Nick Cohen, Master Shewelry-Smith

Nick Cohen is one of those brash mash-up open-format DJs that has the gals swooning and the guys envious of his skills. It all seems easy to an outsider, this modern DJ thing. Serrato technology can put every song you might ever want to hear on a laptop and tell you exactly how to thread those songs together; DJs use this technology to mix in songs from different genres, as they have to constantly find a new way to thrill the crowd. They can carry thousands of songs with them, and the open format set that most clubs now feature can seem repetitive. The great DJs bring smiles to pretty faces as they mix in Dolly Parton, James Brown, or Gang of Four with a song that has been enjoyed so often it needs to be twisted. Those DJs that are successful and have the looks and charisma — the whole package — can demand megabucks In a market that has become ultra-international. Tours are no longer the domain of the house heads, as the worldwide table/bottle service phenomena demands DJs that make you sway in place rather than hit a dancefloor. People don’t spend money on dancefloors, but they do at tables.

These days when I design a DJ booth, I must build a central platform for the computer, and I no longer build shelves to hold crates of records. Many DJs see themselves graduating to the production end of music as the addiction of the live set fades with age. Some go on and on like that Energizer bunny, spreading the word to crowds half their age, but many look to capitalize on the connections clubdom affords. Nick Cohen’s exit strategy seems to be in shoes — they’re as coveted as much as his late-night set. It’s wow at first sight

Tell me about the shoe brand. Well basically the name of the brand is UES, Upper Echelon Shoes. It sort of serves as a double entendre for the fact that my partner and I both grew up on the Upper East Side. We started it officially in 2005 while we were both in school, and I was DJing as well. It was a project that we started and developed around this concept where we took the retro sneaker trend that was happening with Nike Air Force Ones and the Dunks — I was very into those as a kid — and designed our own spinoff of that. The shoe looks similar to an Air Force One, but it’s a midtop.

The thing that sets us apart was the combination of footwear and jewelry. The best way we could express that was to add the 18 karat gold chains as the laces to the shoes. So I got a jeweler, this guy Gabriel Urist, who had gotten recognition through these miniature Nike shoe pendants for necklaces. When we thought of sneaker jewelry, it sort of fit together. So I met with him, and he was a very interesting kid. We had him design a chain for us, and then we went into production. Both of us were relatively young and inexperienced, but we were able to pull off the project and make the shoe. We made about 350 pairs, and we initially ordered the shoes without a proper selling calendar or anything. We just made a list of stores we wanted to be in — Collette in Paris, Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Blue&Cream in New York — and we approached all of these stores, and it was a really different, interesting concept. The price was really high — it was $500 retail — so a lot of people were hesitant to go with it, but we ended getting into a couple of great stores. We didn’t get into Collette. There was also a store in Tokyo, Celux, a really trippy boutique store, we almost got in there, but couldn’t. I think they’re since closed. We broke into H. Lorenzo in LA which was a great store, really great funky clothes and high-end designers and independents.

I still have about 24 pairs left, so we didn’t sell through the whole thing, but we got them in these great stores. What put us on the map was that Puffy was in LA filming a video, and he ended up going into H. Lorenzo, and I get a phone call from my sister who was watching MTV and she told me that she saw Puffy wearing my shoes, and I was like, “Stop fucking with me!” But I went on the internet the next day and saw the clip. Tim was holding the shoe up to the camera, showing off the gold laces. So that sort of put us on the map. The next week I heard he was performing on the BET Awards, and he comes out, the last performance of the show, and then he got up on the stage and he was wearing the shoes. So it was, I’d say, almost the best fun I’ve had in the business to date. Two days later, the Post did a story on the summer’s best sneakers, and it was in the middle; and the front section of the Post is a full page of Puffy performing in the shoes, and then a big blow up of the shoes.

So where are you on the map now? So then we went along, did another season, got all this great feedback from our limited distribution retailers about women loving the concept of this sneaker jewelry — we now have since coined it “shewelry” — so we wanted to develop a concept for women. So we took a season off, went back to the drawing board, developed a bunch of concepts in less of an urban sneakerhead type of shoe, more of a Converse/Chuck Taylor type of mold that’s more rock n’ roll punk with bling jewelry accents, etc. So we released three styles for women, all limited production again, 150 pairs of each style, one shoe that had gold chains as the laces with studs on the back, or gunmetal black chains with studs on the back, full grain leather, amazing shoes.

Where did you come off being a shoe designer? I’m not trained in it whatsoever.

