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Career / Lauren Caris Cohan

1 month ago by

Lauren is no stranger to the site. We collaborated with her and Free People on a few shoots some years ago, and since then, Lauren and Garance have become great friends. While I haven’t spent much time with her myself, G has always told me wonderful things about her and her evolving career. After many successful years at Free People, she recently went out on her own to start writing and directing television and films, splitting her time between New York and LA (sounds like someone else I know!) I spoke with Lauren a few weeks ago to get the full update, and it was like talking to an old friend – one with some really exciting projects in the works!

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Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City, and then spent most of my high school years right outside of the city in New Jersey in Bergen County.

And what did your parents do?
My dad was a model, an actor, and a musician. And he was actually in the band The Token before they became famous. He quit and they totally took off. I think in his mid-thirties he started working. He owned an early computer copier company. He was very much a creative, I’d come home from school and he’d be playing the piano and singing. He was a musical, artistic salesman who ended up having a business that was less creative. My mom was a stay at home mom. She currently raises money for a university in Pennsylvania. So after my father retired, she went back to work.

When did you start living in New York City?
I lived in New York from 18 to 22.

When did you start working professionally here?
When I was 21 or 22, a friend of mine had a sister who was an editor at a magazine where I did one day in a fashion closet at a magazine before realizing it wasn’t for me. I started working as a stylist assistant soon after that and worked as a freelance stylist assistant for about six months.

I had a boyfriend at the time and I applied him for a job at Anthropologie behind his back. They called him for the interview and he had no idea, he was the creative director at another company at the time, but he ended up taking the interview and got the job. So he and I moved to Philadelphia, and I took a job as a stylist assistant at Free People. There was no e-commerce, no internal team. They were shooting for the dot com one or two days a month.

I went to the CFO at that time, I saw an opportunity to reprioritize all of the money that we were sending our freelancers. I proposed a way for them to bring the creative team in-house. Eventually it went from being two people on that team to, when I left, close to fifty, in 8 years.

I always say to everybody who I’d interview at Free People: If you see a hole, if you see an opportunity that no one is doing, seize it, and prove to me that you’re capable of doing that.

How long were you working in the styling position there before you went to the CFO with this idea?
It was about a year. When you’re young, you always want to do more, you are so hungry to prove yourself, and sometimes it can be really challenging, because obviously that takes time. I’d always say to everybody I interviewed at Free People: If you see a hole, if you see an opportunity that no one is doing, seize it, and prove to me that you’re capable of doing that. Because then it’s yours. And ultimately it’s the best way to grow.

So what was that creative team like?
We went from no one to having 10 photographers and 5 models on set all the time. It was like a revolving door – freelancers coming in and out. A whole team of stylists, a post-production team, a film team, a catalogue team, a wholesale team, all creating imagery for Free People. It was such a unique opportunity because there was so much implied trust.

At one point the CFO basically said, “I’m going to give you the budget and you figure it out. I’ll give you the year and as long as you don’t go over budget, you can do what you want with it.” There was so much creative freedom in that. It allowed us to do all these things that traditional budgets wouldn’t allow. We would end up going to Vietnam, convincing our friends to go with us for free because it was going to be the best time ever, and spending all the money in ways that you wouldn’t normally… It was the most grassroots big company you could be a part of. So I ended up getting to oversee a team of people who were really empowered to be creative (myself included), work with friends, and travel all over the world in the most photogenic places. That was so much the ethos of the brand.

That sounds amazing, and you can see how it translates in the brand’s imagery, but I know a lot of hard work goes into the production of all of that.
As a stylist assistant, I remember we were in Morocco, and we were literally dragging suitcases up sand dunes, and it was 110 degrees. And all anyone sees of that is the Instagram photo that is the magical sand dune that we’ve walked through. We post this thing that’s like, “Look how amazing my experience is!” But you’re dehydrated and exhausted and there’s so much work involved. But both film and photo industries have changed – it’s become so much more accessible for people to be creative, which is an amazing thing. But it’s also like, no one understands the amount of work that a lot of these things take to get there. And especially with video, everyone just wants to make this thing, like you have no idea the amount of work and effort that goes into making one 30 second thought or a 1 minute film. It’s not just as easy as having a skeleton (bare minimum) crew.

Instagram really did change it so much. It went from everyone being so excited about getting a catalogue in the mail to it being redundant because you have so many images. You’re bombarded with images every day.

So once the in-house team got up and running, what was your new role in the company?
For the majority of my time there, I was the artistic director. It never changed. It never bothered me that it didn’t change. It’s a company where titles are not necessarily the most defining or important part of the process. As long as I got to keep making things, it didn’t matter to me.

