Leif Erik Offerdahl photography by Tlaloc Villarreal

INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSIONAL STYLIST NEIL COHEN

@neilcohenstyle
Photography by Tlaloc Villarreal

Born and raised in New York City, Neil Cohen grew up in a family with a rich history in fashion. Neil is a professional fashion stylist based in Palm Springs. He has his own rich history in the world of fashion. Neil has worked at Charivari in Manhattan, managed the first Versace boutique on Madison Avenue, sales at Barney’s New York, and co-founder of his own brand In the Wash. He has helped style many A-list celebrities and personalities, as well as being their personal shopper. Naturally, Neil’s styling work has been published in many national and international publications, including HUF Magazine. We had the pleasure of joining Neil for an exclusive interview to explore his world of style.

I grew up in New York (NY), actually in Queens. I loved growing up in NY, meaning both where I lived and Manhattan. Most people think NY is only Manhattan or as we called it, “The City.” At a young age, I started going to the City with my parents to see Broadway plays, and my mom would also take me to Bloomingdales to shop. I remember the energy of Bloomies as you entered, the loud music playing, the people working there, the diversity, and seeing guys behind the makeup counter. It all seemed magical to me. I actually got a buzz, like a high from walking in there. To me, Bloomies was the ultimate New York retailer, especially back in the ’70s. First on every trend, pop-up shops, the best windows, etc. At 19 years old, which seems young now, I moved into Manhattan and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), while working part-time in retail. This was the heyday of Studio 54, Xenon, the late ’70s, early ’80s. An incredibly crazy fun time. disco music still makes me happy and brings back the greatest memories. We actually got dressed up to go dancing. Sadly it was also the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and I lost many beautiful young friends. It was both an exciting and scary time living in NY. Fast forward a bit, I met my partner, in ’94, and we lived in the West Village for sixteen years. In 2010, California called. My friends never thought I’d leave NY, but I’m happy here. It’s all about timing. We’ve lived in LA for the first four years and now full time in Palm
Springs.

I grew up in a family where my mom and dad, both sets of grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all in the fashion industry. Patternmakers, designers, salespeople, it’s in my DNA, and I always loved fashion and style. I thought my parents had a great style. My dad, who is still alive and will be 94 this June, was a Brooks Brothers kind of guy. He taught me to buy good classic clothes. A navy blazer, grey slacks, that was his uniform. I remember his Alden Cordovan loafers, which I still love today, and you see designers like Todd Snyder wear them and sell them on their store web site. So I can’t remember when I didn’t love clothing, what I wanted to wear and what others were wearing. Baby, I was born this way.

OMG. I was obsessed with styling when I was a child and teenager! I jumped on every trend. Frye boots. I had to have them! The Annie Hall layered look. Did it! Platform shoes. It couldn’t be big enough. Shoulder pads. They couldn’t be wide enough. The ’70s and ’80s were great fun. I don’t think the ’80s hold up as well as other decades, but it was a lot of fun. I’m much more careful today and think I look better in updated classics. I did not study styling, but I did go to FIT and studied Buying and Merchandising like most kids who loved fashion, but weren’t designers, and weren’t sure what to do. In fact, most of my career, I was in sales, not styling. I worked in both retail and then on 7th Ave for most of my career. Was the studying beneficial? Depends… I think designers must have some training, draping, etc. The best designers I know from Calvin, Marc, to Alexander McQueen attended fashion school. Today it’s all so different. It’s a technological world, and I think some schooling is probably necessary. It always depends on the individual, for me, fashion school wasn’t that beneficial.

I got a job working at Charivari when I was 20 years old. Getting a job there was like getting cast in a Broadway show. The coolest people worked there. It was THE store not only in NY but one of the most respected high fashion retailers in the world. The first to carry so many designers like Yohji and the list is endless. My first day at Charivari, I’ll never forget. This cute young kid, who didn’t walk but jumped around the store was named Marc Jacobs. Think he was 18 then, and wearing gold metallic loafers. I’ll never forget that. I thought, who is this kid? I can see him now. Then Carly Simon walked into the store, and Marc practically jumped into her arms. Most of the celebrities wanted Marc to help them. His taste, his style, was contagious. However, I did help a few myself. I loved helping Cindy Crawford, who bought Armani men’s suits and looked so sexy in them. I helped Clive Davis but didn’t know who he was until he gave me his credit card to pay. I helped Robin Williams, who loved all the Japanese designer collections. Remember we are in the early ’80s now. There were so many celebs that I really forget. It was the most fun job ever, especially for a young person starting in the business and figuring out which path to take. I know this makes me sound old, but shopping online is not the same. Sorry.

