The Billionaire Do-Er Upper
Real-estate mogul Charles S Cohen is leading a variegated list of projects seeking to revive things that have lost their way.
In another life, real-estate billionaire Charles S Cohen might have been a heart surgeon. “I guess you could say I’m a resuscitator,” he muses over the phone from New York. “If you look at all the things I do, what they have in common is that I like to revive something that has lost its way: whether it’s a property, a brand or an old film.”
Silver-haired, congenial, dapper, worth a cool US$2.65 billion, Cohen has an eye for a fixer-upper. And when he finds one, it gets the full Midas Touch treatment. Take his property business, Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, started in the 1950s by his father and uncles. After managing a leasing project for the firm in his late 20s as a real-estate lawyer, by his mid-30s he had bought the firm outright. Now Cohen Brothers Realty is represented by 12 million square feet of polished office suites and innovative design centres in New York, Texas, Los Angeles and California.
Described as “always having 90 projects going on at once”, Cohen is an extreme multi-tasker. We start off discussing his monumental library of some 800 films (“including the Merchant Ivory collection, most of the Alfred Hitchcock films, all of the Buster Keaton movies except one, The Camera Man, which is owned by Warner Brothers. That’s okay though, it’s not his best”); then onto his multi-award-winning film production and distribution business, CMG; television series KCET; his cinema and theatre renovations; and, of course, his family real-estate empire.
“I believe all these projects, brands, buildings, at one point or another, had really great bones in there and they just need to be reassembled, reconfigured in a way that passes into today’s sensibility and doesn’t lose the cachet and provenance that they’ve established over time,” he says.
Having lots on the go is what makes him tick. “It gives me something to get up for in the morning. I’ve got so much to do, I’d better get up! I keep on taking on more and more projects but I don’t consider anything I do work,” adds Cohen. “In each project I hope to be able to make a mark that leaves it in a better position than when I found it.”
He certainly made his mark this year on Savile Row, with the acquisition of luxury menswear brand Richard James, followed a week later by high-end shoe maker Harrys of London.
Considered part of the ‘new order’ of Savile Row, founded in the early 1990s, Richard James has a list of A-list patrons from George Clooney to John Legend to DJ Mark Ronson (who wore Richard James at his wedding to French actress Joséphine de La Baume). Harrys of London, meanwhile, sells well-crafted, comfortable and stylish shoes, at an aspirational price, for the modern millennial.
Cohen has been a long-time fan of both companies and was initially introduced to them through his second wife, Clo Jacobs, who worked in fashion as a marketing director at both Jimmy Choo and Tom Ford.
“I have a great respect for her fashion sense,” recalls Cohen, “so I asked her where I should go for men’s clothing that was both unique and distinct, and expressed individuality in style and design.” At the time, Richard James was seven years old (it has just celebrated its 25th anniversary with an all-out knees-up at Loulou’s in London). As a stylish disrupter, Jacobs thought the brand would resonate with Cohen. She was right and he became a faithful customer. “I would make an annual pilgrimage.” As for Harrys, when Jacobs started working at Jimmy Choo with Tamara Mellon, Mellon’s (now-ex) husband Matthew was involved with Harrys of London. “My wife gave me a pair of these shoes [from Harrys] and said, ‘maybe you might like these’, and they were very comfortable. Next time I was in London I became a customer,” he says.
During his annual bout of retail therapy a couple of years ago, Cohen heard the businesses were for sale. It wasn’t long before he had struck a deal. By early 2018 Harrys and Richard James will have a presence in one of New York’s sleekest shopping malls in Park Avenue 57th Street; then the brands will continue on into the Middle East, India and the Far East, building up wholesale and e-commerce in the meantime. “The customers of Harrys and Richard James are in all these places,” he says.
In recent years, Cohen has turned his sights on restoring old cinemas, playhouses and theatres. He renovated New York’s AMPAS Academy Theatre and built SilverScreen Theater inside the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, and is working on a renovation of La Pagode in Paris. Last year, he restored and reopened one of New York’s most revered movie houses, the boutique Quad Cinema in the heart of Greenwich Village, which will show acclaimed independent films, including restored titles from his personal collection.
“There’s a heartbeat there that resonates with various communities. If I can help revive interest in people coming together to watch film as a community, that’s a wonderful thing,” he says.
Cohen will be the first to admit that life is “challenging” when you have so many balls in the air at once. “No one’s ever made it easy and handed me something and said, ‘here take this’. It’s not like that. I’m resigned to the fact that this is the way it is. And I just come up with a plan that gets me through each day in a productive way. It’s all a series of small steps forward.”