And how was living in Philadelphia, versus a city like New York?
It’s an amazing, beautiful city, and there are amazing museums and great music and great food. And I was in a relationship so it was much more couple-y. We had a dog, and we spent the weekends at the farmers market. And the minute we broke up, we both moved back to New York. [laughs]. But the truth is, I was traveling so much up until last year, that I really didn’t feel like I had any sort of anchor or home, which is a huge part of wanting to make changes, because that gets very tiresome very quickly.

So in this role at Free People, how were you involved with the different elements and departments of the brand? An artistic director can cover a lot of ground…
So I worked with the fashion director, the merchandising director – we all had separate jobs but I was essentially responsible for creating all of the concepts, imagery, film, and catalogue, and e-commerce content. And each area had separate teams. We had 11 catalogues a year, we would pitch 11 concepts, so it was just this constant outpouring of content, and we had to come up with new and innovative ways to, you know, expand a brand that has a very strong brand identity and do it in different ways that make people want to come back and see more.

So we did everything from merging catalogue and film content to different contests. We would go in and out of being bored of seeing this girl travel around the world, so we would then try to focus on the coolest girl that we could feature, whether it was Anja Rubik or Erin Wasson. Instagram really did change it so much. It went from everyone being so excited about getting a catalogue in the mail to it being redundant because you have so many images. You’re bombarded with images every day.

How does the proliferation of digital and social media change that kind of work? Because it definitely does have a big impact on how you deliver what you’re putting together.
I became really tired of making images, but at the same time, as long as I continued to learn in my position there, I felt really satisfied. 4 or 5 years ago, kind of at the start of when Instagram was picking up, is when we moved into making short films. That was when I realized film was everything I wanted to be a part of. The medium is different, but I was able to apply the same brain. We started making films, and they were really well received. I was really lucky because I got the chance to write some, direct some, produce some, cast some, along with my amazing team. But we basically built this in-house production company that turned into just making short films. It’s really interesting because with all of this branded film content, no one has really figured out what the landscape is. To get eyes on video is still a mystery in a lot of ways, so that was something that we were always working towards. And I don’t know if we ever quite figured it out.

I think it’s a funny thing that from the outside it always looks so glamorous. But you can be so profoundly lonely, even when you’re surrounded by your friends, and you’re so far away and all you want to do is sleep in your own bed. But those experiences have shaped who I am as a person, so I feel so lucky to have experienced it.

How did you teach yourself to do all of that? It’s such an evolution in terms of your skill set.
I was very lucky because Free People gave me so much faith. And because the quality of the films was good, they were so well received, so we kept making them. And the more we made them, the more I learned, fine-tuning along the way. I was able to film school myself through the experience.

At the same time, we were shooting our catalogues and our campaign images. So it was combining these budgets to be able to make these pieces. So it was like, everyone on set had to want to be there, because it was so much work.

During your time at Free People, how did you get to work with such top models and photographers?
In the early days, the team spent a lot of time wheeling and dealing to get the top talent we aspired to work with. I always did my best to make the entire process as fun, creative, and collaborative as possible so that both models and photographers trusted that they would have a great experience with us. I think we did a great job of capturing these girls in the most natural way– no makeup and high heels required. They always looked like themselves and I always encouraged them to voice their opinions and ideas on the job.

Eventually, we built a strong reputation for ourselves and liked to work with the same talent again and again. We would cast models and photographers with genuine curiosity and a desire to travel– some of our 30-hours-in-coach adventures were not exactly glamorous or for the faint of heart.

You were based in New York but you were working for a company that was headquartered in Philadelphia, what was the process like of working with a brand that’s there while you’re here and on the road so much?
They were really wonderful in that they let me work from New York four days a week, and trusted that I would get the work done. And it was never really an issue. So, you know, with the way we communicate now is, I could be accessible by text any time. But we were traveling so much, 150,000 miles a year, so it was also exhausting.

And I think it’s funny that from the outside it always looks so glamorous. Because you can be so profoundly lonely, even when you’re surrounded by your friends, and you’re so far away and all you want to do is sleep in your own bed. But those experiences have shaped who I am as a person, so I feel so lucky to have experienced it. But yeah, it was really just having an amazing team. I mean, you know that, what the difference is when you have people who are excited and ambitious, and actually want to make good shit.

Yeah. It makes a big difference.
It’s the best! It’s everything.

If I could say one thing to everyone, it’s that you just have to do it. Whatever it is that you want to do, the only thing that is holding you back is fear.

