by Alex R. Travers
Jonathan Cohen tilts his head slightly down, and his eyes light up. He leans forward in his seat, and sometimes a wide, brimming grin forms on his face after a declaration. His expression is somewhere between that of an excited teenager and a determined surfer, thinking maybe—just maybe—if he could catch the perfect wave at the right moment, in front of the right people, he could glide to glory and show the world his potential.
Most of the time, Jonathan Cohen seems exactly as he says he is: the designer from San Diego’s Windansea Beach, the one who struggled with surfing growing up but loved watching the sport. The designer who never thought he’d start his own high-end women’s fashion label so quickly after college. The designer who is surprised at how many times a year people want new ideas yet still thrives on the pressure. The entrepreneur who’s very careful about what stores carry his line.
But there is another Jonathan Cohen—less modest, less business-oriented, and a hundred times more of a provocateur. It seems to me that this is a Jonathan Cohen that he himself may only be slightly aware of, and that is part of the appeal. This other Jonathan Cohen is the one who likes to put prints of masturbating flamingos on his elegant cocktail dresses. The one who sketches fictional scenes of a crazed Jackie O. cutting up her wardrobe and destroying her possessions for his moodboard. You rarely ever meet him, but you see him. The one with the bright eyes, wide smile, fashion world watching.
I arrive early but they are even earlier. When I first meet Jonathan Cohen, he is seated at a booth on the second floor of SIXTY SoHo. I sit across from him and his business partner, Sarah Leff. Sarah is wearing one of Jonathan’s black blouses. Sunglasses with round lenses dangle from Cohen’s shirt. His sleeves are rolled up. Even though it is cloudy and barely 50 degrees outside, it seems he is ready for summer. We begin by talking a little about his hometown and his childhood.
Cohen grew up a block away from Windansea Beach in Southern California, a place he describes as a territorial neighborhood. “You had the grungy surfers picking on the tourists,” he says. “I think that’s still going on now.” Even though he found it exciting, surfing was hard for a young Cohen. “I’d fall every wave,” he admits. “But I’d get back up. Try again.” He preferred boogie boarding. “I was better at watching surfers. For me that’s what being a designer is: observing, taking what you see from culture and just kind of reflecting it.”
Cohen’s parents grew up in Mexico City. His older sister was born there before the family moved to San Diego. Years ago, his father owned a plywood business, which he eventually sold in order to help his wife with her entrepreneurial venture. “She started selling chocolate, almost like Klondike bars, and was exporting them to supermarkets,” says Cohen of his mother. “Now she has 12 shops and warehouses and popsicle factories.”
He seems pleased that he learned about business through watching his mother grow her dairy company. He also points out that his dad got him into music and art. “The conservative mom and the more hippie dad,” he reflects.
During his senior year of high school, Cohen decided to take a formal drawing class. He signed up for AP Art, hoping it would be easy. Maybe boost his GPA. Get him into Brown, or New York University.
“My teacher was like… What’s that drummer movie?”
Whiplash? I ask.
“I thought it was one of the best movies.”
Your teacher was throwing canvases at you?
He grins. “Basically, except she was nice to everybody. She really challenged me. I started taking art classes outside of school, not to prove her wrong but because I wanted to get better.”
Cohen didn’t get into Brown or NYU. In fact, most colleges rejected him. “I had good grades and I worked very hard,” he explains. “It was just fate that I didn’t get in.” After about a quarter of a semester at University of California, Santa Cruz, Cohen transferred to Parsons in New York. “I knew I wouldn’t stay there long,” he says of his time at UCSC. “I wanted to get my general eds out and do the frat thing, which I didn’t even try because it was awful.”
He chose Parsons because he wanted to move to New York and go into fashion. Here, he would hone his craft and meet his future business partner, Sarah Leff. “I was in design and management, which is a business program on how design-oriented minds work,” says Leff. “We met each other and we were both doing internships. We would talk and decided that we would eventually start something together, thinking it would be ten years after working.”
While Leff interned at Vera Wang and other brands, Cohen apprenticed at Ashleigh Verrier, Doo-Ri Chung, and Oscar de la Renta. When Cohen graduated, he was still at Oscar. Working for free.
“They just weren’t hiring,” he says. “I was going on job interviews. I was freelancing. I really wanted to be at Oscar, but you can’t intern for the rest of your life.”
The frustration of a non-paying job prompted Jonathan and Sarah to reexamine Jonathan’s senior thesis collection. They added some pieces and photographed the updated line. Then they created a look book. Sent it out to a list of buyers and editors with hand-written notes. Within two weeks, they heard back from 12 of the 20 people they wrote. “They were very supportive,” recalls Leff. “So we allocated time to start our business plan and figure out the direction.”
In the spring of 2011, they officially launched the Jonathan Cohen brand with 12 looks.
“We had to take this thesis collection and figure out: How are we going to go into production?” says Leff. “How do we price this? When do we do the sampling?” The first retailers to purchase the collection were Susan: The Grocery Store and Maxfield, both high-end fashion boutiques on the West Coast. “For me, it was amazing because I grew up in Southern California,” says Cohen. “I’d go to L.A. for the weekend and shop [at Maxfield]—well I wouldn’t go shopping there because I couldn’t afford any of it—but I’d go look at the dresses.”
Before the Maxfield meeting, Cohen was especially nervous. He was shaking. Leff had to drive. “I thought she was just going to rip us apart,” he says of Sarah Stewart, Maxfield’s buyer. “I didn’t understand why she wanted to meet with us.” Stewart, however, ended up loving the prints.
Maxfield remains one of their biggest supporters. Today, Leff and Cohen have retailers in California, Idaho, Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Utah. The fashion-loving actress Lupita Nyong’o is also a fan of the print-based line.
Just as it has from day one, a Jonathan Cohen collection starts with a concept. There is always a story. “We did these flamingos last season,” he tells me. “They’re actually masturbating. They’re called the lesbian flamingos.”
I involuntarily make a face.
He laughs. “We can’t wait to sell it to someone who’s at a party and someone else points it out to them. Some people may come into a store and say, ‘Really cute flamingos, and another person may be like, ‘What are they doing?’ It’s fun doing those types of things.”
I ask him where he thinks that twisted-ness comes from.
“I think it’s just the people I grew up around in this town where it’s all these kinds of stoner surfers, party girls…but all these super educated people at the same time. Or even the dichotomy of my parents. My dad was really into heavy rock music—not a druggie at all, let me make that clear. Didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink. He’s just very into art and all that. And then my mom is very business-like. You have this really cool clash of super conservative with subversive.”
Cohen still likes to examine these kinds of dichotomous relationships. He enjoys asking questions such as, “How do I mix the beach with the city?” Sometimes, he’ll look out the window of his Williamsburg studio at the Manhattan skyline. He’s been in New York now for 10 years, and he wants a local retailer to carry his clothes. It just has to be the right one.
“That’s a very big goal,” he tells me. “It could possibly change this season. We’re just waiting for the order. ”