Early life and career
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, who was a painter. Rowley made her first dress at age seven, and came from an artistically inclined family – her grandparents included the designer of the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo and a painter. She graduated from Barrington High School in 1976, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1981. Rowley was kicked out of her junior year art show at SAIC because her use of wings in her design was seen as over the top. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Rowley said that Marshall Field's had bought her first collection while she was still a student at SAIC.
In 1981, Rowley won an SAIC fellowship award in her senior year and used the money to move from Chicago to New York City. She then launched her career with $3,000 in seed money from one of her grandmothers. A few months after moving to New York City to further her fashion career, she organized a fashion show in her apartment and invited movie stars, fashion editors, and Andy Warhol – none of whom she knew and none of whom attended."
Since Rowley launched her first capsule collection in 1988, has grown to include women's wear, handbags, glasses, color cosmetics, fragrance, wetsuits and swimwear, home furnishings, bedding products, and office accessories, the last in partnership with Staples.
Rowley introduced her first menswear collection in 1998, as well as a women's secondary line, Rowley by Cynthia Rowley, both licensed to Italian sportswear manufacturer Stile Moda SpA. The designer also created a line of home accessories called Swell, based on a book series she co-wrote with friend Ilene Rosenzweig, which made its debut at Target in 2003. It was announced in November 2009 that Rowley would be redesigning the uniforms for United Airlines, but the deal fell apart after its merger with Continental Airlines.In 2011 Rowley presented the Mr. Powers collection, a limited menswear range named after her husband Bill Powers.
Rowley's fashions are presented bi-annually at New York Fashion Week. Signature Cynthia Rowley stores are in New York City, Charleston, Chicago, Boston, Montauk, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, as well as at the company's web store. The collection is also represented in department and specialty stores both domestically and internationally. Rowley sought a broad range of licensing agreements to make her business a lifestyle brand instead of just a fashion brand.
Rowley's designs were described by The New York Times as "flirty, vibrantly colored dresses and tops in wispy materials" that have "a whiff of the carefree, simple spirit" of Claire McCardell.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America honored Rowley with a Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent in 1994. In 2012, Rowley was given the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Legend of Fashion award, alongside her husband Bill Powers. In 2015, Rowley won the Designer of the Year award at the 37th Annual American Apparel and Footwear Association American Image Awards.
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. The TV series Return to Amish on the TLC network follows ex-Amish Kate Stoltzfus as she interns at Rowley's design company.
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)
She married William (Bill) Keenan, an interior designer, sculptor, and landscape architect, in 1996 (divorced); the officiant was Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City. They have a daughter, Kit  (born 1999).
Rowley married William (Bill) Powers, an art dealer, co-owner of the Half Gallery in Manhattan's Lower East Side, and writer, on September 17, 2005, at the home of photographer Peter Beard. They have a daughter, Gigi Clementine (born 2005).
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