By Sarah Trefethen
At the end of 2009, in one of the worst real estate markets in recent history, Lawrence Rich sold a Manhattan home for $14 million cash.
“Just because the market isn’t good doesn’t mean there aren’t people buying and selling,” he says. “I do things by my heart. Sometimes someone comes into your life and they really don’t want to tell you very much about themselves, but something in your heart tells you they’re worth spending your time with.”
In this case, the tight-lipped client asked to look at properties in the $4 million range. Other brokers doubted he would ever buy, but when nothing in his starting range seemed to make him happy, Rich showed him more expensive options.
“He was someone that everyone thought was never going to buy an apartment, but my heart told me not to listen,” he says, adding that going against the crowd doesn’t always lead to big deals. “You win some and you lose some, but this time it worked out for me.”
Before he became a top broker, Rich was half of a fashion design team who dressed Oprah Winfrey and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. It’s not as drastic a career change as it may seem.
“For most of my life I made women look beautiful, and now I put them into beautiful homes,” he says.
Rich was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens before moving to Manhattan. He studied at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology and the Pratt Institute, and entered the fashion industry at a time when the economy had plenty to spend on international glamour.
“By the time I was 25 I had been to Europe 30 times, which was exciting because until I went into the fashion industry I’d never left the country,” he says. “If there was a store in Milan that just opened my boss would send me on the plane the next day to see what that store had and what the collections were in that store.”
For five years he divided his time between New York and Hong Kong.
“At 21 that was a pretty exciting thing to do,” he says.
But Rich left his position to join with partner Seymour Levy and found their own label, Rich and Levy.
“I was young foolish and brave, but it worked,” he says. “It turned out to be a 25-year success story.
“We designed clothes for ladies who lunch. We were selling $1,000 sweaters and $2,000 suits, and 20 years ago that was a lot of money.”
They worked with a long list of fashionable clients, including movie stars.
“My most favorite celebrity that I ever met was Lana Turner, the old-time actress” he says. “She had us come to the Plaza Hotel to meet her, and I ended up having a wonderful friendship with her until she died.”
But in 2001, his life changed.
“9/11 changed the climate of the whole fashion industry,” Rich says. “Buyers were afraid to fly here… It also became unfashionable to spend that much money on clothes.”
Rich and Levy went out of business. Of the company’s employees, the most recent hire had been with the company 17 years.
“I cried like a baby when I told everyone what was going to happen,” Rich says.
But the glimmer of his next career was already on the horizon. He had recently built two homes on Long Island, selling one and keeping the other for himself.
“After I did that, people started thinking I knew something,” he says.
He got his license and went to work for Prudential Douglas Elliman. His first sale was to the son of Rich and Levy’s button supplier, and that led to other deals.
On just one day before the 2008 crash, he sold three apartments in 310 E. 53rd Street – from floor plans.
Rich has a twin brother, Allan, who is a composer in Hollywood who has been nominated for two academy awards, and his sister is an architectural expeditor here in the city.
Last year he went to work briefly for CORE, but in January he returned to PDE. Now that he’s back, Rich says he plans to stay a while.
“Anyone that knows me knows that I’m not great with change,” he says.
Rich still has a foot in the fashion world. Every other Thursday from January to April he meets with students in the exhibition class at FIT, mentoring them as they take their projects from pencil and-paper-designs to finished product. And he’ll keep looking good.
“Once you’re in fashion it never comes out of you,” he says. “I try to dress up every day to come into work. I try to dress up nice and stay in fashion, as kind of my ode to fashion.”