Designed for Fun

updated 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

AS ONE OF SEVENTH AVENUE'S fastest-rising stars, designer Cynthia Rowley would naturally aspire to be as big as Calvin Klein or Donna Karan. But Ron Popeil? "He's totally my idol," says Rowley, 37, of the inventor-cum-TV-hockmeister who became famous selling everything from Popeil's Pocket Fisherman to aerosol hair. "I probably wouldn't do spray-on hair, but some of my ideas come close—like my two-sided toothbrush for lovers." Recently, Rowley literally dreamed up a new gadget. "I can't say what it is, in case I really do it," she says. "Not that I want to get out of making clothes. But it was so good I woke up saying, 'This is my ticket out of here!' "

But where to? After all, Rowley has already arrived. Regarded as a consummate tailor after 12 years in the business, she was named best new talent of the year last February by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Since then her empire has expanded at a dizzying pace to include shops in Chicago and Tokyo (to go along with her New York City store) and an in-house boutique at Bloomingdale's. Specializing in nostalgically lighthearted styles, such as cheery lemon-patterned hostess gowns and shirtwaists in her trademark plaids, her styles are comfortable and affordable, ranging from $18 (for a handbag) to $225 (for a shiny leopard-print sheath). Says Rowley with pride: "I don't design for elitists."

Hip celebs, though, are among her biggest fans. Sarah Jessica Parker and The Nanny's Fran Drescher wear her dresses, and Christie Brinkley schussed in a Rowley skirt at her 1994 Telluride ski-slope nuptials to Ricky Taubman. "I love her clothes," says actress Clare Danes (My So-Called Life), who modeled in Rowley's spring show earlier this month in New York City. "They're a nice mix between funky and wearable—not too serious." Sort of like Rowley herself. "She is a combination of Audrey Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore and Gidget," says Katie Couric, "and the least intimidating person in fashion."

Rowley has come a long way from the glamorless days she spent growing up the eldest of three children in Barrington, Ill. "We called it Bore-ington," she says. "The only place to go was the Sears two towns away. I didn't even know fashion existed." A natural designer, she stitched her first dress at age 7, using brown upholstery fabric given to her by her mother, Clementine, now 58 and a homemaker. (Father Ed, 62, is a retired junior high school science teacher.) "I thought it was so beautiful," recalls Rowley, "that I wore it every day for the whole summer."

Graduating from Barrington High in 1976, she headed to Arizona State University to study fine arts. Despite an offbeat wardrobe, including tops made out of Boy Scout uniforms and dresses made out of Levi's, which she created on the sewing machine she kept in her dorm room, she never thought of studying design until a roommate suggested it. Intrigued by the idea, she transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978. There, during her senior year, she was stopped on the subway by a buyer from Marshall Field who admired her cropped, khaki jacket. Within days, Rowley landed a $1,200 order from the store. By 1983 she was running her own business and living in Manhattan. "Back then, so many things were by the skin of my teeth," she says. "I remember having to count pennies to get on a subway to take the line to show Lord & Taylor."

Expecting sales over $15 million this year, Rowley—a die-hard I Love Lucy fan—runs her showroom with sitcom zeal. Clad in one of her funky dresses, she roars up to work on a Suzuki motorcycle and greets her 30 employees by blowing reveille on her bugle. She has been known to strip down to her Fred Flintstone underwear at work (as she did for rocker Natalie Merchant in September) so a client can try on the dress she is wearing. A bungee jumper and scuba diver, Rowley—who shares a Greenwich Village loft with Bill Keenan, 42, a retail store designer whom she plans to marry next month (her husband, Tom Sullivan, a photographer, died 16 months ago of cancer at age 32)—already has plans for 10 more stores and a knitwear line.

In a business rife with burnout and bankruptcy, Rowley says she is "pathologically optimistic." After all, not everyone has a secret invention to fall back on. "Even if I lost it all, I wouldn't be bitter," she says. "If the ceiling fell in tomorrow, I'd say, 'Oh, good, I always wanted a skylight.' "

JANICE MIN
MARY HUZINEC and BROOKE BIZZELL STACHYRA in New York City and ANNE-MARIE OTEY in Los Angeles

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