The Name is Cowie, Colin Cowie

The Man with the Golden Touch, Event Planner Extraordinaire


The name’s Cowie. Colin Cowie. And if you want it “shaken and not stirred,” your wish is his command. “‘No’ is not a word I use very often.”

The Zambia-born and South Africa-educated entrepreneur started his event-planning business 26 years ago “with $400 and big dreams.” Today, Colin Cowie Enterprises is a multimillion-dollar, multi-faceted enterprise encompassing Weddings, Life & Style and Hospitality. Known for planning lavish, no-detail-left-untouched celebrations for everyone from Oprah to Hef, Cowie’s as down-to-earth as his events are over the top.

With his plummy accent and svelte physique, it’s no wonder that James Bond is Cowie’s idol, though Cowie counts himself more of a tequila fellow than a martini man. For his 50th birthday last January, he planned his own fete — in Mexico.

“It was the best party I’ve ever designed or ever planned or ever been to,” he gushes. “One hundred and seventy of my friends came from 11 countries and 22 cities and celebrated with me for four days! I’ve never had more fun in my entire life. I love tequila,” he confesses. “It makes me a better person. It makes me feel like 9 o’clock at 6 o’clock. It makes me feel like it’s Friday on a Wednesday.”

His parties do the same for clients and their invitees. The man who would be king of the event planners was born in the small town of Kitwe. Growing up with his brother and two sisters, he recalls, “There was one country club that we loved, one restaurant and a hotel you wouldn’t put your foot in.”

But the Cowie family enjoyed entertaining: “I cannot think of a time when we didn’t have visiting houseguests, or someone coming over for cocktails or dinner. We really were our own entertainment. That became the genesis of my whole business. Once I came to live in America, I had clients in Beverly Hills, who had walk-in refrigerators and were eating in restaurants five nights a week. I thought, ‘there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

In the 26 years since, he’s painted a new picture, one that emphasizes, ultimately, making dreams come true. “I’m so blessed to do what I do. I love what I do. I get paid well. I get to spend other people’s money making other people happy. And inspiring them to live the best lives possible … or imaginable.”

All of which sounds a bit dear. Of course, it can be. “I suffer from what’s called the ‘Oprah effect.’ (He planned her 500-person farewell dinner at Chicago’s Four Seasons hotel in 2011.) In many instances people think I’m unaffordable and too expensive. It’s because they’ve read about three parties that I did in a year – but what about the other 250 parties that don’t have a big, extravagant budget?”

The recession, of course, hit the hospitality industry especially hard. “There’s been a change in the market, so there’s less work. Everyone has adjusted their prices, including us to be competitive like everybody else’s. We all have rent and overhead. Our industry is no different than the music industry; it’s been revolutionized and changed completely. Our consumer today is 20 times smarter than she was 10 years ago. Ten years ago she wanted to be told what to do. I don’t charge any differently from anyone else who delivers work of my caliber. I’m in the business to win, so I’m competitive.”

His military precision in planning events reflects his days as a corporal. At 17, he enlisted in the army for two years and spent 18 months “in active war, in southern Angola and southwest Africa. I carried a rifle and I was the head of medics, so I did all the casualty evacuations in the helicopters, directly after the contact. During my time there, I actually delivered 13 babies. I was decorated for outstanding work.”

However, a different kind of “decoration” was in the young Cowie’s future. His charm and talent are matched by an intense work ethic and positivity, deepened and bolstered by spiritual exploration. “I’m very into reading books that help us to be better people; I love that little book, ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ – to get you back on track spiritually, and to bring success in life,” he explains.

“I’ve participated in seminars, Tony Robbins, etc., and we learn. To be the CEO of a business, you get to run your company based upon the skills you learn as you need them,” he observes. “I always wanted to be the best leader that I can be.”

And “whether I’m sitting with the queen of England, or in a bus shelter in Thailand, I’m comfortable in knowing how to be; my parents instilled incredible values in us.” Besides his mother and father, Cowie takes inspiration from many humanitarians and mentors, including former South African President Nelson Mandela: “He came out of jail after 26 years with no remorse; we can all take a page from that book.”

Cowie’s ease in the world and his search for internal and external comfort and beauty for all transfers to his clients – and friends. “I have a way of getting everybody happy and in a place that makes them look good,” he says. Even when the client has hideous taste and requests? “I once had a rapper who wanted to make purple ice sculptures of himself and the bride in the middle of the seafood buffet. I thought, ‘You know, I think we’re busy that week.’”