So now, you’ve made some bigger changes and you’re working on developing more film and television projects. Can you walk me through what that transition has been?
Almost two years ago now, we brought the marketing director from Vimeo over. We were trying to figure out to develop the film content in a way that was meaningful. If we’re spending all this time and energy doing it, how were we going to get people to actually see it? She and I started talking about virtual reality, which I was really fascinated by. The VR landscape is just so interesting. And we wanted to be the first fashion brand to make a really cool VR piece. That evolved into wanting to be the first brand to potentially make a series of branded content that you don’t actually know is branded. So we started talking about making a VR piece that also had a series, an episodic component to it. And that was how Dream Girl, the last film I made with Free People was born.

When we realized we had something really special, the CFO of the company gave me the carte blanche to try and figure out how we could turn it into something more. At that time I already knew I want to be a filmmaker. I love fashion, but I also didn’t feel like I had any more stories to tell within the box of that brand. I’m in my early 30s, I felt like I had to do this now. It was now or never.

So we ended up taking the film to CAA through the support of my dear friend and mentor Ben Younger, and with Free People we partnered with the production company Imagine Entertainment, which is Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company. I ended up signing with CAA in both TV and film, as a writer and director. I now have an amazing manager and am signed with Anonymous Content as a commercial director. So all these things just came out of Dream Girl, not exclusively, but it was the impetus for big change.

I’m actually out in LA pitching. I have all of my pitches with all of these cable networks, and the show is not called Dream Girl anymore, it’s called Lucid. And my co-writer, my co-creator, is this amazing woman, her name is Jessica Mecklenburg, and she was one of the executive producers of Stranger Things on its first season, one of the writers.

If I could say one thing to everyone, it’s that you just have to do it. Whatever it is that you want to do, the only thing that is holding you back is fear. I literally had a dream job, and I think that was one of the hardest things to leave. But if it doesn’t make you feel that way, it’s time for you to move on and do something that makes you want to wake up in the morning. Mondays are so exciting for me right now because I have this whole week of, what can I make, how do I move forward?

[Editor’s Note: Since I interviewed Lauren, Lucid has been picked up and is in development with Hulu. She’s also attached to direct her first feature film, and is currently developing another TV series.]

How did you get connected with Jessica?
Jessica is also represented by CAA, and so Imagine, the production company who signed on to develop the project vetted many, many writers. She is an incredible, prolific writer (and such a babe) and because of the history of success of her work, including Stranger Things, she had like 1000 projects presented her. She chose mine! (Lucky me). Now we’re working on many things together.

And so much of what I want to do at the moment is support other women and be able to encourage other people to do the same things that she and I are doing. I also started a company called Lolly Would, a production company which is a creative services company with my creative producer, Helena. It’s exciting to have multiple things going at once.

I’m so inspired by hearing other people’s perspectives on the way they make things.

As we discussed, it’s a big transition to go from a secure full time job to something a bit more new and up in the air, especially as a freelancer and your own boss. Can you talk about any feelings of being torn between those two careers as you considered this transition?
It certainly isn’t easy to leave a “dream job” – the notion was pretty terrifying for a long time. I spent a lot my time reminding myself how fortunate and grateful I was to have the opportunity to lead, create, and see the world through such an incredible lens.

As special as it was I wasn’t happy. I started to feel numb, less creative, even a little lazy – it didn’t feel good. I started feeling bad that someone else wasn’t getting the opportunity to take my position.

Prior to departing my full-time position, I started strategizing with my new managers and agents about my filmmaking career. I remember having trouble sleeping because my mind was so saturated with new ideas- I hadn’t experienced that in a long time. My work began to make me feel so happy I could explode. That’s when I knew I made the right decision.

The lack of structure and inconsistency can be unnerving at times but it also propels me forward and keeps me motivated. Time is so precious and I’m more aware of that the older I get. At the moment I’m trying to just keep my expectations low and enjoy the ride.

How have things changed now that you essentially are your own business? You don’t have a company to fall back on…
Well there’s just so much pressure. It’s just me. So it’s wonderful and it also feels very exposed at the same time. And it’s really exciting. In order to make any of the things that I’m making, there are so many people that have to be involved. Talented people. But yeah, it’s a really good feeling. And it was also really good to finally take credit for something, which is a really weird ego thing. But to be able to say, I made this. For so long, my name was never associated with any of the work I made. And I was just so excited to make it, but at some point or another, you’re like, nobody knows I was a part of that!

What’s an average day like for you now that you’re working on these projects?
I feel healthier and more centered than I have in a long time. These days I get up at 7 and cycle or go to yoga, write with Jess for a few hours, and usually have a meeting at a studio in the afternoon. It’s bliss. My dear friend Phoebe Tonkin and I are also working on a short film project together. I feel so lucky to be able to have creative partnerships with friends for whom I have so much respect.

