Colin Cowie didn’t set out to become the world’s preeminent event planner. But one step led to another, and before long he had carved out more than a niche to suit his skill set. Today, he is an acclaimed interior designer; well-known television personality and host; author of nine books on style weddings and how to be, with another in the works; and, of course, at the helm of Colin Cowie Celebrations, his party-planning business that caters to A-list stars, brides, private clients, and companies the world over.
“I GREW UP IN SOUTH AFRICA, in the height of the apartheid era, and I knew I didn’t want to spend my life in a place built upon a political system that I didn’t believe in, so I set my sights on California. The weather, the language, the glamour of the lifestyle—I was completely intrigued. And so I headed there, with $400 in my pocket and a head full of dreams, and I was able to make a very successful business for myself. But first, I had to realize that this world of stardust and make- believe was mostly just that. Behind each actor is a team of writers, editors, directors, and stylists who make them as impressive as we are led to believe they are on the silver screen. Looking back, while I probably didn’t know it at the time, that reality check set the stage for me to eventually do what I do now. I was completely disappointed in what I saw. I had clients with walk-in refrigerators who ate in restaurants five nights a week and could not put an outfit together without a stylist!
In a fairly short period of time, I started cooking and entertaining for a lot of celebrities. For my first chapter, I was a one-man show, arranging the flowers and setting tables and chopping, slicing, and dicing, and then serving the meals too. Having spent time in Europe, I was privy to a host of new ingredients in the kitchen. I had a simple approach to food. I always believed in finding and buying the best ingredients and doing as little to them as possible. I was using arugula, radicchio, and Belgian endive at a time when most people thought raddichio was the name of a small island off the coast of Italy! I served branzino and angel-hair pasta with tomato sauce when “California cuisine” consisted of marinating a piece of chicken for 24 hours, beating it, frying it, smothering it in sauce, and presenting it on a bed of something. I soon became the go-to guy for parties and events.
My first real break was doing Hugh Hefner’s wedding. I had only been living in L.A. for two years, and I was teaching cooking classes in Beverly Hills to supplement my income. There, I met the wife of the president of Playboy magazine. I came on board as a food consultant but ended up designing and producing the entire event in just 12 weeks. To this day, it probably remains one of my best productions ever! I knew this was my big chance, and I was unrelenting in making it the best it could be.
There was no name for the kind of business category I was creating back then. I began advising my clients on not only what to eat but also what to wear, how to set a table, and where to travel. And so in 1985, I coined “Colin Cowie Lifestyle.” What had originally started, I thought, as a small catering concept blossomed into my own industry because I was doing so many things and there was such a demand for my skill set. I did television appearances and started showing up in newspapers and magazines. At the end of the ’80s, a magazine called InStyle started up. Given my relationship with celebrities, I was one of their first contributing editors and helped them get A-listers to agree to be on the cover. At the same time, I ventured into designing crystal and china, silverware and linens, creating entire signature home collections for them as well. I also started to write books about lifestyle and wedding concepts.
The company started to grow and develop, and I soon realized that to build up the media aspect I should move to the East Coast. And so I did, keeping an office in Los Angeles that I maintain today.
I fell in love with New York! My clients were a totally different breed. They didn’t want anything that was fabricated, and they didn’t want anything done on the cheap. They wanted the real deal and they were willing to pay for it. And it was then that my business took on a global initiative.
I started to travel. The Middle East wasn’t as developed as it is today, and so I spent a tremendous amount of time working with the “sheiks and shakers,” designing weddings and parties for them. My business took me to Europe and I found myself planning destination weddings all over Italy and France. Then I headed to South America and all over the Caribbean, and back home to South Africa—and before you knew it, I was traveling 200-plus days a year creating the most memorable and magical celebrations all over the world for an extraordinary roster of the most unbelievably happy, grateful, and amazing clients.
Part of the philosophy around the journey on which we take each client is how innovative, fresh, and original we can be. Over the years, we have revolutionized many of the areas in which we do business, and I have set many trends. For example, when I first started out, you could only rent tables for catered events in very specific sizes and heights. I started questioning that: Why is every party table round? Why can’t we have square ones? So I started to build them myself. If I wanted my bar to be higher, I hoisted it up on PVC piping so a bar was 36” high instead of 30” high. I went to antique stores and took fabulous consignment furniture to the events. All of a sudden, we were creating these incredibly residential environments. It looked like you were having the party in your own home, and it added a very personal dimension, which started a trend we continue to see today with the most fabulous rentals available in every color, style, and genre.
All the feedback was good. People liked our ideas. And I think the reason we have such a great reputation is because those ideas ended up in print and on television. As a result, I became widely respected by my peers. This, in turn, has led us to do some of the world’s largest, most extravagant and talked-about projects. However, whether it’s a wedding for $250K or one for six figures, we get the same pleasure and feel so blessed, both personally and professionally, to be able to say we get paid to spend other people’s money making everyone happy. I do believe that makes me a priviledged man.
Because of what I have witnessed and what I have learned, I’ve had some amazing positions and jobs outside of ‘party mode’. I was commissioned by NetJets as their Creative Director, focusing not only on the chic new uniforms, plane interiors, menus, dishes and stemware but on creating a memorable and meaningful customer service experience. I also served as Creative Director for the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong: 18 floors, 600 rooms, three restaurants, a spa, and a fully integrated ballroom program that I initiated there. These and many other chapters in my life have allowed me to build a unique skill set that I now get to leverage in a big way.