Where did you grow the balls that said “I’m going to do this” and be successful at it? Why did you think your shoes would be successful? I had just been buying shoes for a long time, and I believe that I have pretty good taste.

Do you have a pretty large collection yourself? I don’t buy that many pairs of shoes anymore. I’ll buy one and wear them to death — like an expensive pair. Like these great APC ones that I bought in Japan, I’ll wear them to death.

How did you start the design? We just came up with a bunch of designs. I just thought about what I would want to wear. The first men’s shoe, the Seni, I just put a bunch of shoes together and did some sketches. So I worked with the graphic designer because I’m not very well versed in graphic design or Illustrator or anything like that. It’s more the concept, and then executing it, and there’s the sample process where if you can get it right in two samples, you’re good at what you do.

So where are you selling now? What kind of buyers do you have? Right now we’re at a variety of stores like Kitson in LA — we’ve moved out of H. Lorenzo and Fred Segal. In New York we’re in Blue&Cream. We do collaborative efforts with Stacey Bendet from alice + olivia who has supported us since we first started our women’s project. We placed a really big order of all the styles in her store — the one in LA and in Bryant Park — and so we do trunk shows with her in her store which is a great way to cross over into the women’s stuff.

So how do you find time to DJ? Now it’s a little easier because since I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t have to work as many gigs to make the same amount or more money, but when I was in school up at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, it was two hours up, so I’d be up there four days a week for class, but I’d only go for two or three days and do a whole week’s worth of work in three or three days, and I would come back, DJ, do the shoe thing. Now it’s sort of the shoes and DJ juggling, and it’s burning the candle at both ends because one’s the third shift and the other is supposed to be the first two shifts. There was a point at which I thought I could wake up at 9am on no sleep, push through the day, and then work all night. And I’m able to function some how function on four to six hours of sleep for a couple of days, and then it’s like, you know, don’t talk to me for twelve hours. Unfortunately DJing is being physically there.

Where do you DJ now? The steady party I’ve been doing is Thursdays at Southside, and actually tonight is the one-year anniversary of the opening of the place and our party. That DJ booth is beaten to hell. I mean, I had to give them direction as to where to put the booth because I was like, this place is tiny and the décor is minimal, so there’s no attraction besides the DJ, so put him right in the middle of the room as you walk in, up high, and just let him rock. But it’s been fun, it’s messy in there. I just don’t have the stomach anymore for doing gigs where you just sit there, miserable, playing top 40, collecting the paycheck. It’s just not fun. I mean, I think you have to spoon feed a little bit because it’s always hard to break records, but it’s rewarding when you do, because it’s very easy to train somebody to play commercial music. You can still do that and play snippets of it when you have to, but you have to be creative with it. Sort of like Mark Ronson used to do when I was younger. He would break a record that would have no place in a nightclub, but if you put it in there, your entry into it is interesting, the length of time you play it is appropriate, and its exit out is appropriate, you can play anything.

So when you sneak something in — what are you sneaking in? Where are you pushing it? What records are you playing? Where do you want to go with music? At the moment, because my focus has been more on the shoes for the last year and the DJing has just been second to that, I haven’t been able to focus enough on developing new sound or finding a lot of new records. It’s sort of fallen to the wayside. The basic set I play though has been very well developed over the last year and a half. There are changes and stuff, but if you develop a certain format that really works, you get a lot of feedback and great energy. You can alter it, but he core usually stays the same. Especially with the crowd at Southside. But it’s nice doing things where you have crowds that have taste. I did a party at Stuart Parr’s house last Friday, and he had his garden in the West Village tented and painted on the inside by these graffiti artists, and everyone was dressed to the nines. The format was all 80s, so it’s fun to do stuff like that but with a crowd that has taste, so you can play great music and not just have to play cheesy 80s stuff like the Smiths and the Cure.

How do you balance the two careers? At the moment I’m sort of trying to bridge my gap out of what I’ve been doing for a while. The shoes have taken a lot of focus; DJing can take a lot of focus. I’m in a more comfortable position with DJing where I command a little bit more respect — I can bring what I do to the table as opposed to altering what I do to appease everybody. When people hire me, I say, “This is what you get.” If somebody questions me, I just say I know that you’re paying me, but you knew what you were getting into. If you’re paying me to play all top 40, then you’re overpaying me, and there are plenty of kids out there who you can push to do it for less. So I’m just sort of getting stuff set up, I’ve been living like a vagabond.

So 10 years from now, what are you going to be doing? I definitely won’t be DJing consistently. It’s something that is near and dear to my heart from a fun perspective, but I’m exiting out. You can’t be in a nightclub until 4am five days a week forever.

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