Fashion designer Kenneth Cole

Fashion designer and humanitarian talks about his passion for activism and social media’s impact on the fashion industry.

Kenneth Cole's activities gives meaning to the cliché, "you can do well by doing good." For almost 30 years, he's led his own fashion house, with sales in excess of a billion dollars. He also uses marketing to raise awareness of various social issues, from AIDS to homelessness. The NY native attended Emory University, planning to become a lawyer, but changed course after a summer working for his father—a shoe manufacturer who created the Candie's line. Cole is board chair of amfAR and helms The Awearness Fund, encouraging volunteerism and social change.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kenneth Cole to this program. In 1982, unable to get a permit to sell shoes during market week in New York, he was able to secure a permit by pretending to be a film production crew. He then rented a production trailer and, in less than four days, had sold 40,000 pairs of shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to his role as the Chairman of Kenneth Cole Productions, as the company is still called, he serves as the Chairman of The American Foundation for AIDS Research, amfAR. Kenneth Cole, we are delighted to have you on this program.
Kenneth Cole: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: You doing all right, man?
Cole: It’s great to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I want to start with the Twitter – I was gonna say fiasco – not really a fiasco – the Twitter controversy. Is that better? We’ll start with that first and get that out of the way. But before I get to the Twitter controversy recently about Egypt, let me go to two other things that you have done.
I love your stuff because you’re always edgy. Whenever I see a Kenneth Cole ad, I stop because it’s so witty, it’s edgy, it’s creative, sometimes provocative, but always insightful – and you can spell that any way you want to spell it [laugh].
But I actually recall this ad which you have up on the screen now that you put out when Mandela was released from prison, “A nation of people improved their standing overnight, all without a Semi Annual Sale. Kenneth Cole.” Love that piece.
Then, speaking of world affairs, when the Berlin Wall came down, another ad from Kenneth Cole: “Now there’s nothing to keep anyone from coming to our Semi Annual Sale.” Very creative. So that’s Mandela, that’s the Berlin Wall and, of course, the recent uprising in Egypt, you tweeted this. Amazing how times have changed. Now you’re tweeting as opposed to taking out ads like you used to. You still do that, of course, but tweeting is amazing.
So here’s the quote: “Millions are in uproar in Cairo,” the tweet read. “Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online, etc., etc.” Again, creative. What happened this time that got some people at least, you know, a little upset when you’ve done these things before and you haven’t had, to my knowledge at least, that kind of response?
Cole: There was no social media before. And there wasn’t this viral mechanism for people to express their rage and/or passions, negatively, positively or otherwise. It’s a new world and I think we’re all trying to understand its implications and its boundaries, perceived and its actual boundaries. So I guess that’s the big part.
But what I’ve done for my entire career is I’ve sought ways to talk about important meaningful social issues and put them in context, in effect try to make what I do part of something bigger than it was, talk to people about not just what they look like on the outside, but who they are on the inside.
But I find that you have to be very careful how you connect to people and that, to the degree you can implement an element of self-deprecating humor, it’s a much more powerful dialog. I don’t take what I do all that seriously. I love what I do and I love that what I do is different every day and I love that I can have an impact on how people present themselves, should I be afforded that privilege.
But at the end of the day, it’s just clothes and shoes. It doesn’t really change anybody’s lives. But if I can make what I do more impactful or more meaningful, then in fact, it’s bigger than that. So I don’t take it all that seriously and I usually find a lighthearted approach to almost everything in my life. People that know the brand, people that know the designer, the person, know that.
So the response also reflects – you have two different groups of people who responded and I regret in effect that the timing was inopportune. It could have been communicated at a different time and it would have been perceived differently. But this world of social media is astounding.
Tavis: To your point, it is astounding beyond this particular issue. I wanted to give you a chance to respond to that and we can move past that now. But I am curious, though, as to how social media has impacted your business, your brand, over the years.
I was just doing an interview this morning, as a matter of fact, and I was asked a question about this. I’m a brand nowhere near the Kenneth Cole brand, nowhere near your level, but I’ve had to wrestle myself with the fact that, whether you like it or loathe it, agree with it or disagree with it, you cannot avoid social media anymore.
It’s the way the people communicate. It’s where the world is headed and you better learn to understand it, appreciate it, embrace it as best as you can, and make it work for you. So how has social media beyond this situation just impacted the way you do business these days?
Cole: Well, it has impacted the way business is done. Not just my business, every business. I think we talk to people differently. We communicate with them differently. I used to be the seasonal business. Today peoples’ expressions are communicated in moments, not seasonally. And it’s buy now, wear now. It’s respond now, it’s be inspired now. It’s share your thoughts.
I mean, everybody is empowered. It’s not just the elitist amongst us that we anoint and who have the ability to impose their points of view on the universe, but everybody has that right and that opportunity today.
So it’s extraordinary and it’s not just a monologue. It’s a dialog. People tell me what they want, so I drop to listen. And the better we are at listening, the better we are at responding. Collaboratively, the better it is for everybody.
Tavis: On a personal level, did you go easily, go willingly, or were you like me? You had to be pulled dragging, kicking and screaming to embrace this social media?
