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Cynthia Rowley: A Stitch Ahead

New York based fashion designer and entrepreneur Cynthia Rowley has been making clothes for four decades, but only made her first Australian visit six years ago when she designed a surf/swim collection with Roxy. She recently returned as a guest of VAMFF, and to launch a pop-up store within Melbourne’s prestigious Harrold’s boutique where a curated collection of her couture pieces are available for purchase.

She splits her time between Manhattan, where she lives with her husband William ‘Bill’ Powers – an art dealer and gallery owner – and her two children, Kit and Gigi Clementine. They like to escape the Big Apple grind by heading to their getaway in Montauk in the town of East Hampton, Suffolk County.

“When I first arrived in Australia it felt like New York and Montauk had a baby and called her Sydney,” says Cynthia Rowley of her first impression of the harbour city.

“It’s always exciting to be back in Australia and it’s a market I see a lot of growth in for my brand. It feels comfortable and right to be spending more time here and whether it’s for fashion week or collaborating with Harrold’s, expanding my business in Australia is a great opportunity for me,” says Rowley.


Cynthia RowleyWhy did it take so long for you to come to Australia?

It really was the wetsuits with Roxy that got that ball rolling. When I did that collection it gave me a chance to come here and when I did I questioned why I hadn’t done so before. I guess it’s that thing of work has to take you there and eventually it did.


You showed a resort collection in Sydney last May during fashion week. What was your impression of Sydney and the way fashion festivals are run in Australia compared to New York?

Sydney was love at first site. It felt like my two favourite places in the world – New York and Montauk – found a happy medium. Sydney is a place I associate with a happy and good time and it’s the perfect mix of city and country in one.

As far as showing my resort collection in Sydney, it made sense for me as a brand because it fit with the resort schedule and it’s a quality event. A lot of influential buyers attend and are watching to snap up labels. That collection was all about having fun. It was full of bell sleeves, floral applique and coloured silks. Sydney was the perfect setting to launch it.


How have you had to adapt your business to fit with the new social media demands/mold?

Right now we have a big e-commerce business and create content based around that. We also make films and add to our story, which really engages the consumer. We speak to our audience directly and it’s more like that now than ever before in my experience.

It’s important to move with the times and observe the changes, not sit back and then wonder what the hell happened. That’s how I like to keep our brand relevant. I am ever curious about things, from fashion to culture, and I think when the consumer comes along for the ride they want to be engaged in that as well. Having expanded the business to include accessories, surf, swim and home furnishings, shows we are ever evolving and like to try new stuff. We try to excite people.


Did you always want to be a fashion designer?Cynthia Rowley

I always wanted to be an artist. Fashion design became my reality but later. I was in art school – School of the Art Institute in Chicago – when I realised it was too hard to make a living as an artist, and I thought fashion would be an easier choice.


Who is your target audience?

It’s hard to say exactly as we do so many different products. But I’d like to think a youngish woman 20s to 40s who is excited by fashion. She likes to take risks and is a little bit fearless about doing things and getting things done.


Is fast fashion a threat to your brand?

I try not to think about it too much but it’s about being a step ahead of the game and sticking with what you love. The fast fashion industry is always present and a threat and if they want to do what you do afterwards then fine.


Cynthia RowleyBeing a working mum and successful designer – what have you come to understand about the balance and trying to be great at everything?

That is the constant struggle. I am not saying it’s easy at all, but you can’t separate all those things in your life and have just one at a time, they’re all intertwined. You have one creative life that encompasses everything and I try my best to find a balance in all of that but it’s not always easy or a given it’ll fall or go a certain way. My daughter Gigi came to visit me at work and left – that was kind of our together time today. Trying to compartmentalise things doesn’t work. The best thing is to love what you do and then you don’t ever feel like you’re sacrificing anything. I just got a dog last week and it might put me over the edge [laughs].


Who inspires you?

My children and husband inspire me. The creative teams of people I work with do as well. Seeing our dreams and ideas become a reality is always a great thing. I get most inspired by the people I am lucky enough to work with. I know a lot of artists through Bill and his gallery. We have many contemporary artist friends who have different takes on things – like the balance of art and commerce. That is always inspiring to have your ideas and notions about things challenged.

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