Kenneth Cole: The Man With The Plan
Best known for his extensive lines of shoes, it’s evident that designing is in Kenneth Cole’s blood. With his simple designs and clean yet stylish look there is more to wearing a Kenneth Cole item then just the feel. Kenneth Cole has earned the title of being a forerunner of fashion. First he became acquainted with women’s clothing and then, once casual Fridays became a hallmark, Cole expanded into menswear and became the owner of an empire worth millions.
Before Cole was able to immerse himself in his law major at Emory University, he spent the summer back in New York City working with his father, Charlie Cole who owned the El Greco, a Brooklyn based shoe-manufacturing company, best known for creating the Candie’s line of women’s footwear. At the end of the summer, Cole decided to stay in New York and pursue his new passion of designing. He headed to Europe to design his collection and in 1982 he established his own shoe line in New York City entitled Kenneth Cole Incorporated. Initially Cole’s business had a slow start, it didn’t take off until one weekend the designer participated in New York’s Market Week at the Hilton Hotel.
Cole, who was unable to afford a room at the trade show for a showcase, learned he could buy a permit for a trailer outside of the hotel. Claiming to be a film production company making a film called The Birth of a Shoe Company, Cole pulled up in front of the Hilton Hotel during the two and a half day trade show. He changed his company’s name from Kenneth Cole Inc. to Kenneth Cole Productions and sold 40,000 pair of shoes.
Although shoes are Cole’s biggest moneymaker, his company continues to expand, adding new lines for women, men and children including a men’s and women’s fragrance line. Kenneth Cole Productions now houses such lines as Kenneth Cole New York, Kenneth Cole Reaction and Unlisted. The primary label features contemporary designs with an urban flair. “With his clothing described as ‘Prada for the people,’ he brought simple yet chic styles like black wool three button suits, slick loafers and subtle ties to the workingman,” according to askmen.com.
In 1994, Cole’s company went public although he still owns 45% of the stock. Cole is still the CEO and Creative Director of the company and he remains the head designer for his ready-to-wear collections. Kenneth Cole retail stores have expanded throughout the United States, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. There are more than 4,500 department and specialty stores that carry its products including Macy’s and Bloomingdales. Kenneth Cole also operates about 80 retail and outlet stores around the world. “You know, I am very lucky because I am the customer. I haven’t created a life for myself to jump-start a business. To be successful, you really have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes—what they’re thinking, feeling, what motivates them, inspires them. And the customer has enabled me to create a product that’s very much me,” said Cole.
Cole who chooses to be extremely involved in his company is also very much involved in creating awareness for charities dealing with AIDS, homelessness and human rights. In 1985, Cole was the first member of the fashion community to take a public stand in the fight against AIDS. Cole is very well known for his socially conscious brand of marketing. “Cole is noted for his one-liner, pun filled ads, sometimes mixing in messages that go beyond the fashion world,” explains askmen.com. He often pairs clothing ads with charitable messages. In his ad from 1998 Cole proclaimed, “Have a heart, give a sole,” and encouraged buyers to donate a pair of their old shoes by reducing the price of the new pairs by 20%. Not only was he fully on board to fight homelessness but Cole also campaigned “Wear a rubber sole” which urged men to use protection during sex. “Kenneth Cole’s creativity and charity translated into a booming business, which has had no problem entering different realms of fashion.” The designer continues to promote his shoes with socially conscious ads, encouraging safe sex and donations to the homeless.
Taking some of the profits he received from the charities, Cole donated to Mentoring USA, AmFar: The American Foundation for AIDS Research, which he has served as a National Board Member since 1985, and Rock the Vote, an organization that encourages youth to vote in the elections. He has also served as a National Board Member for the HELP USA Homeless Project since its inception in 1987. The Creative Coalition honored Cole with their Spotlight Award for his dedication to increasing public awareness and Amnesty International honored Cole with their 1998 Media Spotlight Award. Divine Design also chose him as Humanitarian of the Year in 1996 at the same time the CFDA presented their award for Humanitarian Excellence. Awarded the Extraordinary Voice Award by Mother’s Voices for his continued efforts in AIDS awareness, Cole has also received the footwear industry’s highest honor as Footwear News’ Person of the Year. And every year since his company went public in June 1994, Kenneth Cole Productions has been on Forbes’ annual list of the World’s 200 Best Small Companies in America. He has
Cole’s company is worth more than $1 billion, but he still manages to stay true to his passion. The trendsetter continues to concentrate on his design, making men look sharp and women look stunning. With such mottos as “to be aware is more important than what you wear” the New York stylist continues to design clothes that are both stylish and comfortable for the every day man and woman.