On a spring day at her Malibu pop-up, Cynthia Rowley sat down on a low podium, close to mannequins dressed in her women’s designs. “Is this OK?” the designer asked a reporter, half-scanning the space for other options for an interview.
Rowley, a New Yorker who launched her label in the late 1980s, is known for being fluid and flexible. Having lasted for decades in the ever-changing fashion world, she possesses a quicksilver ability to adapt to change.
Just take a look at her brand, which includes women’s wear, accessories, makeup and men’s offerings. In recent years, Rowley, who’s known for pretty, feminine frocks, colorful, whimsical aesthetics, vivid patterns, bold colors and unexpected details, has eschewed traditional fashion shows at New York Fashion Week in favor of taking her runway looks on the road to cities such as Shenzhen, China, and Sydney, Australia.
She has also delivered intriguing collaborations such as print-heavy board shorts and cherry-print joggers in a partnership with professional surfer Garrett McNamara, as well as a limited-edition collection of pastel-printed swimwear and surf items with Goop, which dropped this month.
Recently she unveiled a collaboration with Brooklyn, N.Y., sneaker brand Greats, which has a store in Venice. And this fall Rowley will launch a satin messenger bag with Manhattan Portage in cheery colors.
“There’s this great, positive spirit of community,” Rowley said of the ongoing style collaborations. “There’s a fluidity to it. It’s like, ‘If you have an idea, let’s make it.’ It’s optimistic and happy, and I feel like it’s been the most exciting time in fashion. I like to say, ‘Don’t follow the rules and don’t just go through the motions.’ It’s better to take people by surprise than to give them what’s expected.”
After all, the designer turned the water sports world on its head six years ago when she emblazoned lavish prints on wetsuits.
Now Rowley, whose clothes have been worn recently by Issa Rae, Connie Britton, Whitney Port and others, is leading the charge on what she calls “nomadic retail” — hence her appearance in Malibu in early April. Rowley was visiting in celebration of the opening of her pop-up at Malibu Lumber Yard, 3939 Cross Creek Road. The temporary Westside store, which follows last summer’s L.A.-area pop-up in Culver City, will be up through the end of September. Selections at the Malibu store are priced at $80 to $600.
“We like the idea of surprise, short-term stores with the idea of an endless summer,” she said, wearing high-heeled white booties and brocade cropped pants. “Because we do the wetsuits and the swim, we wanted to have that vibe, to have a traveling store in the same way that a surfer travels around.”
One side of the Malibu pop-up features Rowley’s wetsuits and swimwear, and the other side has a mix of casual, colorful staples such as T-shirts, skinny pants, trapeze dresses and silk tops. Items sold at the shop could easily take a person from surfing to brunch or a night out on the town.
The pop-up’s opening event had all the requisite Malibu and L.A. fashionista flourishes such as a DJ spinning tunes in the courtyard, mini manicures, quick massages and a fitness class. There were also Casamigos craft cocktails and an avocado toast bar.
These touches fit into the lifestyle that Rowley described as “CaliYork,” a neologism she has used on the front of $115 T-shirts. Her West Coast customers, she said, “are the people who spend time in Malibu and Montauk. It’s just two coasts meeting.”
As her customers’ tastes and lifestyles change, so has Rowley’s. Her aesthetic has shifted over the years but not too dramatically, she said. Rowley pointed out a guest walking by as an example. The woman was wearing one of Rowley’s dresses in a flowing trapeze silhouette that appeared easy to wear but still managed to be sexy.
“If you edit it down to the things that we’re known for, it’s something that is casual, cool,” Rowley said. “The dresses definitely, but also T-shirts and sweatshirts — like two sides of the same girl. A lot of color, a little shine, a combination of pretty and sporty. We started designing the wetsuits out of my own personal passion, and it became this monster that’s taken over and a really important part of the brand. I call it surf leisure.”
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