In Conversation with Cynthia Rowley
The fashion iconoclast, and avid surfer, follows her instincts and passion, even when they go against the prevailing industry tides, and finds success and joy on an adventure of her own making.
The designer Cynthia Rowley has long been a source of inspiration for me, going back to my early twenties when I would save up to buy one of her beautiful tops or dresses, which I invariably spent months coveting. And unlike so many designers, which fashion’s commercial machine seems to churn through, she successfully built a deeply personal brand with incredible staying power by largely ignoring all the rules and instead, using her own values to guide her through. From being one of the first designers to partner with Target, to adding wetsuits to her line alongside flowing dresses when surfing became her passion, Cynthia has embraced a journey of adventure and gone her own way at many a turn.
As a business owner myself, carving out a new path in an industry with deeply entrenched norms, the perspective Cynthia shared during our conversation—which took place months into the turbulence of the pandemic—was an inspiring and grounding reminder to always trust your gut. I hope you enjoy it!
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I’m so honored and excited to chat with you. You’ve been the kindest supporter of my brand for so long now and it’s really meant so much, so let me just start by saying thank you.
Of course! And thank you for making my skin so nice.
You have clearly built a lasting brand. I can remember coveting your clothes 25 years ago—they were what my friends and I would save our money for.
The crazy thing is, that still makes me so happy and so excited to hear. I’m just doing what I want to do and having so much fun. It’s almost like I feel exactly the same way as I did 25 years ago, making clothes and putting them out there, seeing people wear them and having people tell me stories like that. It’s as if no time has gone by.
I’m just doing what I want to do and having so much fun.
I think it is because you are still passionate about what you’re doing. I’m only seven years into it and still as passionate to tell my story today as I was when we started. To hear you say that over 20 years in you still have that same excitement and joy and passion is very comforting.
I feel like as long as you keep sort of reimagining what you’re doing, I don’t see why it would ever feel different. Just because I can still say that I’m a fashion designer does not mean in any way that my creative day is at all like it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, even a year ago. It’s just always evolving.
Have the biggest shifts for you over the years been driven by external forces or was it your evolution as a designer? Can you talk about what those different phases have looked like?
I think there are two paths in fashion. You can play by the rules and kiss up to the right people and you’ll have a career. But will it be your career? What you truly want? What you’re passionate about? Maybe—but that wasn’t for me. It was a combination of always sort of being that underdog, and not really fitting in that took me down a different path. At a certain point I just decided that, if I’m not going to be a part of this, then I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want. And that goes all the way back to when Target said, “Would you do a collection with us?” Nobody was doing it. It was before Isaac [Mizrahi], it was before everyone. People told me, “Don’t do it. This will be the end of your career.” I just decided, then so be it, because I believe this is how people think about style in their lives.
Similarly, we have been known for most of my career for making pretty dresses. So when we started making these thick, rad wetsuits, people were scratching their heads and saying, “I don’t get it.” Of course, it’s a very niche thing. But to me, it was such a defining part of my personal passion that we just threw caution to the wind and started doing it. Now it’s been something like twelve years of making these wetsuits.
At a certain point I just decided that, if I’m not going to be a part of this, then I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want.
How have you navigated all the changes to the retail landscape over the past few years?
Well, at a certain point, the writing was on the wall with department stores and running a wholesale business. You’re just making stuff for other people because they’re telling you what people want, and you're trying to get that order because if you don’t you might not be able to make payroll. Things like that can really mess with your head. You had to crank out all this stuff. It seemed wasteful to me, it became predictable, it became like you were just on a treadmill. I just said, “We have to take this down to the studs.”
So, obviously my brand is not as big as yours, but it’s the same velocity that exists in beauty with a lot of pressure to be in those big stores, which has never felt good to me.
In the industry now, brands realize that if you’re not in control of your own destiny, including your visuals, your marketing, whatever it is, you have nothing. I don’t care if my business is one tenth of what it would be if I caved on all this other stuff. I don’t care because in the end it’s more profitable, it’s what I want it to be, and we’re in control.
