6 Secrets to Building a Fashion Empire: Cynthia Rowley

Step 1: Not focusing on fashion. No, really. Here's what this fashion icon says made her business thrive.
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In 1983, a twenty-something Cynthia Rowley sewed her first line of dresses and prepared her debut fashion show. It was staged in her walkup apartment, and she invited all of New York's top fashion editors. No one came.

But Rowley kept at it. She launched her namesake company in 1988, quickly popularizing a sophisticated, single-girl-in-the-city look. Today, her business has sales of more than $130 million, and Rowley is one of the fashion world's great innovators, someone who brings her sensibility to a wide array of products and business models. Below, Rowley walks Inc.'s Liz Welch through the products that have defined her unique approach.

1. I would die if all I did was fashion.  I've sewed since I was little. My grandparents are both painters, and my mom is an artist. I thought making things was normal. This dress, from spring 2012, comes from a collection where we experimented with colors and designs to create abstract prints and fun, feminine pieces. But I think things I've done beyond my clothing line have had more of an impact.

2. I kept wondering, Why are all these eyewear sites selling the exact same frames?  The very first license I signed was with eyewear company B. Robinson, and we have made great glasses together.

Now we've decided to sell our eyewear online, at RowleyEyewear.com and MrPowersEyewear.com. We also offer eyewear insurance called Rowley Care--you pay a little per year, and then if you lose or scratch your glasses, a new pair is half price. The sites launched in June and address two business issues I care about: How do you find wider distribution? And how do you reinvent a successful and established partnership?

3. When Target approached me to do a home line in 2000, it seemed like a natural progression.  I've always been interested in much more than clothes. Target had this pop aesthetic, and my brand was about living a colorful life with swagger and style. So I did everyday objects in bright colors and stripes.

That first license lasted three years. We went back again in 2008 for a 10-week seasonal stint called Whim--and did things like this pink garden hose and a baby blue Weber grill. The idea was that our single girl had started a fashionable family. I'll probably go back for the stylish senior citizens.

4. I've been surfing for years and hated that I looked like a dude in the water.  I was like, "Why hasn't anyone made a great-looking wetsuit?" I met someone who worked for a wetsuit company who said it was really hard. I love a challenge and started working--and learned how technical it is. Welded seams are hard! But these suits are completely functional and totally fashionable. Colette, a chic store in Paris, did its windows entirely in wetsuits when we first launched. Barneys followed.

5. The more people shop online, the more a brick-and-mortar shopping experience has to be something delightful.  Earlier this year, we opened two CuRious stores in Manhattan. And we hope to do more. The first floor is Cynthia Rowley fashion, and the second is a candy speakeasy: black licorice and salted caramel cotton candy, eyeball lollipops, hard candy sculptures, edible tableware (below).

6. Why should kids have all the fun?  I mentioned in an interview that my dream was to design Band-Aids for adults. A few weeks later, someone from Johnson & Johnson called. I tell all my employees: If you want something, put it out there as loudly as possible.

In 2010, we launched a limited edition of fashionable Band-Aids at a runway show. We immediately signed a licensing agreement and went mass. One of my greatest milestones is going to CVS and seeing SpongeBob alongside Cynthia Rowley.

IMAGE: flickr/CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK
From the July/August 2013 issue of Inc. magazine




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