” …the biggest lesson I learned in the work world, and in life, which I still preach today is BE NICE.”

Neil Cohen

I have worked in sales and merchandising for over twenty years, the biggest lesson I learned in the work world, and in life, which I still preach today is BE NICE. Nice got me far! Be on time!! Be responsible. There are many talented people, but the world won’t put up with unprofessional, spoiled brats. Work hard, and you’ll succeed!! Next, I founded a fashion import and design business with two partners. “ITW,” or In the Wash. Wow! I never thought I’d own my own brand. At the time, I had a great job selling a wonderful LA designer brand Rozae Nichols. I worked in the NY showroom. We sold to all the best stores at the time. Barney’s, Neimans, Saks. So sad now to see Barney’s gone and all these others struggling. The retail world is totally different now than when I started. Anyway, my childhood friend Randi asked me if I knew anyone who might want to start a women’s clothing line. ( Note: I mostly worked in women’s clothing in the garment center, but men’s in retail). She also came from a garment center family and knew how to get things produced. Very long story short, I quit my job, Randi and I started with this tiny collection of washed linens, which took off pretty fast. After six months, my partner Claude quit his job and became the design director. We were now a real business! People were surprised I didn’t want to do high fashion, but I really didn’t. Even then, I saw a need for really cute clothes, not luxury brand prices. The term then was “soccer Mom.” Ladies with money, an LV handbag, but just wanted casual outfits to look modern and cute when meeting friends for lunch and brunch on Sundays. Our first account was Saks, and we sold to all the best specialty stores in the country. We had 28 employees. The brand evolved over time, doing these great vintage-inspired prints, which took us to another level. There were lots of ups and downs, but I’m very proud of what we accomplished in the eleven years we were in business.

After those eleven years, the West Coast beckoned, and I responded. I started doing personal shopping for highprofile Beverly Hills clients, helping them fill their closets with current, stylish clothes that would define their personalities as opposed to borrowing “designer” clothes for red-carpet events.

My styling approach happens differently, depending on the job. If I’m hired by a magazine, I’m always given a storyboard to follow. It’s the inspiration for the shoot, so I follow that. If I’m doing test shoots with a model, sometimes the agency gives us direction. When it’s neither, then I’m inspired by the model. Is he a surfer guy, a rocker, does he have a classic look, and then I sort of set the look for the shoot. I love to have a title in my head, which gives me direction. I did a shoot with model Taylor Miller for you guys at HUF Magazine, which I titled “Magnificent Obsession,” which was a nod to Hollywood glamour, that I loved.

Have you come across clients who already have the taste but lack style or vice versa?

Hmmm. I think when a person has good taste and style, it goes hand in hand. Rare to find one without the other.

I have worked with many celebrity clients, but who is the most stylish celeb I worked with? Tough one, as there indeed are a few. I loved, loved, styling Billy Porter for Palm Springs Life magazine this past October. I met Billy through the music world almost thirty years ago. We have many mutual friends. It was a dream shoot and reunion. He is so open, honest, fearless with his fashion choices, which I love. He has a great team in NY that he works with and has become the star on all red carpets. On top of all that, he’s so incredibly talented. So I guess my answer is Billy. I also loved working with Skeet Ulrich, who rocked every look I chose, and most recently, Clive Standen. I’m hoping to work with Clive again. What a handsome, talented, sweet guy.

As for celebrities, I have not worked with before, I’d love to work with Matt Bomer. Love his classic modern look, which is so my vibe. I hear he’s the nicest guy as well. I’d also like to style Darren Criss. He has a wonderful stylist, but sometimes I feel she goes a bit too avant-garde for him. He’s such a handsome guy, and I’d put him in more classic luxury brands like Ralph, Todd Snyder, and Eleventy. Lastly. I’ve been dying to do a shoot with any of the guys from This Is Us. All so talented and handsome.

