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Michael Stars co-founder passes away

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Manhattan Beach resident Michael Cohen, the co-founder of the clothing brand Michael Stars, passed away on March 27. Photo courtesy of Michael Stars

Manhattan Beach resident Michael Cohen, the co-founder of the clothing brand Michael Stars, passed away on March 27. Photo courtesy of Michael Stars

Manhattan Beach resident and co-founder of the Michael Stars fashion brand Michael Cohen passed away at the age of 79 on March 27. The cause was prostate cancer.

Mayor Wayne Powell held a moment of silence for Cohen at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

“We lost an important member of our community,” said Powell, “a name everybody was familiar with.”

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Cohen, originally from South Africa, came to America for a business opportunity and to escape the politics, his wife Suzanne Lerner said. He settled on 10th Street in Manhattan Beach in 1977 and never left.

“I think it reminded him of Cape Town,” said Lerner, who is also the president of Michael Stars. “He was definitely a beach guy.”

Cohen met future Michael Stars co-founder, John Stars, through the local shop Cotton Cargo.

Stars, an artist from Hermosa Beach, was selling t-shirts with primitive style designs he painted by hand, which Cohen liked.

Cotton Cargo’s owner, Rose Jacobson, played matchmaker, Stars said.

“Michael kept going into her store and buying shirts, giving them to friends,” said Stars. “He was a business guy — he was thinking, ‘How could I make this work?’”

“She said, ‘Why don’t you call him up and talk to him?’” said Stars.

Cohen suggested having the designs done by silkscreen, which took less time but still looked authentic, Stars said.

“I was very excited to go from painting every single shirt,” said Stars. Before he met Cohen, he said, “Every night I would go to bed with the shirts on boards and wake up and they were dry.”

They found a silk screener in El Segundo by the name of Venice Silk Screen.

Cohen “provided the product and the money, and I provided the designs,” said Stars.

Each season, Stars would come up with 10-12 designs. They would have them done in multiple color combinations and then choose the ones they liked.

“Michael and I would sit back on his porch, look at the ocean and pick out which ones we thought would work and discard the ones we thought wouldn’t,” said Stars.

Cohen came up with their company’s name by combining their two names. He asked Stars to write it, and the signature became their logo.

Cohen approached Lerner, who was a sales rep in the apparel industry, about selling the shirts.

“He walked into my showroom trying to show these polycotton sweatshirts with fabulous designs,” said Lerner. “I loved the designs, but I was not interested in the polycotton sweatshirts.”

She was, however, interested in Cohen, so she asked him out on a date. The couple went to Cafe Pierre.

In 1988, they married.

Lerner eventually agreed to represent Cohen’s brand, taking the shirts to Fred Segal in Los Angeles, among other stores. She helped expand the brand into a full line of clothes, which are now regularly featured in popular magazines and worn by celebrities.

“It was like a third person in our marriage,” said Lerner. “It was part of our lives and our love.”

Stars, who stopped working for the company after a few years when they expanded out of t-shirts, credits Lerner with taking it to a new level.

“Without Susan, it would’ve gone nowhere,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Cohen and Lerner were walking in downtown Manhattan Beach when they came up with the idea of opening a Michael Stars store. They opened one not far from Cotton Cargo.

Cohen was passionate about helping the local community, Lerner said, and donated to many local charities through the company, such as the Sandpipers and the Skechers Pier to Pier Friendship Walk.

“He loved Manhattan Beach,” she said. “He loved the town, loved the people.” ER

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