cynthia rowley

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Cynthia Rowley, Fashion Designer

My Wake-Up Call
When I was 21 and a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, a woman stopped me on the "El" train and asked me whose jacket I was wearing. "It's mine," I said. "I'm a designer."

It turned out she was a buyer for a department store, and she asked me to come to her office first thing Monday with my collection. So I sewed like a maniac all weekend and made five pieces and brought them to her office.

The buyer looked at the first piece and said, "What's the style number on this?"

Deer in the headlights moment. "Uh, ONE?!"

"Okay, what's the style number on that one?"

"Um, two?"

She looked skeptical and said, "Where else do you sell?"

"Some of the more upscale mostly European…mumble mumble…boutiques…on Oak Street…" Throat clear. "Okay, I confess, I've never done this before but if you give me the order I promise I'll deliver a beautiful collection and you won't be disappointed."

I didn't realize I was supposed to ship to the warehouse and showed up at her office six weeks later—with the garments in a competitor's shopping bag. D'oh! But the collection sold out.

That was how I became a designer. I moved to New York, rented a loft, and a few months later held a show. The business went from that first department store sale of women's wear to an international brand with 60 stores worldwide, and lines of shoes, handbags, surf and swimwear, fitness, eyewear, legwear, cosmetics, fragrance and home furnishings.

What You Can Learn
Lots of people encouraged me along the way. But I never looked for somebody to take me under their wing. There's no "right" way to be an entrepreneur. You have to have a vision of where you want to go, short-term and long-term, follow your gut, and take risks every day. It helps to be a pathological optimist and say yes to everything. The smartest thing I ever did was focus on the thing that most inspires and energizes me, and makes me excited to come to work every day.