Before Barrington native Cynthia Rowley earned fame as a fashion designer, she endured a phase of infamy at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
"I actually got booted out of my junior show — not that I'm still holding a grudge or anything," Rowley said. (Citing a clash with faculty over the exuberant wings she attached to her junior-year designs, she said, "I was very strong-willed.")
Rebounding her senior year, Rowley won the school's fellowship award. Instead of flying to Italy for an internship with the money, as she had proposed, she rented a U-Haul and moved to New York with her senior collection.
Three decades later, her alma mater invited Rowley back, along with her husband Bill Powers, co-owner of Half Gallery and a judge on Bravo's "Work of Art," to accept the SAIC's first dual Legend of Fashion honor at Millennium Park during this year's "The Walk " student fashion show and fundraiser.
Rowley, who made her first dress at age 7, says artistic inclinations run in the family. Her grandfather was a creative director who designed the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo, and her grandmother began painting in her 50s.
With her husband, Rowley also co-founded the ExhibitionA.com art retail site, an idea that rose from the Pretty Penny program that Rowley started within her company to fund employees' entrepreneurial ideas.
She and Powers have two young daughters, who listened in "The Walk" audience with their grandparents as their mother described how she sold her first collection to a Marshall Field's buyer while still a student at SAIC.
"I was on a train on my way to school, and a woman asked me about the jacket I was wearing. I explained that I'm a designer, and she gave me her business card and told me to be in her office on Monday morning with my collection. And so I sewed all weekend and went to her office Monday with my five pieces. She looked at them, and said, 'That one's cute. What's the style number on that?' I said, 'Um, 1.' And she said, 'That's nice. What's the style number on that one?' 'Uh, 2.' She said, 'Let me guess — 3, 4 and 5?'" Rowley deadpanned to audience laughter. "She wrote me an order, and at that point I realized there was no looking back."
Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you graduated?
A: It's a tough business. I was very naive, and I think it's important to keep that naivete. And everything changes — the whole industry — every day. I thought I would have this knowledge base that would last me throughout my career. And every single day I'm constantly evolving and learning and experimenting, and it never gets easier, just different. You have to stay relevant and curious and engaged and interested. Every minute, if you're not taking risks, if you're not exercising your right to fail, why are you doing anything?
Q: What's your greatest achievement?
A: I guess that I'm here. Sometimes I feel like those cartoon characters after the explosion. They're like, "Whew! That was rough! But you know what? I'm on the other side now. It's all good." My greatest achievement is I kind of don't worry about things anymore and that I really do love what I do. I don't feel the constant threat of danger. I never look back, and I hate nostalgia in that way, but I can't believe how much time has gone by. Just working so hard, I never had time to come up for air and realize, whoa, it's been a while.
Q: Is that a good thing?
A: Yeah. Reflection is dangerous. I really always just try to forge ahead and think of new ways to do things and always look ahead, never look back.
Q: Is fashion a lonely endeavor or one that requires teamwork?
A: It's a huge amount of teamwork. I think that teamwork and being able to bring out the best in people is sort of the secret to success of any business. It's the downfall of a lot of fashion people because there are a lot of big egos. If you respect the people you work with and their judgment and talent, that's where you get your best work. I prefer as much as possible to inspire rather than lead. It's passive-aggressive.
Q: What skills do you use every day?
A: There are many. Sense of humor.
Q: Do you have a favorite designer other than your own designs?
A: Honestly I don't pay that much attention to other designers. I really am in awe of and I'm constantly inspired by and looking at contemporary art, and so I would say that's more influential for me than other designers.
Q: Regarding Pretty Penny, is giving back something one learns to do only after having worked for years?
A: It's not — I do a lot of charitable things — but Pretty Penny is more, I want to see people grow outside of what we're doing every day, and I want to encourage entrepreneurialism. ... I want to encourage other creative outlets — how can we inspire other people or ourselves to do things that haven't been done before? It's more about that than any philanthropic kind of thing. Fashion can be very insular, and it shouldn't be at all, ever.
Q: Words to live by?
A: Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Because Winston Churchill and fashion go together.