Cynthia Rowley on Nomadic Retail, Surfing and More

Cynthia Rowley on Nomadic Retail, Surfing and More

By: Ashley Chiaradio

Women in Retail Leadership Circle (WIRLC) Co-Founder Melissa Campanelli was able to sit down with Cynthia Rowley, founder and owner of clothing brand Cynthia Rowley, and Lia McNairy, director of West Coast operations and visuals at Cynthia Rowley, at the Girl Boss Rally in July to discuss the concept of nomadic retail, how the brand has diversified its audience by selling surf wear, and what we can expect next for the company.

Cynthia Rowley, Founder and Owner, Cynthia Rowley

Melissa Campanelli: Cynthia, tell us a little about Cynthia Rowley brand.
Cynthia Rowley: I think it has evolved a lot throughout the years and right now, to me, it’s the most exciting time. We still make our core [product], which is pretty dresses, but we just went out on a limb about eight years ago because it was an interest and a passion of mine to surf. So, we started making fully functional wetsuits, and now it’s kind of this really diverse audience where we’re selling pretty dresses and badass wet suits and swimsuits and lots of other things, but I think those are the two things we’re sort of known for now.

MC: Can you talk a little bit about promoting your company, your product, and your brand?
CR: We believe in an omnichannel marketing strategy. Therefore, along with paid marketing and organic marketing, we’re also opening a lot of stores in what we’re calling nomadic retail, which is going into a city for six months and then developing that customer base and learning about that geo-target. In some cases [we stay] a little longer or we just move on to other places. I think that’s really helped with our awareness. Lia is running four stores on the West Coast now, and it’s interesting because two of them were meant to be pop-ups and they’ve become permanent.
Lia McNairy: Our marketing strategy right now I feel like is on fire. Every day, multiple times a day, people come in with their cell phone and they have a dress that’ on their Instagram that they want to try on. […] These housewives come in with their Instagram page and they’re like, ‘I need this. I need to try it on! Is it here yet?’
CR: We do a lot of Instagram marketing, as well as all social platforms. I think that that’s really helpful, and a lot of it is user-generated content.

MC: The concept of nomadic retail and pop-up shops is really interesting. Can you tell us a little more about your experience with them?
CR: Well, I think pop-ups just mean you’re not wedded to a long-term lease, which I just don’t think is even modern anyways. I don’t think people […] want to keep going to the same place. It’s like sometimes it’s just the environment changes, and the product looks different. 

MC: What were some of the challenges you had while starting your business?
CR: Honestly, I started so long ago. It’s a totally different world right now, thank God. It was a whole different world where [previously] you would [have] to sell to other retailers, and you weren’t able to create your own […] There’s never been a better time to start something because anybody can be a designer. […] There’s no more judging, there’s no editorializing who should be a designer and who shouldn’t. And [now] you just can make whatever you want and put it out there to the world. It’s so much easier to get your work out there to the world.

Lia McNairy, Director of West Coast Operations and Visuals, Cynthia Rowley

MC: What are your tactics and techniques to motivate your team and create a winning culture?
CR: A lot of people have been with the company for a long time, and I think that kind of speaks to the evolution of the company because no one wants to be at the same job for that long. But if the job keeps changing, then it keeps you excited. You’re kind of like, ‘what’s next?’ So, I think my main mantra is to evolve and change and experiment and be curious about things and always be taking risks because that’s not only how I stay excited and inspired, but [how] everyone else [does too].
LM: I think about educating all of the wonderful, amazing people that we have working in our stores. Getting them excited about the brand. The more they know about the brand, the more they can speak to the customer, and I think that really resonates with people. [Customers] go in and all the [employees] are so knowledgeable.
CR: But also having a strong story to tell so that there’s a narrative that you can easily grasp if you’re in the store. The product tells the story. The experiences and the marketing all help tell that story, so it’s easy to share.

MC: Do you have a network [of women] you work with or rely on?
CR: Well, I’m lucky to work with Allie Egan, our CEO, who is a total powerhouse. There are all kinds of amazing women, like Lia, in the company, so I think teamwork makes the dream work.
LM: I think also for me having access to Cynthia directly and learning so much from her. It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to have access to such forces. You always want to surround yourself with people who inspire you and motivate and that you can learn from. I’ve learned so much from [Cynthia] over the years. Everything I know she taught me. 

MC: What are some professional initiatives or projects you’re most proud of from over the past year?
CR: This has been a pretty epic year, I have to say. Running a business is an emotional roller coaster. Every day there are highs and lows. You can’t let the highs impress you or get your ego up, and you can’t let the lows get you down. It’s enjoying the good stuff, but not letting it get to your head. I always wanted to be in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and [this year] we made our first burkini that’s ever been in [Sports Illustrated] for Halima Aden. That was really monumental. And then on the flip side, we also had a really hot, sexy wetsuit on someone else in the issue. […] Actually, the thing that I’m most excited and proud of is that there are no more filters. I stopped listening to stores that thought that they should tell us what to design and that they knew what their customers want. I know what my customers want because I’m listening, we’re talking, we’re interacting with them at every touchpoint, at every store, [and] on social media. So, I stopped listening [to stores] and just started doing what we think is right for our brand, and it’s been a complete epiphany for the brand. And the thing is then you can experiment more and you’re giving people what they want.

MC: What’s next for the Cynthia Rowley brand?
CR: We’re all working together really hard to pour some gasoline on the fire and see where we can go. There’s a big push for global. […] We started shipping internationally. So through different partnerships, marketing and then some distribution agreements, we’ll start growing globally.

MC: What does surfing mean to you? What do you like about it?
CR: I mean it changed my life. I really sort of accidentally started later in life when I bought this little shack on the beach in Montauk, and my friends said, ‘You can’t have this house and not surf.’ And he took me out [to surf] and that day changed my life. And then I met some people from Quiksilver in the water and they were like, ‘Wait, you surf? You’re a designer and you surf?’ I said yes, and they were like, ‘Oh, cause we normally have surfers design our stuff.’ They asked me to do a collaboration, which taught me all the ropes to design real functional wetsuits and rash guards. And so they started that for me, and then after three years we took it over and we’ve been growing it ever since and experimenting. It enables us to have that whole different audience from what we’re known for and it grows our reach and diversifies our customer base. It’s the freedom. You really have to be in the moment. And everything is out of your control. You’re just there and Mother Nature is in control. You’re just living that experience in the moment and it’s really fun. Oh my God, it’s really fun. And if you can wear a CR wetsuit while you’re doing it and look super hot […], it’s even more inspiring.
LM: I think it’s really cool in the morning when you come out and look at the beach in Montauk, every single person in the ocean on a board is in a CR wetsuit. I think that’s amazing.
CR: Yeah, it’s like a community! […] Where as when I started surfing, like 20 years ago, it was all dudes.

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