How Cynthia Rowley took her brand from pretty dresses to surf and sport chic

The designer has focused on innovating with new fabrics, integrating sustainable production models, and opening more physical stores.
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Cynthia Rowley

· 3 min read

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The Cynthia Rowley brand has evolved a lot over the past few years. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, the designer told us about its changing customer base and how it moved to a DTC-focused strategy.

But that’s not all that’s changed. The designer once known for its dresses and blouses is now also renowned for its surf wear and skiwear. Collaborations with brands like Roxy have also helped uplift that sporty image. It’s why products like wetsuits and ski suits are some of its top sellers, Rowley told us.

“People who know the brand from years ago, they think of us as pretty dresses,” she said. “But with things like [ski suits and wetsuits], I think things like that, just constantly thinking about the function, combined with fashion, and the innovation and things that maybe have not ever been made before…those are the things that float to the top right away, and then sometimes they stay as staples.”

Creating these staples, however, takes two to three months from the point of ideation and involves a good amount of experimenting with different fabrics, shapes, and silhouettes. For instance, one the brand’s top sellers for the past couple of years has been its bonded trousers—a proprietary fabric that it developed based on the way its wetsuits are created but more breathable and with limited-edition prints.

Rowley explained that by innovating with new materials, the retailer has helped solidify itself as a “sporty” brand and make that part of its DNA.

Another critical focus for Rowley is sustainability, which is why she has been working with clothing rental businesses like Rent the Runway. The designer is also working on producing collections with smaller quantities and then “replenishing” based on demand because, Rowley said, “there’s no excess, there’s no waste, things don’t sit around, nothing gets dumped.”

Talk of the town: To amplify this newfound image of sustainability and sportiness, Rowley has turned to a community-driven business approach where customers discover the brand by seeing others wear it. “They’re posting, they’re talking about it, they’re wearing it out,” she said. “Someone might see someone out in the water wearing a wetsuit, they go to buy a wetsuit [from us]. I’ve actually had people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you make clothes,’ which is amazing. That means you’re going in through like a side door and reaching a whole new audience.”

This year, the retailer hopes to take that customer discovery global, starting with opening new stores across the US and regions like Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, and neighboring islands). It currently has plans to open three to five new stores in the US alone, including in New York, California, Charleston, and Dallas.

It has also been working on opening pop-up stores that eventually turn into long-term leases. “It’s really important for us this year to go out and meet all these loyal customers…in person and spend time and nurture those relationships,” Rowley said.—JS

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