Kenneth Cole


A Man of Many Words



Maya Angelou could certainly have been thinking of Kenneth Cole when she said, "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style." For 40 years, Kenneth Cole has paved a unique path in the fashion world, and along the way, raised millions for charity and made us smile with his iconic and thought-provoking advertisements. His words have made us stop and think, inspired us, and helped define an era of purpose-driven branding. Indeed, Kenneth Cole is a man of not just words, but of meaningful action.

Cole first caught the “shoe bug” working for his father Charles Cole at his Williamsburg, NY-based footwear company El Greco. Cole described his father as a tough guy, a World War II marine workaholic with focus and drive. In 1976, encouraged by his mother, Cole went to work in the factory and soon became committed to learning every aspect of the business. He particularly loved the sample room - watching the seemingly hundreds of steps and components come together to make a beautiful shoe.

In a cost-cutting effort, El Greco began to import footwear, and turned their facility into a warehouse, which quickly accelerated the growth of the company. While Cole loved the business, he and his father didn't always see eye-to-eye on the direction to take. To preserve a relationship with his father, he decided to launch an independent business, which he did with no financial support.

Cole, set up his eponymous business in his apartment. with help trom Sam Edelman (who was also a former el Greco employee. “My goal was to create an aspirational line of shoes that did not compete with my father,” said Cole.

He quickly found an agent, an Italian factory, and secured a line of credit. Hoping to create something new and different, Cole designed and produced three styles: a pointed toe pump, a flat, and a convertible boot made in canvas. All were denim friendly to complement the fashion trend of the day.

Cole understood that the key to his new business was locked into his ability to get to market quickly so he could sell, ship and get paid before his line of credit ran out. It was 1982 and at the time, shoe shows were held in hotel rooms. Short on money and time, the young designer came up with a unique plan: he would “display” his wares in a trailer parked near the shoe show and catch buyers on their way in or out. He convinced a friend to let him borrow a 40-foot trailer and called the mayor’s office for the required permits.

Much to his chagrin, he was told that permissions were only granted to utility companies or film production companies. Not one to give up easily, Cole changed the name of his company from Kenneth Cole, Inc. to Kenneth Cole Productions, securing the necessary permits to film “The Birth of a Shoe Company.”

Cole set up the trailer with a Kenneth Cole Productions banner, hired a director and security team, brought in lights, and rented a few stanchions, thus setting the stage to debut his collection. The camera held just enough film to pass the union inspection. The stunt was a success and Cole sold 40,000 pairs or shoes. The doyenne of footwear, Vivienne Intantino of Footwear News, covered the sale and declared that Kenneth Cole was an up-and-coming designer to watch. Seeing her story in print, Cole realized for the first time that he was, in fact, a designer and with the interest generated from the coverage, the company sold over $5 million of footwear and opened a branded department in Bloomingdale’s - all during its first year in business. Other categories, including men's footwear, followed. “I put myself in the customer's shoes,” he said, noting that by the time his father Charles Cole died in 1992, he left the world feeling very proud of his son's accomplishments.

Kenneth Cole

Building a brand was exciting, but Cole was unfulfilled. “No one needed what I was selling.” he explained. “I knew that the brand had to be about something more.” The “more” soon became a rising epidemic. When one of the designers on his staff, David Brignoli, died of AIDS in the mid-1980s, Cole realized that no one was talking about the disease. In fact, Brignoli had never even acknowledged his illness. Sure, there were inspirational fundraising and awareness-raising campaigns, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, and We Are the World, garnering celebrity and media attention, but few people were willing to take on the stigma that had become synonymous with the disease.

Cole saw an opportunity to change the narrative—or at the very least, get people talking. What followed was a ground-breaking PSA campaign that set the cornerstone tor what would eventually become Cole’s platform for issues-based change. His friend, renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz, agreed to shoot the campaign at no charge. Leibowitz recruited A-list models Paulina Porizkova, Beverly Johnson, Joan Severance, Kelly Emberg, and Christie Brinkley, who was 8-1/2 months preanant at the time. The resulting photo, “For the Future of our Children,” ran in 83 publications. It was not a branded piece; the models were all barefoot.

This unconventional and thought-provoking approach caught the attention of consumers and the press. It was the first of what has since become a long list of spunky, one-liner ads focused on generating awareness tor social issues, starting conversations, and encouraging people to think about inspired positive action. It is the Kenneth Cole legacy. Subsequent campaigns have focused on gun control, women’s rights, and same-sex marriage.

Cut to 1994. Retail was shifting. Department stores were consolidating and closing, and Cole was concerned that his hard-won visibility and brand awareness would take a hit with fewer point-of-sale venues open to the company. The solution, he believed, was in direct-to-consumer sales, but opening a chain of eponymous retail stores is an expensive undertaking. Cole needed cash.

Banking on taking his company public, Cole used the proceeds to expand the business and fund new growth, opening stores in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and Boston. Not only did the stores do well, but local department stores in those same cities also noted an increase in sales of Kenneth Cole merchandise.

Not every move, however, was a win-win. In 1999, Kenneth Cole women's apparel was licensed to Liz Claiborne, guaranteeing the brand a $250 million annual minimum fee. To consistently hit those numbers, however, the collection needed to have mass market appeal. In the short-term, the revenue was a plus, but in the long run, the mass market shift eroded the reputation of the brand and the desirability lost steam.

But as any keen business exec will tell you, bumps in the road come with the territory; minimizing their impact is crucial. In 2006, Cole stepped down as CEO of his company and took on the role of chairman of amfAR, the non-profit foundation for AIDS research. His departure, however, was short-lived. In 2O11, after sales of Kenneth Cole - which was at the time a $500 million brand - continued to dip, the founder returned to the executive suite and set about repositioning the business. “We needed to first get smaller to get bigger,” he said.

In the years since, Cole has continued to make and facilitate strategic moves with licensing agreements and collaborations to further the success and relevance of the brand. He is a role model tor aspiring designers and entrepreneurs and a pioneer of building brands with meaning. He has received numerous awards over the years, including the CFDAs humanitarian of the Year Award, the CFDA'S Swarovski Award for Positive Change, the amfAR Award for Courage, and the Accessories Council ACE Award.

His legacy as a philanthropist, a “roll up your sleeves” and get things done man, and a financial contributor through the Kenneth Cole Foundation - which was established in 1994 - he has firmly cemented his role in brand history.
With his wife Maria Cuomo Cole and children, the family has championed important causes, including the fight for social justice and equality and most recently, has become a leading voice for mental health issues (for more information visit Kenneth Cole - both the man and the brand - serves as a reminder that with talent, determination, and a genuine desire to make a difference, dreams can indeed become a reality.

Authors note:
I recall my first meeting with Kenneth Cole in the early 1990s. I was a footwear buyer at QVC and desperate to get the brand on my roster. He very politely declined. In hindsight, probably the right choice. Probably.