The impeccably turned out designer says he is not a formal person, “though I do formal very well.” Purple ice sculptures are neither formal nor couth in his book. (Speaking of books, Cowie’s published eight successful tomes on the art of living and celebrating in style, with two more due out this year.) Of course, not every party can be as picture-perfect as an In Style layout. Even if there are behind-the-scenes disasters, you’ll never see this erstwhile South African sweat. “I’m far too chic to be a sweaty mess,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m one of those people, who, if the kitchen is on fire, I’d never run through the dining room. I’d walk like I’m taking my time. I really believe as the ringleader, as the maestro, as the cheerleader … you set the tone with how you behave. And being an elegant and generous gentleman is the way to go.”

His staff of 45 mirrors Cowie’s cool, calm, 007-like collectedness. “We take such pride in the quality of the work, and how we interact and communicate with people both inside and outside of our company. It’s about excellence. We also strive to be ahead of the curve. We combine having an agile approach with strategic thinking and innovative planning. It’s about being the brand. We respect the brand, by respecting its essence in everything we do. Service and value. We exceed expectations in everything we do.”

While he expects (and plans for) the unexpected, you can’t always stop fate – or fights. Take, for instance, the nuptials where an ex-boyfriend tried to tell the groom how to treat his new bride. There was “furniture in the pool, and then a splash.” Or the time Cowie planned a wedding three times for the same couple — who never married. “She wanted a major, major financial pay-up,” Cowie recalls. “I’m always asked advice, and I’ve been around long enough, and seen enough to offer the right advice. I said to the groom, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I’d run a mile now while you can.’ And I was right.”

With President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, Colin Cowie Weddings will likely be doing even more same-sex celebrations than he’s planned to date. “Gay couples want the same things as straight couples,” he says. “As a wedding planner, you’re there to make someone’s dreams come through; the gender has nothing to do with it.”

While Las Vegas remains the No. 1 wedding destination, Cowie often tackles events on a grander scale than Sin City unions. To wit: the 2010 grand opening of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, with Coldplay and Jay-Z. Instead of having a bride and groom walk down the aisle, Cowie’s team was on hand when all 2,000 doors opened simultaneously. “The Cosmopolitan is a spectacular property,” he says. “To bring it alive with an event like that was SO much FUN.” Cowie loves the city, but he prefers shows and restaurants to craps and poker. “I work far too hard for the dollars to put them on the table and risk them being lost,” he explains.

As a pre-teen, Cowie imagined himself as a rock star or a doctor some day. “I just thought I would have the most amazing bedside manner. But I love helping people. To this day, I’m very active in eight philanthropic organizations. They all benefit children and education and HIV. All my friends call me ‘Buppy’ or call me ‘Daddy,’ because I’m forever taking care of everyone.”

What about the rock star aspirations? “I have a great speaking voice, but not a good singing voice,” he says evenly. “Otherwise, I’d have a steel guitar and I’d be on tour right now.”

He’s certainly a rock star in his chosen profession. He and his staff handle four to five weddings a year, and at least 10 other parties, including three to four bar or bat mitzvahs. “We love them, because they have great entertainment. The trend is simple: These are young kids who want to be treated like young adults. We listen to them and give them great music, dancers, entertainment, a ‘cocktail’ bar.”

On at least one occasion, Cowie’s celebratory planning extended beyond this life. His client that day “went out a lot more stylishly than she came in. The family hired me (for her funeral). They had a beautiful mother and they wanted to make sure I made a beautiful exit for her.”

“Whatever you want, wish, need or desire, I can make happen,” he says, uttering the precise words that make women swoon.

His satisfied clients make up a who’s who of the jet set, but Cowie’s no name-dropper or secret-revealer. And believe me, I tried. Though David wasn’t granted access to his inner sanctum in New York City, Cowie pledges no socks or underwear litter the foot of his bed.

“I love order,” he confides. “I get turned on by order. I don’t have a messy drawer. Ever. There’s complete order in everything in my life.” But, he adds, “I’m not fanatical about it. I put my feet up on the sofa; I drink red wine on cashmere covers. I don’t treat anything preciously, but I have an eye like a hawk. I love having visual beauty and that comes from having things in order.”

Cowie says the autobiography he’ll write some day will be “the juiciest page-turner ever. I’m going to publish that book when I can go live on an island and eat every carbohydrate I’ve said no to for the last 20 years.” What about names? “It’s really about the situations and things that have happened. I’ve lived the most fascinating life. I’ve served in the military, traveled close to 100 countries. I’ve met the most extraordinary people – heads of state, kings and queens, celebrities, innovators, motivators.”

So what’s his secret?

“I’ve always played to win, tried to do it better than anyone else … I’m just a simple boy from Africa, blessed with some good taste and style.”