Dress For Success

Designer Cynthia Rowley doesn't have red hair, but there's something about her that inevitably evokes comparisons to Lucille Ball. Maybe it's her angular face, which she's forever scrunching in displays of mock horror. Maybe it's her '50s-style showroom, with furniture the color of gumdrops. Or maybe it's her sitcom sense of adventure, which prompted her to pose for a recent NewsWEEK photo session hanging, like some little frock, from a dress rack. Even Rowley admits she can't escape her Lucy-ness: "My life's like the chocolate-factory episode-the one where she can't wrap it fast enough. That's how I feel on Seventh Avenue. I'm not all-professional and glamorous, like a designer. It's like, how did I get here? This has a life of its own that I'm trying to keep up with."

At 37, Rowley is pushing toward the front of the pack. Even in the hyperbolic world of Seventh Avenue, where everyone's a star, there's no doubt this is Cynthia Rowley's year. In January she won the Council of Fashion Designers' Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent (even though she has been around for a dozen years). In May Bloomingdale's gave her her first in-store boutique. This summer she opened stores in Chicago and Tokyo (she also has a New York shop, on the same block as funk-mates Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi). And, in the last few weeks, she launched a knitwear line, signed a sunglasses license and laid plans for four more licenses and an L.A. outpost.

What has propelled Rowley's sudden celebrity is that, in the Year of the Dress, she's the consummate dress designer. "She's always looking forward, but in a very sensible vein," says Marshall Fields buyer Phyllis Collins. While many designers at the New York fashion shows last week offered clothes that were overdone or overly dull, Rowley's were fun, feminine--and wearable. "They're dresses for nondress people," says Rowley, who wears dresses while riding her Suzuki motorcycle to work. There's also a comfortable nostalgia about her designs. These aren't retro Lucy crinolines. Nor are they the Jackie O sheaths that have gridlocked fashion for the last year. Rowley, whose dresses retail for $175 to $225, designs soft variations on the shirtwaist and the hostess gown, done in blinding stripes, cheerful lemon patterns and her signature plaids. "For me, they're Proustian clothes-all these fond childhood memories come flooding back."

Growing up in Barrington, Ill., Rowley didn't even know what a fashion designer was. Her father, Ed, was a science teacher who favored plaids, hooded sweat shirts and earmuffs--all at once. Her mother, Clementine, sewed, but wasn't especially daring. "My morn once made a dress out of upholstery fabric and went to a party, and there were two chairs made out of the same fabric." It's part of the Rowley lore that Cynthia made her first dress at the age of 7 (a nifty print, sashed with a clothesline, whose design she includes in her press kit). Her big break came when she was a design student at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Marshall Fields buyer stopped her on the El to ask whose clothes she was wearing. Soon, she was making clothes for Marshall Field, "but she hand-carried them to the buyer instead of shipping them through the store's distribution center," says Collins. "That's how green she was."

Twelve years after landing in New York, Rowley has seen her sales top $15 million a year. Relentlessly hip celebs like Fran Drescher and Debi Mazar wear her designs; supermodel Christie Brinkley chose a creamy Rowley gown for her 1994 ski-slope wedding. Still, Rowley seems to have enough common sense to tweak herself. Her show last week was a family affair, while so many others were filled with the usual frivolous-ness- photographers elbowing their way to Julia Ormond, Hollywood's newest phenom, and Donald Trump, New York's oldest. Rowley's dad and brother, David, modeled. So did 15 babies and Bill Keenan, a sculptor she plans to wed in January.

Sweet touch, but hardly enough to guarantee longevity. "If she wants to make big bucks, she has to develop a sportswear line," says Alan Millstein, editor of the Fashion Network Report, a retail newsletter. "Sportswear is a different mind-set-more career, less frou-frou." Rowley insists her collection is balanced. "I feel like the character who says, 'I don't just play maids; I can play anyone'." But does Rowley want to? As Lucy found, there are lots of rewards for just staying in character.