Rowley is a native of Barrington, Illinois (an affluent northwestern suburb of Chicago). She is one of three children born to Ed Rowley, a former science teacher, and his wife, Clementine. She graduated from Barrington High School (1976) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1981).
Known for what The New York Times has called "flirty, vibrantly colored dresses and tops in wispy materials" that have "a whiff of the carefree, simple spirit" of Claire McCardell, Rowley launched her business in 1981 or 1983 with $3,000 in seed money from one of her grandmothers. "Several months later, she held a fashion show in her apartment, inviting every important fashion editor in New York, as well as Andy Warhol and a smattering of movie stars -- none of whom she knew and none of whom attended."
Since then the Cynthia Rowley Collection, incorporated in 1988, has grown to include women's wear, shoes, handbags, eyewear, belts, dishes, legwear, hats, color cosmetics, and fragrance. Rowley introduced menswear in 1998 as well as a women's secondary line, Rowley by Cynthia Rowley, both licensed to Italian sportswear manufacturer Stile Moda SpA. The menswear collections were later reduced to a smaller volume, and in 2011 Rowley presented the Mr. Powers collection, a limited menswear range named after her husband Bill Powers. The women's secondary line was discontinued. Rowley's fashions are presented bi-annually at New York Fashion Week and sold in signature Cynthia Rowley stores in New York City, Charleston, Chicago, Boston, East Hampton, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as at the company's webstore. Shops in Beijing and Shanghai are opening soon. The collection is also represented in better department and specialty stores both domestically and internationally.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America honored Rowley with a Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent in 1994, after she had been in the business for twelve years, and a nomination for the Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Design Talent.
The designer and Ilene Rosenzweig, her best friend and a former reporter for The New York Times, also created a line of home accessories called Swell, which made its debut at Target in 2003.
It was announced in November 2009 that Rowley would be redesigning the uniforms for United Airlines. Her designs were to be seen on the United flight attendants, pilots, customer service representatives, ramp service and maintenance employees. United announced in mid-2010, after its planned merger with Continental Airlines had been made public, that Rowley would redesign the uniforms for the combined workforce. In mid-2011 United employees were informed that Rowley was no longer involved in the uniform redesign program scheduled to launch in mid-2012.
Cynthia Rowley has partnered with Target, Band-Aid, Roxy, and Half Gallery.
Television and books 
Rowley has appeared as a judge on the reality television programs 24 Hour Catwalk, America's Next Top Model, Project Runway and Design Star and has been a guest on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Late Show with David Letterman, among other programs.
She has written and co-written several books:
- Slim: A Fantasy Memoir (Random House, 2007)
- The Swell Dressed Party (with co-author Ilene Rosenzweig, Atria, 2005)
- Swell Holiday (with Rosenzweig, Atria, 2003)
- Home Swell Home (with Rosenzweig, Atria, 2002)
Personal life 
She married William (Bill) Keenan, an interior designer and sculptor, in 1996 (divorced); the officiant was Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City. They have a daughter (born 1999).
- Janette Goff Dixon and Whitney Blausen, "Contemporary Fashion," New York: The Gale Group, 2002.
- Francine Parnes, "Business People; Mom, Dad, Size 14 Furs: Who Says Fashion Is Elitist?", The New York Times, 8 February 2004
- Tracie Rozhon, "Fashion Designer Sticks to a Solo Course", The New York Times, 13 February 2003
- Constance C.R. White, "Celebrating Claire McCardell", The New York Times, 17 November 1998
- Lois Smith Brady, "Vows: Cynthia Rowley, Bill Keenan", The New York Times, 19 May 1996
- Robin Finn, "Public Lives: A Patron of the Arts, as Seen in a Sponge", The New York Times, 14 August 2003
- nymag.com Designer's bio: Cynthia Rowley retrieved on 09 November, 2009
- Anne-Marie Schiro, Cynthia Rowley's New Lines, The New York Times, 3 February 1998
- Nadine Brozan, "Chronicle", The New York Times, 18 November 1994
- Michelle Ingrassia, "Fashion: Dress for Success—Cynthia Rowley Moves To The Front Of The Pack", Newsweek, 13 November 1995
- ibtseattle.blogspot.com, Management Team / New Uniforms, 27 July 2010
- Julie I. Iovine, "Living in a Nutshell: Shangri-La in a Shack", The New York Times, 8 June 2000
- "James Frey Brings His Daughter for a Playdate at Cynthia Rowley's Show". The New York Observer
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Cynthia Rowley|
- Official website
- Cynthia Rowley at the Fashion Model Directory
- British Vogue "Vespa Lady"
- Bio and photo of Cynthia Rowley — Crain's New York Business 40 under 40 — 1997
- HGTV Design Star official website