Cynthia Rowley Doesn’t Care About Fashion

Photo: Cynthia Rowley, Spring/Summer 2011 Collection

The fashion extraordinaire discusses her passion for clothing design.

Cynthia Rowley would rather work at McDonalds than be a fashion designer. Of course, she is best-known for being what we know as a “fashion designer” in the sense that she makes clothes, does runway shows and sells her styles.

Photo: Cynthia Rowley, Spring/Summer 2011 Collection

But the title is too limiting for Rowley. Simply creating clothes isn’t enough; she wants to create conversations.

“The only reason to make clothes is if you are saying something with it,” she explained. So, Rowley pushes the boundaries of high fashion into exciting, creative new territories. Fashion designer? Artist might be more apropos.

Art is the medium that’s most inspirational to Rowley, partly because she’s surrounded by it. Her husband is New York gallery owner Bill Powers, whom you might have seen on Bravo’s “Work of Art.” She also recently launched Exhibition A, a website that sells limited-release contemporary prints at affordable prices.

Photo: Cynthia Rowley

Despite being immersed in the art world, there are the artists that still stand out to Rowley.

One she is particularly drawn to is Nick Cave. Looking at his creations, it’s clear why. The use of color, embellishment and movement in Cave’s “Soundsuits” is enchanting.

Cave’s art is on display at the Seattle Art Museum until June in an exhibit called “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth.” It’s what brought Rowley to Seattle for a whirlwind 36-hour trip.

Before her evening lecture at SAM with Nick Cave, she managed to squeeze in a television appearance on KING 5 and several interviews, including one with “Seattleite.” It’s no wonder her voice was almost gone during our conversation.

When we met, she was dressed in an artsy outfit of her own design, complete with a Cabochon skirt dotted with polished gemstones. It’s not what she told Cave she would be wearing for the event.

“I told him I made this really cool dress out of twigs that I wired together,” Rowley said with a twinkle in her eye. She had him going for a little while, but ultimately couldn’t fool her old friend.

The twigs might not have been as surprising if they were on Cave’s outfit. In fact, the artist made his first “Soundsuit” out of twigs. No material is out of the question when it comes to his creations. Brightly colored human hair, toys, floral arrangements or doilies decorate his pieces. Each can stand alone as a sculpture or be worn as a “Soundsuit,” aptly named because each makes a different sound, from quiet whispers to clanking commotion.

Photo: Nick Cave's Soundsuit

There’s a lot to take in when considering Cave’s art. It’s more participatory than looking at a painting, and that’s what Rowley loves about it. “It’s meant to be all-engulfing, all-encompassing, every part of your being,” she gushed.

Rowley hopes fashion can be just as thought-provoking. Participation means more than watching models strut down a runway, flipping through a magazine or putting on an outfit. According to Rowley, fashion and art must intersect in order to “push the aesthetic.”

It’s why she collaborated with artist Will Cotton to create a “cupcake dress” for Katy Perry’s latest album cover. It’s why she worked with performance artist Ryan McNamara for her fall runway show. It’s why she made “knock-offs” of her own collection in the form of photo reproductions to display at the Gagosian Gallery.

But there’s one artist missing from her list of collaborations. With similar ideas and mutual admiration, you’d think Rowley and Cave would have worked together after about eight years of friendship.

“Everyone keeps asking us that,” Rowley said. “Every time we see each other we’re like, ‘We’re definitely doing something.’ But we never do. And today, we’re like, ‘Why haven’t we done it? We gotta do it. We gotta do it.’”

And when these two artists finally do collaborate, you know we’ll be watching.