What you are saying really are the things I needed to hear right now. There is always that doubt when everyone else seems to be doing it completely differently than you are.
For me, it used to feel like all these other people have it all figured out and I’m a loser. But, no. You have to embrace that and just own being different and doing what you believe. You have to follow your gut.
For me, it used to feel like all these other people have it all figured out and I’m a loser. But, no. You have to embrace that and just own being different and doing what you believe.
How did you first discover Vintner’s Daughter by the way?
My friend Leilani Bishop, who started Botanica Bazaar, first told me about Vintner’s Daughter. I have known her since she was a model in the 90s and we live at the beach near each other and we surf together. She is a natural, pure beauty.
And at this stage of your life, what does beauty mean to you, and how has it changed over time?
I’ve always been super low maintenance. I’ve been known to use Sharpie for eyeliner. Someone was like, “Dude you can’t do that. That’s going to kill you.” But it stays on really well. It used to be that I would use hotel bar soap that I stole on my face—I would just do anything. Now, that’s evolved because I see that it is important to take care of your skin and I have gotten much more thoughtful. But still, not a lot of makeup.
Are there any beauty rituals that you swear by?
Besides Vintner’s Daughter? I would say that really is the one thing. I do love the GOOPGLOW masks. That combination of the cleaning and scrubbing of that mask and some Vintner’s Daughter is my ritual.
Given that you’re such a big surfer, are you religious about sunscreen?
I am, especially if I’m going out surfing. But what happens is, I’m totally crazy obsessive about being in the water, so I go out there for like six hours. Inevitably, by the end, it's gone. But I use a mineral-based sunscreen. Eir makes a heavy surf mud that’s really good and stays on.
By the way, how did you get into surfing?
Being from Illinois you mean? Somebody told me, “I read that you’re from Malibu,” and I was like, Malibu?! I wish. I would have loved that. About sixteen years ago, I bought a little teeny tiny shack on the beach in Montauk and a guy that I know out there said, “You can’t have this house and not surf. I’m going to take you out.” And I went out with him the next day and I caught a wave. Right now just saying that, I got chills and goosebumps. That’s how much I love it and that’s how much it changed my life. It’s something that I feel so grateful to have in my life and to be able to pass on to my kids. They surf and my husband surfs. My whole life changed and it really is my happy place and my mediation. It’s also family time. Surfing is just total joy and goodness and community and it just makes me so happy. Which is why I couldn’t be out there wearing an ugly wetsuit, so that’s when I started making wetsuits.
What is your dream holiday destination? I’m imagining it’s going to have something to do with surfing.
Surfing is just total joy and goodness and community and it just makes me so happy. Which is why I couldn’t be out there wearing an ugly wetsuit, so that’s when I started making wetsuits.
Always. My idea of a good time is always some end-of-the-earth destination. I made my kids go camping in the Himalayas and then it snowed while we were asleep and we were freezing, sleeping in tents on the top of a mountain. It was really bad. I’m like, “Wasn’t that that best trip ever?” They’re like, “No.” Sri Lanka is on my list, and also New Guinea. I really enjoy places that are not as homogenized as the rest of the world, which is harder and harder. I really try and take the family on these big adventures that make you feel like the whole world is not about you.
It’s so important to get that perspective. We’re in Northern California and we sometimes drive up to the redwoods just to see these trees that were here way before us and will be here long after us. For me, that’s my source, and probably feels like what surfing is to you in a way.
Isn’t that so beautiful? Really connecting to Mother Nature and something bigger than you. You’re not in control. Here, we’re talking about being in control of your brand and your destiny, but then you need the balance of not having any control over anything. You can’t say, “I’m going to surf on Tuesday.” Oh really, you are? You know the waves are going to be good, and there’s going to be no wind? No. That isn’t the way it works. It's out of your control and that is a good thing.
And it makes you appreciate it all the more.