Cole: You know, I’m still struggling with it a little bit. I embraced Twitter because, although not necessarily to the delight of everybody around me, but because I felt this was a forum that I could communicate the social voice. And we have the traditional ways that we communicate the fashion voice of the brand. The brand kind of exists on both fronts.
You know, I always have welcomed and will continue to welcome the opportunity to do that and I’ll be a little bit more thoughtful going forward. But you can’t disregard it. I don’t personally use Facebook. There’s a corporate Facebook where we communicate with our friends and supporters.
Tavis: Where did this idea – I mentioned earlier that I’m a Kenneth Cole fan. Full disclosure, I’ve worn Kenneth Cole shoes many times in my lifetime.
Cole: So you’re the one [laugh].
Tavis: I got to get that out there, full disclosure. That said, where did this idea – this is what I love about the brand. Where did the idea come from to be – my word, not yours – edgy, so interested and insightful in the ad campaigns that you employ? I mean, it’s a great concept and I love it, but where did that come from?
Cole: You know, over the years, I just invariably put myself in the customers’ shoes in the hope that they’ll want to put themselves in mine, in effect.
Tavis: See, that sounds like a nice Kenneth Cole [laugh]. I put myself in their shoes; they put themselves in my shoes. I love it.
Cole: It’s fair, right?
Tavis: Yeah, it’s fair. I love it.
Cole: So the concept is, in a sense, we wake up in the morning and we are overwhelmed with people trying to get our attention. You go look at the newspaper and there are hundreds of different voices that are being communicated, some editorially and some through advertising. At the end of the day, you have to filter that.
The people who are the best editors are the ones who ultimately get their message across. I’d say to myself, how do I get through, how do I communicate it? Then to the degree I can inspire you and I can get a little bit more of your attention and get you to take something away from those few moments that you afforded me, then our relationship grows even bigger.
So the messages tend to be provocative and there is often the use of puns which annoy many. But at the end of the day, it hopefully makes you think and hopefully that ability to interpret and take your own mindset to the processes is very powerful.
You know, it’s interesting too because I use the notion of humor because I think that’s very important. You can’t convince – I don’t believe you can convince hardly anyone of anything if they’re deep-rooted in that thought and in that mindset.
But I felt that a humor kind of brings down walls. It’s why Jon Stewart’s successful. It’s why certain people are very successful sometimes, more successful than others at breaking through and getting people to contemplate a different mindset. But in advertising, I do it as well because sometimes you’ll get through to them and they didn’t realize you let them get through and the wall came down and they were open to what you had to say.
You know, the first ad I did like this at or about the same time as the AIDS awareness ad in the mid-80s or late 80s, and it was the Imelda Marcos craziness. The tabloid media went crazy because this woman was known to have 3,000 pairs of shoes in her closet and I ran an ad which said, “If Imelda Marcos truly bought 3,000 pairs of shoes, she could have at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of mine.” [Laugh]
Again, it was addressing this media frenzy in a way that was not self-deprecating and it wasn’t really saying, “Buy our product,” because I know there’s tons of alternatives. I’m constantly contemplating that scenario.
Something else too is not being able to convince people necessarily and people aren’t necessarily going to respond to something because you ask them to, and I think people rarely do.
I did a campaign once with a series of statistics and I think you have them here. A couple of them were light. Three or four people in New York with telescopes who are not into astronomy. Then one will say, “One in 27 people executed are later found to be innocent.”
Tavis: Over time.
Cole: Over time.
Tavis: With the watch. Yeah, I love that.
Cole: So there’s no better case against the death penalty than that statistic. Whereas, if I had made the argument against the death penalty, I’m not likely to have gotten through to anybody. But the notion of empowering people with that knowledge, they’re inclined to conceivably rethink their thought process and maybe change their own mind, but it will have been their process that changed their mind, not I who did it for them.
Tavis: So clearly, you are socially conscious. You’ve just run down now, by way of example of these ads you’ve done over the years, three or four social issues I just heard you expound upon. But the one that stands out from all the others, the one you’re most passionate about, I suspect, the one that you’re the Chairman of the Board for, is amfAR, so HIV AIDS.
You are one of the persons in the fashion industry who were way out front. You came out on this pretty early as compared to others in the business, given that fashion week is upon us as we speak. You came out early on this issue.
Why HIV AIDS? Why you? Why are you so vocal? Why wrap your brand around it? Why get so connected to an issue at a time that people were very scared of and very ignorant about?
Cole: Right. It was the mid-80s and there was this pervasive social consciousness in the United States. People were wanting to get involved in something bigger than they were. There was Hands Across America, We Are The World, Live AID, World AID. There was all these efforts. Personally, also, I wanted to be part of something meaningful. Most of this was about world hunger.
There was nobody talking about the most ominous cloud that was out there that was HIV AIDS because you couldn’t, because of the pervasive stigma. If you spoke about it, you were perceived to have been at risk which meant that you were either Haitian, you were gay or you were an intravenous drug user. So I was a single male designer and I knew everybody would just assume that I was Haitian [laugh].
