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Q&A: Designer Cynthia Rowley on her new activewear line

(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)
(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)

Cynthia Rowley’s been “dipping the toe of my sneaker into the activewear market for a while,” says the New York City-based fashion designer, referring to her collections of wetsuits, leggings, and neoprene ready-to-wear, all stamped with her signature grown-up fun and flirty style.

But her activewear collection that debuted at New York Fashion Week last September is Rowley’s very first line dedicated to working out. “I’ve been doing everything but full functional fitness for a while now,” she says. “This has been a long time in the making. More and more, being active really is the way people dress and live their lives.”

Rowley included. She’s a serious surfer (in fact, her arm was in a cast from a surfing accident during our interview), and a regular on the boutique fitness scene at Surfset, SoulCycle, and SLT. And, as further proof of her fitness passion, Rowley plans to offer boutique fitness classes for the public at her new headquarters on Morton Street when the company moves there in the spring.

And with her new collection, Rowley’s focus is on adding fashion to functional items, an approach that came to her four years ago via her wetsuit line. “I’m obsessed with surfing, so I’m wearing a wetsuit all the time,” Rowley says. “It made me think, why hasn’t anyone thought about designing this? It could be so much more beautiful and could look so much better than a basic black. It’s about adding fashion to a fully functional item.” Now, she’s applying that to leggings, tops, and sports bras, with sophisticated feminine flourishes like scalloped edges, floral patterns, and gold detailing.

Preview the collection, out in February, and hear more from the fit fashion designer on creating her first activewear line, below. —Jamie McKillop

(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)
(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)

You’ve been dancing around the activewear scene for a while now. Why did you decide to get in on it now? For me, a healthy lifestyle is really how I think about dressing. It’s sort of the cultural zeitgeist. That’s how we socialize now. I hang out with my friends, and in some cases my kids, by doing different classes. Obviously, you need the function, but why would I want my style to stop there? I wanted to have more excitement around dressing for a workout.  When I think about dressing, I tailor it to what mood I’m in. I think about how my closet gives me the ability to dress for that mood. You should be able to apply that to every part of your life, including activewear—in the same way that a wetsuit shouldn’t only come in basic black.

What has the process been like developing your activewear collection? It definitely has been very organic. It started about four years ago when I launched wetsuits. I thought, everyone looks so hot, I should starting making clothes out of the same materials. My first time making things out of neoprene, I discovered the hard way that in certain cases it won’t work. My friend, a pro surfer, was wearing my neoprene dress when she told me she had sweat running down the back of her leg, because it’s designed to keep out moisture. We developed a breathable version to do leggings, and that evolved into ready-to-wear. Now it’s gone back to the sport part of it, as we take leggings made for fashion and put the function in it.

How is this collection different from other activewear collections out there? Well, for one, it has my vision and the Cynthia Rowley spirit in it. There are pieces with a little wink, like our giant gold logo. I thought the gold logo was kind of funny, I didn’t mean it as a big branding thing, just as some funny bling for your workout. There’s also cuter, prettier details like the scallops and the big flowers and we tried to add new functions, like zipper pockets. I wanted to transfer my aesthetic to something that I thought could be special but not screaming loud.

(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)
(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)

What challenges have you faced in the activewear production process? It’s really important to have the technical side and manufacturing side be completely 100 percent the best technology in the fitness industry. You can’t just sew up a fitness garment in your sample room. We had to test everything and experiment with it. We did a lot of focus group type things. It was actually just hanging out and meeting with a lot of these fitness girls that are experts in the industry, and learning from them. Learning about functionality and also about everything that’s happening in the fitness world. I have my aesthetic, and that’s not changing. But I asked myself, how does my aesthetic fit into everything that’s happening in the fitness world?

You’ve been selling your own clothes in stores since the ’90s. How has the activewear scene changed since then? It definitely used to be the whole Cindy Crawford thing. The technical side of everything has really improved. I mean, to have a garment that has no sewing on it at all, that’s really exciting to me. It’s a whole different thing as far as construction from ready-to-wear. It’s actually influencing our ready-to-wear line. Now we’re thinking, why can’t we tape our seams instead of sewing? They’re both influenced by each other more and more.

(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)
(Photo: Cynthia Rowley)

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