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Cynthia Rowley's Blissful New York Surf Shack

The renowned designer shows us her surfing escape from the city

Cynthia Rowley's Blissful New York Surf Shack

architecture & interior design & fashion visual culture

Surf culture is bound to that of creativity; the personalities that define both the sport and lifestyle are often bursting with charisma. When away from the waves, surfers sprawl into unique shacks, apartments, and sometimes huts that fuse a lust for the oceans with other passions. Surf Shacks Vol.2 is a rare glimpse into surfer homes and the artistic habits that define the day-to-day.

Showcasing the lifestyles on and offshore, Matt Titone guides readers into the homes of a sustainable architect, a famous Japanese snowboarder, and professional photographers. Titone takes a tour inside a fashion designer’s home and finds out more about her lifestyle.


A Blissful Surf Shack On The Edges of New York

Having originally planned to be a painter, Cynthia Rowley moved to New York to pursue fashion and start her own brand after university. (Photo: Read McKendree, Surf Shacks Vol.2)  

Cynthia Rowley is a household name in the women’s fashion world. Her brand evolved on the philosophy that fashion should be an adventure. Growing up in the Midwest, Cynthia was introduced to surfing later in life, but like most of us, she caught the real bug good and the surf lifestyle has deeply influenced her personal life and work equally. She was the first to bring a real sense of fashion and style to the wetsuit, which looks practical, black, or overly athletic in design. Sustainability plays a significant role in the brand’s production process; limited quantities are produced in every piece to avoid excess inventory. Deemed the pioneer of “surf-leisure” by Vogue, the brand’s signature wetsuits and neoprene swimwear is made from recycled materials and green technology for a gentler and more sustainable environmental impact. Cynthia’s playful nature permeates every aspect of her designs, and her eclectic vibe is also reflected in her cozy Ditch Plains saltbox.


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Gone Surfing #happyweekend

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a fashion designer and mom of two sweet girls that can shred like crazy. I’m from a small town in Illinois that never even heard of fashion or surfing. How did I get so lucky?

When and how did you get into fashion design? When did it go from a passion to your profession?

I started sewing when I was seven and never looked back. I always thought it was just arts and crafts until I was studying painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was stopped by a high-end store buyer wanting to know about the jacket I was wearing. I said I had made it; she wrote me an order, and the rest unfolded in a real-life, fake-it-till-you-make-it true story. With nothing to lose, I just did whatever seemed fun and felt right—and still do.


A Blissful Surf Shack On The Edges of New York

Rowley has long been drawn to the waves and ocean, from surfing to scuba-diving in an Arctic glacier. It was a natural transition for her brand to be connected to her other passions. (Photo: Read McKendree, Surf Shacks Vol.2)  

What inspired you to dabble in wetsuit design in the first place?

I started surfing about 19 years ago, and I just couldn’t believe that no one was even trying to make women look great in the water! We make our suits in limited editions with sustainable practices in the same factories that all the best outfits are built-in. We’re continually pushing the design boundaries while trying to improve functionality and performance with each release. I love this part of the company so much that I often forget I have other responsibilities.

Coming from Chicago, how did you first get into surfing? When did you fall in love with it?

When I bought my first tiny house in Montauk, my friend and neighbor said, “You can’t have this house and not surf, so I’m taking you out tomorrow.” That day changed my life. There is nothing better than being in the water surrounded by my friends and family. It’s my happy place. As a family, we’ve traveled the world, met beautiful people, and seen magical things all because we surf.


A Blissful Surf Shack On The Edges of New York

Cynthia Rowley's mission is rooted in women's empowerment. The brand exudes a spontaneous spirit and actively redefines the boundaries of fashion, inspiring women everywhere to take risks and live life fearlessly. (Photo: Read McKendree, Surf Shacks Vol.2)  

How long have you had your home out here in Montauk?

When I was single, I had a big house with a big pool, and all I ever did was wash towels and entertained. One day I was just over it, so I drove to Montauk and said, “I want the smallest house you have on the beach.” So my first surf shack was only 480 square feet with no room for guests! After we became a family of four, we thought it was time to upgrade. We spend all our time at the beach and don’t need much more than what we have now.

What are your favorite parts of your home?

My favorite part of the house is the view. Looking right out onto the best break on the East End of Long Island, then walking the dirt path to the beach.


A Blissful Surf Shack On The Edges of New York

Through Surf Shacka Vol.2, the lifestyle of surfers both on and offshore are illustrated through profiles and stunning photography inside their huts, apartments, and shacks. (Photo: Read McKendree, Surf Shacks Vol.2) 

A lot has changed out there since you first got your place in the 1990s. What are your favorite parts about Montauk and the area in which you live?

Honestly, not that much has changed in Montauk. Yes, there are some expensive restaurants, but not a lot. When I moved my store from East Hampton, people thought I had lost my mind, but it’s the favorite of all my stores, with plywood floors and an outdoor coffee bar. There are more girl surfers out here now, and that makes me very happy.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice?

People always say, “What about sharks!?” And I say, “There’s a simple test to see if there are sharks in the water. You stick your finger in the water, taste it, and if it tastes like saltwater—then there are sharks!”

This story was originally featured in Surf Shacks Vol.2, available from August 21.