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Ramping up the Runways

La Jolla - born Jonathan Cohen's fashion career is on the rise in New York. But he values his roots here as the source of his strength.


For a young designer, making a good first impression in the fashion world is like getting a perfect score on the SATs. It opens doors. This fall, a Jewish Mexican kid from San Diego named Jonathan Cohen did just that. With very little backstage drama (no ripped zippers, broken heels or unstitched hems), he launched a show with 12 models during New York
Fashion Week and sent his star on the rise.

Thanks in part to La Jolla – born Cohen, San Diego is finding its place on the map as a hothouse of young fashion. A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, the 24-year-old achieved buzz-worthy status at this fall’s Fashion Week, snagging a prime spot at Chelsea’s Flag Art Gallery and a mention after the show in Women’s Wear Daily  — the kind of career-launching ink that young designers dream of.
The Flag Art Gallery space is well known to insiders. Two years ago when the big tents moved from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center (and took the corporate sponsor logos with them), the super-hot Prabal Gurung — now a Michelle Obama favorite — showed his first collection at Flag Art. The place has been charmed ever since. Cohen’s fashion fit right in. From the first look to the finale gown, his show felt fresh. Young. West Coast. Raw.

Cohen’s collection is indicative of much of his work,  an inventive array of looks that span from edgy to fun, wearable to sensual. His clothes have a breezy, colorful SoCal aesthetic — haute couture meets Windansea Beach meets his Jewish family’s Mexican roots. A neoprene sports bra top. A dress featuring a bright pink horsehair flourish on the bodice. An evening gown decorated with colorful porcupine quills at the neck.

Cohen’s isn’t exactly a hard-luck story. His family owns Bon Suisse, a locally based dairy export business. He attended San Diego Jewish Academy, graduated from La Jolla High School and recalls many family dinners held at Sushi on the Rock. He spent vacations traveling with his family to Mexico City, where his ancestors settled after fleeing Europe during World War II. Stacks of his mom’s Vogue and Hola magazines were ever-present.

A self-proclaimed Comic-Con nerd in high school (he attended waaay before it was cool), Cohen was dubbed “the artist” because he was constantly drawing Japanese anime characters — and costumes for them — as his surfer-dude classmates quick-changed in and out of wetsuits during school breaks. He realized early that the traditional route of education was not for him — good thing, since conventional colleges weren’t all that interested in him or his creative endeavors, either. “Getting rejected by every UC school I applied to was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says.

The real milestone in his fashion life came after high school graduation during a summer trip to Europe. “Not to be cliché, but I discovered Paris, and it changed my life,” says Cohen, who has been devoted to fashion ever since.

Upon his return to San Diego, he plunged into his ambition to become a designer. He took sewing classes at Jane’s Fabrique in La Jolla, bought design books at Warwick’s and set his sights on getting into the Parsons School of Design, where fashion icons like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Donna Karan and Anna Sui have all trod. It took Cohen six months to build the portfolio of designs he needed to apply for entrance. He was accepted and granted a scholarship.

Today, Cohen speaks with reverence of his Parsons training. Studying fine art and design with the best in the world changed his perspective completely. Thereafter came internships for the stars: Ashleigh Verrier. Doo.ri. Chung, Oscar de la Renta. And a freelance gig with Patricia Field, costumer for Sex and the City.

“It was like a total-emersion experience,” he remembers. “Talk about fashion boot camp — oh, my God!”
Such intensive training equipped Cohen with top skills that many fledgling designers lack, like pattern-making. His are impeccable, thanks to that internship with Doo.Ri. Cohen also designs his own prints.

And he shares a common longing for his hometown, like so many San Diegans upon moving out. “I miss In-N-Out,” he says. “I miss the Coors Amphitheatre and free soda refills. I miss mellow people, the sun, my family and the beautiful weather.” But with the exception of the six months he moved back here to nurse his mother through chemotherapy treatments after a cancer diagnosis, Cohen is now a full-fledged New Yorker. 

At his Fashion Week show in Chelsea this September, a two-hour presentation attended by a crowd of 200, Cohen wowed the throng with a collection of 12 looks, all featuring his trademarks: vibrant, high-energy colors and innovative uses of fabric and accessories. The dress with a horsehair zipper pull was a show-stopper, as were the beautiful pink berry silk charmeuse shorts and the stunning chiffon gown with porcupine quills.

Standing triumphantly in the gallery after his show, surrounded by well-wishers and camera flashes, wearing a blue blazer with front vents, the kid from La Jolla credited his roots as his strength: “Everyone in New York wears black. I love color, specifically the colors of California. The feeling of the beach cities carries into my designs.”
So you can take the boy out of San Diego  .  .  .

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