Cynthia Rowley, the IT girl


At 7 years old, Cynthia Rowley drew her first design by lying down on a sheet of paper and tracing a wobbly outline of herself. Then, with material she found lying around the house, she pieced together the beginnings of a dress to fit her tiny form.

Today, many of the famous New York fashion designer's ideas begin in quite the same rudimentary way, but the execution of them - from idea to finished product - would never occur without help from advancements in technology.

Rowley shared that story, and the underlying message about the importance of technology, with hundreds of young girls - and some boys, too - who came to hear her speak this weekend at University of Maryland, Baltimore County's fourth annual Computer Mania Day.

"Fashion isn't all glamour and runway shows," she said, addressing the crowd of middle-school students from 17 area school districts Saturday morning. "There's hard work involved. And I believe that hard work pays off."

Rowley, whose fun, quirky and award-winning designs often grace the pages of Vogue, Elle and Glamour, said she was thrilled to give up a few hours in her hectic schedule to come speak to teen and 'tween girls about how fashion and technology mix.

"A lot of things have changed," she said in an interview after her midmorning speech, which she accented with video highlights from some of her runway shows. "But we still need to encourage girls to have careers and be strong."

That's partially the point of the college's Computer Mania Day - a free, half-day event designed to encourage girls to become interested in technology and computing careers. The day of activities, sponsored by UMBC's Center for Women and Information Technology, exposes girls to role models and nontraditional career choices at an age when some tend to start shying away from science, math and technology.

One reason why: Around the ages of 11 to 13, UMBC officials say, girls start becoming interested in other things - boys, primarily. As a consequence, they also start focusing more on adorning themselves, experimenting with makeup, nail polish, new hairstyles and fashion.

Which is exactly why officials at UMBC thought Rowley would be a perfect speaker for the event - adding to the list of previous years' speakers, such as journalist Soledad O'Brien, soccer player Brandi Chastain and astronaut Sally Ride.

"Girls don't like to be thought of as geeks," said Claudia Morrell, executive director of the Center for Women and Information Technology. "What we're trying to do is counter the image through our role models that people in technology are geeks. Our true goal is to get them to open their minds, to understand that IT is in every career that they choose today and that IT itself offers tremendous career opportunities."

After addressing the full crowd of nearly 900, Rowley broke off into smaller panel sessions, answering questions from girls who were in awe of her fame and her fashionable career.

Many wanted to know the nuts and bolts of designing clothes: how long it takes, how much it costs and, of course, how much it pays (Rowley cleverly sidestepped that question). Eighth-grader Brittany Simmons from Old Mill North Middle School in Glen Burnie got a laugh when she asked Rowley "If I send you my address, will you send me clothes from your summer line?"

"If you send me your parents' credit-card number," Rowley responded, sparking more laughter.

Later Brittany, 13, noted privately that she didn't really know much about Rowley's apparel - much of which is quite pricey, even for most adults, and sold in high-end department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. But she said she liked the funky outfit Rowley was wearing Saturday - a blue dress with bubble sleeves, purple tights and silver wedge heels - and she also liked Rowley's empowering message.

"I think it was a big inspiration to a lot of girls," said Brittany, baring a grin decorated with colorful braces. "Because it tells them they can do whatever they want to do and succeed."

Rowley, who flew back to New York Saturday afternoon to rush to the opening of her newest boutique in the Hamptons, took her time with the girls, signing autographs and complimenting some on their outfits, which peeked through Computer Mania Day T-shirts.

She has two daughters herself, she said, and knows the importance of spending time and encouraging them to see themselves as intelligent, as hard workers, as contributors to our society and as pretty and stylishly dressed - whatever that means to them.

Too often, Rowley said, girls get the message that it's OK to be only one or the other. Either you're smart and dowdy or you're fashionable and vapid.

"How is it possible that that's still the way it is for girls?" Rowley asked, shaking her head. "They don't know that they can be smart and beautiful and feminine and sexy."

At their age, Rowley said, she, too, was clueless. But these girls have a tremendous advantage, she said.

"They're so much more sophisticated because of technology," Rowley said. "I had no idea how much technology was going to play a part in what I do until I got in it. I never imagined it. But they already understand a lot of this."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.