. We have a couple of devices that we use. We’ve been hanging a lot of things from the ceilings such as bicycles. We also feature art from Exhibition A,” the web site for original works, archival prints and silkscreens founded by Rowley and her husband, Bill Powers.
“It’s exciting to go into a place and find a great staff,” Rowley said. “The temporary and flexible nature of the stores allows us to find people with interesting lives. We have a professional tap dancer who tours around the country, artists, musicians and moms, who want to work a little bit.”
In spite of the stores’ temporary nature, Rowley makes the most of the limited time by hosting book signings and screening films. “They’re places to socialize,” said the designer, who serves her signature Bellissima Prosecco at stores. “When we open a pop-up, we partner with influencers. The goal isn’t only to sell merchandise. It’s user acquisition and audience awareness. If you’re going to be bullish about traditional retail, you’d better come out swinging.”