YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Like a Kid Playing Dress-Up

She's not selling \o7 haute couture\f7 , so Cynthia Rowley has serious fun making clothes for the light of heart, without sacrificing quality.


When Cynthia Rowley's ego swells and she fears it may take off and lumber through the streets of Manhattan like the giant Stay-Puft marshmallow man in "Ghost- busters," she returns to her childhood home in Barrington, Ill., population 9,000. There, she and her mother play a scene guaranteed to deflate any grandiosity fostered by success in the fashion industry:

"Mom, I won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award as Best New Talent," Cynthia says.

"That's nice, dear."

"Mom, I just opened my fourth store. Now we have 'em in New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Los Angeles."

"That's nice, dear. Do you want mashed potatoes or hash browns with dinner?"

Clementine Rowley is not too impressed that her 37-year-old daughter has been described in glossy magazines as one of the coolest designers in the country or that David Letterman recently introduced her as one of America's hottest. She knows that even though Cynthia's style swerves toward the wacky, her temperature is consistently normal.

"Living in the Midwest makes you a little wholesome, I think," the designer says. "I have a farm there that I bought as an investment because I'm kind of old-fashioned and, you know, I wanted land. I go down and look at it every now and then, especially when I start to feel like Miss Fancy Pants in New York. You go back home and you see that fashion isn't, like, a glamorous thing. It's more about function."

Growing up near the chilly Wisconsin border, with a grandmother given to such statements as, "People just wear glasses because they don't want to try," Rowley became a kind of Annie Hall for the '90s, an earthbound sprite with a whimsical style sense and a pragmatic nature. La di da.

Her clothes make a case for not taking fashion, or yourself, too seriously. The full-skirted shirtdress printed with plump lemons isn't something you'd wear for jury duty on a capital case. But it would be a hit at Disneyland. Most of Rowley's designs are similarly lighthearted: halter dresses perfect for backyard barbecues at the Bradys, hipster pants and colorful shifts that Gidget would be proud to own.

Bloomingdale's gave Rowley her own in-store boutique. Saks Fifth Avenue hangs her clothes in an area it calls Young Couture. "There's always a demand for things that are fun," says Saks President Rose Marie Bravo. "Cynthia has wit and style and her clothes are well-made. She seems to pick up on a lot of trends that are out there, but she does them in her own way."

Although she wrinkles her nose at being called her own best model, everything hanging in Rowley's weeks-old Beverly Hills boutique would look great on her. She is pretty, petite and curvy, with shiny black hair swept into a high ponytail. She speaks in a Valley Girl's patois, delivered with vowels as flat as a cornfield. She likes to refer to herself and others in uppercase titles. Her mother, a flea market shopper with a knack for spotting nascent trends, is "Psychic Fashion Designer." Her father, a retired science teacher, is "The Plaid Man." With a professional comedian's unshakable deadpan, she's a natural-born storyteller.

There's the tale of how she got started in the fashion business, for example. She had made her first dress at age 7, somehow managing to trace a pattern around her own body as she lay on the living room floor. While commuting one Friday morning via the el train to fashion design classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, a passenger admired her jacket. When Rowley explained that it was her own design, the Marshall Field buyer whipped out a card and asked her to bring in her line on Monday. One trip to the fabric store and a weekend of sewing later, Rowley showed up with five garments.

"What's the style number on that?" the buyer asked, fingering a teal velveteen jacket with suede trim.

"Ummmm, one," Rowley ad-libbed.

The buyer liked the next piece too and again inquired, "What's the style number?"

"Two," she replied.

The buyer guessed the next three numbers, ordered eight pieces and reordered when those sold quickly. Rowley's eight-piece senior project sold to Henri Bendel in New York. In 1983, she pocketed $3,000 from an Art Institute fellowship and a $1,000 gift from her grandmother, packed her sewing machine into a U-Haul and drove to New York. The theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" could have been playing on the truck's radio.

"I was so naive," she says. Her design schooling had emphasized creativity but neglected practical training. "I was totally out of touch. Why wouldn't somebody buy a swimsuit with wings on it? I remember the first time people told me I could get a factory to sew my stuff. 'Really? Excellent!' Everything was new to me. It took a long time for me to understand fashion as commerce."


Los Angeles Times Articles