Rowley says she would have made fewer mistakes if she had ever worked for someone else. But for years she saved money by doing her own designing, sewing, selling, order packing and finance managing. "For eight years there was just enough encouragement for me to keep going," she recalls.
New York's Seventh Avenue is strewn with the bodies of flashy designers who wanted too much, too fast. Rowley took one small step at a time, moving from a hovel of a studio (she sent buyers Mace along with invitations to see the line) to a larger space in a still grody neighborhood before finally moving up to the prestigious building that houses Ralph Lauren's and Donna Karan's showrooms.
Today, Rowley's dresses sell for $175 to $225. In the ostentatious '80s, she ran into price snobbery as entrenched as it was stupid. "People really thought that if it wasn't expensive, it couldn't be good," she says. "I never did expensive things, so nobody cared. It was like, 'Oh, if that's what it costs she's not really a designer.' "
Shoppers gradually caught up with Rowley, recognizing that pricey designer clothes sometimes have more psychological than real value.
"I understand that some people feel better in things that are really expensive, but my stuff is for everyone who's already been through years of therapy," she says. "They can wear the expensive stuff during the week when they have to feel big and important, and on the weekend when they just want to be comfy and have fun, they can wear my stuff."
Rowley identifies her customer as a woman in her 20s, 30s, maybe early 40s, but occasionally sees teenagers and their grandmothers successfully shopping her stores together.
The creativity, originality and variety evident in her biannual runway shows prove she is more than a stylist or knockoff artist, descriptions that fit many others in her price range. Even so, she understands the importance of becoming known to the public: Once she has an established identity as a designer, then it logically follows that anything with her name on it communicates her star power. Last month, she became the first fashion designer guest on Letterman's "Late Show" and squeezed an appearance on "Politically Incorrect" into her L.A. visit. "Entertainment Tonight" and the E! network covered the store opening here, but requests from People and InStyle to photograph her upcoming wedding were denied.
It makes sense for Rowley's customers to know her, because there is so much of her in the clothes. Every dress tells a story: The map dress commemorates a trip Rowley took with her fiance, and the outfit of upholstery fabric is an homage to a similar costume her mother once made to wear to a party, only to find herself seated in a matching chair. The Rainbow Wedding group of pastel flocked dresses and coats is a nostalgic salute to the tacky Midwestern tradition of dressing each bridesmaid in a different color, with the guys in coordinating tuxedo shirts.
Still, a nasty pea of insecurity lurks beneath the princess' high-profile mattress. "I don't know why people want to know anything about me, because I'm really just like a geek," she says. "I'm always afraid I'm going to get busted. Someone's going to find out that I'm not glamorous or sophisticated."
Most of the time, though, she's too busy to worry. Fifteen years after she fell in love with a photographer she later married, he died of cancer at 32. If she has seemed fearless in her career, it is because she has learned from painful experiences. "I think anybody can do anything and you should just do it and don't let anybody tell you that you can't. Just try it and if you fail, so what? At least you tried. I'm so grateful and happy every day to be doing what I'm doing. That we can have our own stores, all that stuff. Wow, I can't believe it. I just feel that it's really lucky."
On Saturday, Rowley will again be a bride when she marries Bill Keenan, a sculptor and architect. After the ceremony in New York's City Hall, the 180 guests will be shepherded into buses and driven to an old airfield for a reception in a candlelit hangar. Five days before the wedding, she still hadn't decided what to wear, but Keenan's black suit and acid green tie were ready.
He seems perpetually amused by his role in the continuing Life with Cynthia sitcom, and since his niece and nephew call him Uncle Silly, he's uniquely suited for it. "Cynthia has this list of things she's never done. Not a real list, but a mental one," he says. "One weekend we went hot-air ballooning because it was on the list." They take pride in being the only adults in their neighborhood with a trampoline in their apartment.
Verbal communication is not unknown to the couple, but when they go out to dinner, each often takes out a pad and draws. Inventions. Ideas. Sculptures and clothes. Keenan once sketched a store that looked like a blue head with two stories of yellow hair, and the Japanese trading company that is Rowley's partner in her Asian ventures actually built it.
There is always so much to design. Rowley's company manufactures hats and handbags. Licensees make shoes, knitwear, hosiery, shearling coats and eyeglasses. She warns her mother not to read too much into it, but Rowley loves to design children's clothes, little party dresses for a brave, talented girl with a ponytail and a daffy sense of humor who thinks the world is a wondrous place.