For Cynthia Rowley, growing up in Barrington resembled a John Hughes movie. “I had the best, most idyllic childhood. I remember going to Langendorf Park in the summer, the parades and the Catlow,” Rowley said. “It was exactly what you would imagine a childhood in the Midwest to be.”
Her mother, who still lives in the house she grew up in, was an artist and her father worked as an elementary school teacher. He was working at Roslyn Road Elementary when she attended kindergarten there. “I saw him in the hallway once and I started shouting ‘Dad! Dad!’ because I was so excited to see him at school. When I got home that night, he said ‘If you see me in the halls, I need you to call me Mr. Rowley,’” she remembers with a chuckle.
As a little girl, she wasn’t really into fashion. In fact, her first venture with fashion design had little to do with aesthetics and trends. “My mom gave me a piece of fabric and said it would keep me out of trouble during the summer,” Rowley remembers.
She ended up using the fabric to make her first skirt and shirt set, using a piece of her mother’s clothesline to create a belt that completed the look. “I remember placing the fabric on the ground and tracing around myself like a crime scene, then sewing it all together,” Rowley said. She was just 7 years old.
Her sewing adventures continued in middle school. “When I was in 6th grade I would go to these dances at the park district and I always made myself something elaborate to wear,” Rowley said. “Everyone wanted to dress like everyone else, but I didn’t have the money to buy all those turtlenecks and corduroy jeans.”
What started as a way to have something unique to wear without spending a lot of money, soon turned into a passion. “I really liked the creative process involved in putting an outfit together and there weren’t a lot of distractions when I was growing up, so it was easier to pursue creative endeavors.”
“I really liked the creative process involved in putting an outfit together and there weren’t a lot of distractions when I was growing up, so it was easier to pursue creative endeavors.”
When high school rolled around, she joined the Barrington High School marching band. But for Rowley, the music was secondary. “I just wanted to wear the uniforms!”
She honed her artistic skills, by taking classes such as painting, metalworking, woodworking, and photography. She also remembers taking a social studies class that instilled a sense of curiosity in her. “I didn’t travel as a kid. I didn’t leave the United States until after college. This class introduced me to all these cultures and it sparked my interest in the history of different countries,” Rowley said. Little did Rowley know at the time, she would one day have the opportunity to visit many of those countries as the leader of her global lifestyle brand.
After high school graduation, Rowley had a brief stint at Arizona State University, before transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago with plans to become an artist like her mother. She soon realized she didn’t like the isolation she felt as a solo artist and began to crave a more social endeavor that required teamwork. At the suggestion of her roommate, she decided to combine her sewing and drawing skills and transferred to the fashion department. “That’s when I really started going gangbusters,” Rowley recalls. “I was designing the craziest stuff.”
One outfit, in particular, got her kicked out of her junior year fashion show. “It was this giant silver puffer coat, with silver pants, and a hat with wings on it,” Rowley said. “It didn’t seem crazy to me, but they thought it was too much and kept trying to make me compromise.” Unwilling to do so, she finally told them not to put her in the show.
The following year she won the school’s Cornelia Steckl Fashion Scholarship and Rowley didn’t waste any time in pursuing her dreams. She packed a U-haul, drove to New York City, and got her first apartment on Varick Street. “I took that apartment because I thought it was 7th Avenue, a.k.a ‘Fashion Avenue’ since 7th Avenue turns into Varick Street,” Rowley said with a laugh.
Three weeks after moving to New York City she had a runway show and invited every fashion insider she could think of. She was surprised when people actually showed up. “Women’s Wear Daily ended up writing about my collection and that was sort of the beginning.”
Today, Cynthia Rowley still lives in New York City, leading her brand, which redefines the boundaries of fashion. Her pieces exude the same spontaneous and rebellious spirit she had as a young girl growing up in Barrington, wearing elaborate outfits to the park district dances. “I think it’s important that people try to be as authentic as possible,” Rowley said. “Be an original in everything you do because in the end that’s what will make you stand out.”