How are you kind of thinking about splitting your time between the two?
I mean I’ve definitely spent more time in LA in the last year than I have New York, but New York will absolutely always be home. I think it will be 50/50 or wherever the wind blows at the moment, which is really wonderful. Because of the way that I traveled for so long, it’s so easy for me to jump on a plane.

How do you find balance in what you do and channel your creativity?
I find that the way I’m the most creative is by talking with other creatives. I’m so inspired by hearing other people’s perspectives on the way they make things. Having the time to do that now, as well as having the time for myself has changed my point of view so much.

What would you say your biggest challenge is in your work right now?
It’s a real learning curve because for so long I was the one that was responsible for the conception as well as the execution. And now, I have a client to please, or there’s a production company to please. There’s a lot of hope and opportunity, but I don’t have the same control that I did in making and manifesting all of my ideas, if that makes sense. So that was definitely something new. I could be excited about 50 different things, but they may not actually come to fruition, so remembering not to be disheartened by that. Also there’s a lot of waiting – waiting for emails – the life of a freelancer is so different.

What are you most excited about right now?
I’m so excited about Lolly Would. I’m so excited about my partnership with Jessica, and the feature films that we’re working on. I’m excited about Lucid, which has really been the focus of my last two years. I’m just so excited to make things and have the opportunity to have a voice that is not associated with a brand, because it’s mine! Not someone else’s.

Do you feel like you have a mentor?
Garance is absolutely one of my mentors, and my friend Ben Younger, who is a director and writer. Jessica is also a mentor. It’s really amazing how motivating it can be when you have these people around you who you can call. When you find someone that makes you feel known, I think that’s one of the things I’m always looking for, somebody who just understands me, and how satisfying it is when you sit down and you feel nourished from a conversation. If I could give advice, it’s find someone who you respect, who is excited about you and your process, and ask questions. Because sometimes I think we can all be really scared to ask those questions.

What do you think the best advice that you’ve ever gotten has been?
The fashion director of Free People, Crystal, is kind of a big sister to me. We were traveling once and she said, “You know, really have to be the person that you aspire to be. Always look forward, look over the horizon. Keep looking over the horizon for what’s next, because momentum is so important. People want to be associated with confidence and with people who believe in themselves.”

What is your dream for your career now?
To tell beautiful, impactful, emotional stories through filmmaking. And then to be able to support young women and help them realize their potential in as many ways as possible. I hate seeing how young women can focus so much on physical appearance. I would love to be able to support and help raise the most confident girls we possibly can.

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Things we discussed: Free People’s Dream Girl, Lolly Would, Free People Morocco, Erin Wasson for Free People, Series Lauren directed for AG for Alexa Chung, CAA, Ben Younger, Jessica Mecklenburg & Stranger Things, Phoebe Tonkin

8 comments

Add yours
  • Saglara Lidzheeva June, 23 2017, 11:43 / Reply

    what a wonderful, inspiring interview. I’ve seen Lauren’s work at FP and the evolution of it <3

  • J’ai tout de suite accroché à cette interview car Free People est une marque que j’adore ! Quel parcours :)
    J’ai aussi super envie de visiter Philadelphie maintenant !

    Des bisous,

    Midori.
    http://www.bowsome.com/

  • Great interview — very thorough and inspiring!

  • Leilani June, 25 2017, 10:22 / Reply

    Watching/reading/obsessing over Free People’s editorial direction almost ten years ago, and watching it evolve, got me interested in producing content and digital media. I’ve built a great career out of it.
    It’s so wonderful to hear from the force behind that. You inspired this girl in ways she never realized, and gave me the confidence to tell people ‘yes digital content can matter’ and then follow through on creating it!

  • merci pour la sincérité et l’énergie communicatrice !

  • cette interview m’a complètement déprimé…. mais keske j’ai fait de ma vie moi?… on a l’impression qu’elle a vécu 100 vies et qu’elle a l’énergie de 100 personnes… déprimant… je voudrais savoir si y’a qu’a moi que ca a fait cet effet la??

  • Sanata June, 29 2017, 6:36

    Je comprends ton ressenti. J’aurais eu le même, il y a encore quelques mois. Mais l’expérience m’a appris une chose fondamentale, qu’on a trop souvent tendance à oublier : il est inutile de comparer ton extérieur avec celui des autres. Lauren donne l’impression d’avoir vécu 100 vies, comme tu le dis… parce que c’est SA vie, justement ! Elle a trouvé ce qui lui convient et la rend heureuse – et elle s’en est donnée les moyens. C’est l’effet que produise tous les gens qui ont trouvé leur place et, si ce n’est pas (encore) le cas pour toi, je te souhaite de tout cœur de trouver la tienne. C’est bien plus à ta portée que tu le crois ;) :)

  • Sanata June, 29 2017, 6:38 / Reply

    :)

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