Business Casual

For the record, Michael Cohen is not Michael Stars.

And though he and his wife are unquestionably the driving force behind the successful “casual couture” t-shirt business bearing that recognizable moniker, he prefers to walk through his Downtown Manhattan Beach neighborhood with an air of anonymity — just another local out for a cup of coffee or ice cream around the block. And how can you blame him? Years before “Stars” ever entered his life, Michael was an artist enjoying the coastal comforts of living in the South Bay.

For the record, Michael Cohen is not Michael Stars.

And though he and his wife are unquestionably the driving force behind the successful “casual couture” t-shirt business bearing that recognizable moniker, he prefers to walk through his Downtown Manhattan Beach neighborhood with an air of anonymity — just another local out for a cup of coffee or ice cream around the block. And how can you blame him? Years before “Stars” ever entered his life, Michael was an artist enjoying the coastal comforts of living in the South Bay.

“I’ve been here 33 years,” says Michael, a charming man with a striped scarf tied comfortably around his neck. “Strange for a South African cause they don’t seem to move.”

In fact, the very apartment I visited on an unusually wet October morning has been Michael’s home since his arrival in the States. “We arrived in LA, strangely, on the same month of the same year,” he shares. “She from Chicago by way of India and Australia, and me from Cape Town. I don’t think I’ll ever move.”

A decade later, in 1986, a chance meeting with an artist at a Manhattan Beach fair inspired a line of unisex, boxy T-shirts decorated with bright colors and interwoven French graphics. Seeking help to develop the business further, he knocked on a few doors and found a friend in Suzanne Lerner, a successful clothing representative in her own right. Not only did Suzanne commit herself to the future of Michael Stars, she committed to the future of Michael Cohen as wife.

Suzanne takes me to a wall lined with paintings, all by artist Thomas McKnight. “Tom and Michael met in Mykonos trolling for women 30 years ago,” she smiles. “His wife Renate and I laugh about how we are the women behind the men. She really got behind Tom and promoted him.”

Indeed, Michael Stars was a family business from the beginning, with Michael, his brother Stuart and Suzanne running the operation out of a garage. Since opening their first store in Manhattan Beach just around the corner, the company has grown to 10 retail locations and a corporate office/warehouse staffed with 150 people in Hawthorne. “They are wonderful to their employees,” says Devon Branam, a member of that dedicated team. “Being privately owned for so many years, it says a lot about their company. They are good people.” Devon then mentions to Michael and Suzanne that she recently bought a house with her husband.

“I love when my employees buy homes,” Michael chimes in. “Then I know they’re not going to go because they have a mortgage.”
Michael and Suzanne now own the apartment that Michael moved into in 1976. The long space is lined with windows, offering views of the beach and an unobstructed view of the pier. Michael walks out to the soaked patio and reveals a covered area with a cozy daybed, a quiet space where he can read the paper and conjure up new ideas.

Suzanne mentions the zero-scape garden at the front of the property, noting it was probably the first of its kind in Manhattan Beach. “We planted it 15 years ago,” she says, “We don’t give it any water or anything. We let it grow wild.” She describes how the small garden attracts tourists exiting their bus on the main drag, providing a backdrop for many a photograph.

Growing encroachments from local business, on the other hand, are something the couple would prefer not to attract. “We live on a walk street,” Suzanne points out. “Those spaces are for a kid to play and people to wait for the bus.” After a five-year effort, they successfully stopped encroachments for commercial development in their neighborhood. “We try to keep the commercial and residential interfacing. It’s important,” she says.

Michael and Suzanne’s community reach goes far beyond their narrow lot off the Strand. Although not interested in the celebrity recognition that often accompanies a successful designer, Michael lights up when discussing public recognition for Michael Stars the company. He takes me downstairs and plays a clip from yesterday’s Ellen show, showing the popular host gifting a Michael Stars’ breast cancer awareness T-shirt to each of her audience members.

“I always thought it was Ellen ‘Generous’…like giving a lot,” he admits. “Ellen de Generous.”

The Ellen clip represents only one of the company’s many philanthropic alliances over the years. “We’ve always been interested in charity,” says Michael. “I do think you get when you give, even if you get something almost crude like publicity.”
Suzanne says the company started giving back about 15 years ago, creating a special T-shirt and giving away proceeds to UNICEF. “Things happen with Katrina, or a flood, a tsunami and we would be giving. We started a Valentine’s Day T-shirt years ago that we tied into the American Heart Association so women would learn about heart disease.” On November 6, the Manhattan Beach store will team up with Close the Deal, a program that provides young people with limited resources the clothing and mentorship they need to start professional careers.

“About six or seven years ago it was recommended to us that we start a foundation,” Michael says. “It’s called the Michael Stars and Cohen Family Foundation. It makes us feel good.”

Humble and hardworking, Michael and Suzanne are not the kind of people to take their locally grown success for granted. “We started the company in 1986, so to still be in the contemporary market after almost 25 years is pretty great,” says Suzanne. “We have everyone from Miley Cyrus to Nancy Pelosi wearing our T-shirts. You could say we run the gambit with our customer base.”

So, is there any place other than Manhattan Beach Michael can picture himself after all these years?

“I’m 74 on Friday, and I went to Mykonos for the first time when I was twenty one, so that’s about 52 years,” he says. “I’m what they call a ‘Myko-nutty junkie.’”

“Michael’s always lived with a view of water,” adds Suzanne. “I think he needs it.”

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