But I figured how better an opportunity to say something when no one was. Ronald Reagan didn’t mention AIDS publicly until ’87, two years later when 40,000 people had already died. So there was this extraordinary opportunity for me. It was really important.
People in our industry were being devastated already. A few people had already died and I knew somebody that was very sick as well, and it was just relevant and important. It was just the right business message, I felt, for the brand at the time. It became very personal after that. I realized that I was afforded the privilege to be part of something that was so meaningful and could truly impact peoples’ lives.
I was asked to join the board of amfAR, which is the largest AIDS research organization at the time anywhere. There were maybe 18 AIDS organizations in America at the time. Today, there’s probably 1,800 or more and everybody with the biggest of hearts and the best of intentions is running all over the place. But amfAR does research.
A cure for AIDS will come from research. That’s what amfAR does, so I agreed to be part of it. And amfAR has made a profound impact and has helped save and prolong the lives of many people everywhere. It’s just this great privilege. Dr. Mathilda Krim ran amfAR a few years ago and agreed to step down and she said, “I’ll only do it if Ken would agree to be the chairman.” So I did that and I don’t let her step too far down. I just do what I can because I can.
Tavis: You mentioned the impact that this over the years has had on your industry, the fashion industry. Let me, again, given that fashion week is upon us, ask you a couple questions about that. I could probably prejudge your answer, given that you’re one of the people that, you know, puts this fashion in front of us every day.
But assess for me honestly and earnestly the role that fashion plays in our lives and whether it plays too heavy a role. I ask that because we live in a world of consumption and everybody wants to have what everybody else has. It’s that old notion of keeping up with the Joneses. It seems to me that fashion is at the center of that.
You guys put this stuff in front of us and everybody wants to run out and have it and we all look like a bunch of automatons. We’re all wearing the same thing and trying to look the same way. Just assess for me in your own words the impact that fashion has on our lives today.
Cole: I make both arguments often that it’s maybe as relevant as anything in your life and maybe it’s hardly relevant at all. On the first case, you wake up in the morning and you make a very critical decision of how you’re gonna present yourself that day. Because most people you will encounter in a given day, because most of our interactions or relationships are very superficial, don’t get to know much more about you than how you choose to present yourself.
So it’s a very important, thoughtful few moments that you should take in the impression that you want to send. Because it is absolutely unedited, unfiltered, and you have absolute control to be who you want to be in peoples’ minds for that moment in time.
And there are guys who’ll come up and say, “Oh, you know, Ken, I’m not really a fashion guy” and I’ll look at their shoes and make them feel bad. I’ll say, “That’s fine, but just know that that’s as big a statement as any.” And it’s okay because many people are that way. But you still should take a few moments and think about the message you’re sending.
Tavis: I’ll buy that argument. That’s a good argument.
Cole: And then on the other hand, if you’re sick and you can’t feed your family, you know, it just doesn’t matter and it just isn’t important. I remind my associates every day that no one needs what we sell. If every shoe store in America closed its doors tomorrow at twelve o’clock, hardly an American would go unclothed or barefoot for 20 years, and we have enough clothes to wear.
Tavis: So if no one needs, then, what you sell, how do you motivate your people to design stuff that we want to buy?
Cole: Well, we have to make you think you do, make you glad you bought it [laugh] and then make you think it again. But also at the end of the day, if we make what we do part of something bigger than it is, it somehow becomes more important.
Tavis: I see.
Cole: So that also kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It kind of all comes full circle.
Tavis: Speaking of coming full circle, I was teasing you when you walked on the set. You are a doting father, I am told. I’ve read so much about you and these three girls of yours.
Those of us who are fans of yours know that you are married to a Cuomo daughter, which means now that one brother-in-law is the governor of New York, another brother-in-law is on ABC. So what’s it like being a part of this family where on both sides, your side, their side, you got it all together? You guys are a very influential and socially conscious family in New York.
Cole: You know, they’re all great in their own right. Maria’s father is extraordinary and he was New York’s governor 16 years ago for three terms and he inspired many people to find their voice, including his family, I think.
Christopher is extraordinary, very articulate. He has a wonderful way of very powerfully communicating important messages. Andrew is wonderfully focused, brilliant and very effective. I am now jokingly referred to as a governor-in-law [laugh]. But Andrew is great and I think he’s gonna do for New York what New York has desperately needed. He’s tough, he’s insightful and he’s very focused.
And then I’ve got a wonderful wife and Maria’s equally focused, but she doesn’t do it as publicly as Andrew and Christopher, and she’s given me three beautiful daughters.
Tavis: And then there’s Kenneth Cole [laugh]. How about that? Son-in-law, brother-in-law, just some guy named Kenneth Cole.
Cole: Who makes stuff that you don’t need.
Tavis: Yeah, who makes stuff, but convinces us to buy it anyway.
Cole: Right.
Tavis: Kenneth Cole, good to have you on the program, man. I’m honored. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while and I’m glad you came out to Los Angeles for a couple of days.
Cole: Thank you, Tavis. It’s good to be here.
Tavis: Good to have you come by. Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm