Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones

It’s one of those perfect late summer evenings in Los Angeles, a swath of blue and orange striped across the skyline beyond the balcony of a suite at the Chateau Marmont. Anne Heche, in a taupe, Grecian-like slip, is in the corner chatting away with two pals. Inside, Angela Bassett crosses paths with Chloe Webb and Ione Skye in front of a group nestled on the half-moon sofa that contains vintage model Carmen Dell’Orefice.
The real star of the night, the one that the actresses, as well as director Sydney Pollack, are here for, is quietly busy serving wine.
Peter Cohen is as reticent a host as he is a designer. The self-effacing Zimbabwe expat has quietly gone about his business making luxurious, better American sportswear out of his unassuming complex for the last dozen years. Inside 5,000 square feet of workrooms and a design studio that surrounds a patio with a basketball hoop, Cohen and a staff of 30 produce five collections that take in $4 million in sales annually. On the back of the size ticket of each piece is a penciled signature of the sewer.
Cohen’s understated clothes retail from $200 to $1,800 at better specialty boutiques such as Savannah in Santa Monica, Calif.; Saks Fifth Avenue, and his own in-store shop at Bergdorf Goodman. They belong to the relatively new, yet fast-growing, category known as the “gold range,” the sportswear tier between bridge and designer. Although largely filled with European vendors, the category counts Cohen among its leading American resources.
Cohen’s approach to branding is decidedly low key: He has long used a discreet gold star stud in lieu of a brand label. In an era when logomania has turned enthusiasm over certain design brands into hero worship, Cohen continues to satisfy a loyal clientele of women who prefer clothes they can wear, and that don’t wear them.
“By the time the wearer puts on the clothes and goes out, my contact to it is not there anymore,” Cohen said, his words still flavored by the South Central African English on which he was raised. “If a designer came up and said ‘That’s my shirt,’ I’d be horrified. I’d say, ‘It’s MY shirt; I chose it, I own it.”‘
Still, he admitted, on another level, he always feels a connection to his customers. “There’s the response the clothes trigger. That charge it gives someone. That’s what hooks me. It’s also connected me with people who otherwise would never have come knocking on my door.”
Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Days before the Chateau Marmont event, Heche was leaning against her car on Larchmont Street, munching on a turkey sandwich and chatting on her cell phone, when Cohen popped up out of nowhere. “I just finished a yoga class, and this guy comes running up, showing me a photo of Sharon Stone in [InStyle],” recalled the actress. “He said, ‘I want to design something for you.’ Hey, if you’re that bold, I’m all for it,” surmised Heche.
She called Cohen a few days later. “I was a little surprised,” he later admitted. “I mean, now I had to deal with the reality that I had to design something for her.”
As wildly strange and so L.A. as the tale is, Cohen has actually managed to remain above the madness many local designers are sucked into come award season. “It’s a relief. I’m just interested in clothes that reveal themselves over a period of time as opposed to entrance makers you can immediately recognize.”
He prefers to cater to his client’s private moments rather than the tungsten burners that end up on critics’ hit lists. “I wouldn’t want the clothes to be overexposed.”
He counts among his regular clients cellists, sopranos, ceo’s, agents and other “accomplished, intelligent, spirited women.”
“Even the stores like my customers,” he continued. “I try to think why women make the decision to buy my clothes, because obviously, at this price point, they can buy whatever is out there.”
Lynn Holmberg, women’s director for Mario’s in Seattle, believes it is Cohen’s understanding of what women need that makes him successful. “The silhouettes are modern, but timeless. Our customers love his choice of fabrics. He fits a lot of shapes and sizes, which is a very important need in the designer market. We’ve carried Peter for eight years, and he’s consistently a top performer.”
Men are apparently fans, too. Cohen’s retailers report that husbands and boyfriends shop his line for the women in their lives, said the designer. “I like clothes that are sociable, that you can interact in. It’s my definition of what minimalist clothing is. To me, it’s about the woman.”
The collection uses primarily top-quality, European-milled textiles. Touch is as important as appearance. “I’ve seen many a nice garment and I’ve been repelled by the touch,” he said. He selects fabrics to live in, not just wear. “I do understand the way clothes fit into people’s lives.”
A kind of aesthetic buff, Cohen collects “things,” from architectural books to art, in particular plein air paintings and contemporary photographs by regional artists, deepening his roots in the area he’s long called home.
His foray into fashion actually began in New York in 1981, for then-design sensation Peter Kea. “He went out of business a year later, but he had an enormous impact on me,” said Cohen. “We did everything. We sewed, even though none of us knew how.” One associate from those days, Stuart Cox, is now a partner and oversees production. The privately owned company is repped by Jill Bredel in New York.
Cohen steadfastly remains in L.A. “I’m very much a California designer in aesthetic. I don’t like to look like everyone else around me. These are not purely urban clothes, they’re clothes to be worn. Here you shift with changing landscapes and situations, and you have to dress accordingly.”