Have I ever had a stylist’s block? Funny question. Usually no. However, there are some test shoots that I just don’t know what direction to go. Some models are great looking, but they don’t give me a feeling, which makes it harder for me and what the story should be. I know I can always pull some underwear, a gorgeous model, and create a super sexy shoot, satisfy most people, but as a stylist, I must challenge myself to do more. Not that I don’t like underwear pics, I do, but it must be part of the story and not just the story. There are also major budget limitations these days, so we can’t always pull the product we really want. Many elements you have to deal with when planning a shoot.

Besides being a fantastic fashion stylist, you are also a singer-songwriter! How long have you been singing and writing songs? Do you think you would have become a professional singer-songwriter if you hadn not become a stylist?

My singing? You guys did your homework. Thank you for asking. My first love is music. I was the kid in all the school plays, sang every chance I had. There’s nothing like a great vocalist singing a great song. I’m a fan of so many artists. I pursued music into my late thirties and got close. I had a deal with a division of Virgin records, which didn’t pan out. It was an exciting moment, for sure. Still, everything happens for a reason. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the life of a singer. The touring, travel, never home, that’s not for me. I now perform every few years, when I want, with amazing musicians and make it a big fun event. It satisfies the singer in me.

I have styled editorial shoots and celebrities using hundreds of brands. As for which is my favorite brand… hmm… I have so many wonderful relationships in the industry, and brands I love from Gucci to Michael Kors, to Mr. Turk. But if I have to answer, I would say the brand Eleventy. Eleventy is a luxury Italian brand I started working with about 5 years ago. Using the best Italian fabrics, it’s understated, chic, modern, and I love it. When I wear it, I just feel so together, and I know I won’t look back at a photo one day and think, what was I wearing? It’s a complete collection; suits, T-shirts, leathers, gorgeous knits, footwear, and denim. It’s a modern man’s wardrobe. My favorite designer would have to be Ralph Lauren, who I briefly worked for. No other designer in the world has created a lifestyle brand like Ralph. He always says it’s a style, not fashion. I’ll never forget that. He is respected by every designer in the world.

Is being a stylist as glamorous as people may think? Oh yes… [laugh] Going to Fed Ex to return samples. Tracking a box that you need from UPS for a shoot the next day. This is what people don’t see, but it’s about 50% of the job. There’s lots of schlepping and prep that’s not glamorous. But the actual day or days of the shoot are incredibly fun, lots of gorgeous, sexy AF people, and the end result is always a thrill. I still get excited to see every shoot I’ve done like it’s the first. Today everyone wants to jump right in. Be a stylist to the stars. Doesn’t work that way, kids! My advice for new fashion stylists is to work for someone. Learn how it all happens. There’s plenty of time to do it on your own, but first, learn your craft. And again, be on time, and nice to everyone you meet. I don’t put up with lateness.

As for my definition of success, if you’re lucky to do what you love, that’s a success. Of course, we all need to earn a living, so hopefully, the two go hand in hand. After a 30-year fashion career in NY, coming to California and starting out as a stylist at my age was not easy, so I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. The friends I’ve made, the relationships I’ve built. Honestly, the money is better now but not great! But I do love what I do. That, for me, is a success!

“Today everyone wants to jump right in. Be a stylist to the stars. Doesn’t work that way, kids!”

Neil Cohen

In the next five years, I’d like to continue building relationships. There’s always room to grow. I work with most brands, but not all. I keep looking for talented people to collaborate with. I work with some of the best photographers in the industry and want to keep building those relationships. It’s always a team effort. In the past few months, the Corona Virus has really changed our world. As an industry, we are talking now about how we go back to work? What’s the new normal? What are we going to do to keep everyone safe on set? It’s a new challenge, we all want to go back to work, and I’m ready to go.

Am I inspired to leave a legacy of sorts for future generations? I try to teach models, photographers to learn who came before us. Who taught us, paved the way. It’s so important. It makes me nuts if a young model doesn’t know who Herb Ritts was. Really?? So I hope in some way I’ve been a teacher to those I’ve worked with.

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