Three Decades of Kenneth Cole

by Long Nguyen

The Art of Influence Comes to a Select Few
American fashion designer Kenneth Cole is well acquainted with the challenges of creating shoes.

“We would labor and commit endless amounts of hours and creative resources trying to bring an extraordinary product to market that needed to be engineered technically, not just aesthetically,” Cole recalls of his beginning days, from his office overlooking the Hudson River. Two lamps are positioned on his side desk, along with his namesake company’s tan wooden shoe molds.

“My father was in the shoe business and had a factory in Williamsburg, which was a very rough area in those days,” Cole says. “I worked with him and learned how to make shoes in the factory. I did my little collection and then at a certain point it seemed as if it was hard to do what we wanted to in Williamsburg. We ended up closing the factory, going to Italy, and making shoes there.”

He approached the start of his brand with intensity and commitment. “I had very limited resources at the time to start a business. Knowing that the bi-annual [now quarterly] trade show called FFANY [Fashion Footwear Association of New York] was coming up, I was able to get the factories to front the credit to get some samples done.”

Without the funds needed to open a showroom, Cole borrowed a friend’s truck and created a mobile version. But he faced another obstacle: procuring a parking permit typically only granted to movie productions. So, naturally, he obtained one under the company Kenneth Cole Productions for a feature entitled: The Birth of a Shoe Company. It would be fair to declare his efforts a success: “We parked the trailer right across from the Hilton where buyers enter the FFANY show…We sold over 40,000 pairs in three and a half days.”

Three years later, in 1985, the brand opened its first retail store on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The designer’s pioneering approach to embed functionality within all Kenneth Cole products was unique in fashion three decades ago. The brand offered a clear choice for consumers: simple, chic apparel and quality shoes—often with quirky designs. At the same time, the emergence of casual Fridays throughout offices in America made the Kenneth Cole brand a household name.

“I wanted to find a more powerful way to relate to men and women, and to speak to more of their wardrobe needs,” Cole explains. “If the business was successful, I had two choices: I could either find people to sell more shoes to, or I could find more things to sell to the same customer. I was selling to a very envied, aspirational consumer and I didn’t want to diminish that relationship, so I went down the second path.”

During the past three decades, Cole has connected his brand to many (often controversial) social issues like abortion rights, gun control, AIDS, homelessness, the environment, and same-sex marriage, enabling the brand to connect with an audience beyond fashion devotees. “We were going through this period of social change in the United States—something that we really haven’t seen since the ’50s—and I felt I had to put myself in the customer’s proverbial shoes, as they put themselves in mine. I needed to connect my business and my brand to something bigger than it was and somehow connect with something even more meaningful.”

One ad—released in 1986—addressed the devastating effects of AIDS. The campaign featured a bevy of top models and children, with the tagline “For the future of our children…support AIDS research.” Cole knows the weight of that particular conversation starter. “I began to talk about the topic no one was talking about: AIDS. I mean it wasn’t until 1987 that President Reagan even mentioned AIDS and that was towards the end of his second term. The disease had been identified and the infection rate had intensified since 1981.” In keeping with the cause, the brand continues to offer condoms at their retail stores, with the wry slogan “Our shoes are not the only things we encourage you to wear.”

The designer recalls other ad campaigns his company has used to advocate specific causes: “The shoe’s lace became the AIDS ribbon; the black and white heels for the mixed marriage message; the purses for women’s reproductive rights; or the striped sneakers for the gun control campaign. Our first watch campaign in 2001 served as a springboard against the death penalty.”

Some Kenneth Cole campaigns have been far less political in nature, while continuing to draw on satire. “The next ad [in 1986] spoke about our collective obsession with tabloid journalism and the kind of dialogue that was taking place. I did an ad about Imelda Marcos right after she and the President of the Philippines went into exile and she left behind a significant collection of shoes. The copy for the ad read, ‘Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could’ve at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours.’”

Cole explains that his desire to pick a side, and then fight for it, is rooted in the belief that “It’s not about what you wear, but what you are aware of.” But, he reminds, it’s not all doom and gloom. “There were celebratory ads as well, like the billboard we put up after Obama won in 2008. We did gays in the military before it was even an issue. We did an enormous amount of disaster reliefs; Haiti, Katrina, BP oil spill, Japan earthquakes, and so forth, where we donated proceeds of special products to the charitable causes.”

For Cole, his two loves run hand in hand. “I would not run an ad if I didn’t have a message to say. The shoes and the fashion have enabled me to pursue what I believe in.”