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Kenneth Cole: Making Creativity Sell

NEW YORK — “Nobody needs what we sell,” said Kenneth Cole. “Our job is to make them think they do.”<BR><BR>Consumers have closets full of clothing and shoes, so why should retailers expect them to buy more, said Cole, the...

NEW YORK — “Nobody needs what we sell,” said Kenneth Cole. “Our job is to make them think they do.”

Consumers have closets full of clothing and shoes, so why should retailers expect them to buy more, said Cole, the keynote speaker at an American Apparel & Footwear Association seminar, entitled “Creativity: From Concept to Market,” held on Thursday. His answer: uniqueness and differentiation.

Cole, along with several other retail industry executives, spoke about the importance of differentiation and creativity in the design process. While it’s no surprise designers have an intense focus on creating unique products, the real challenge is creating a product that differentiates itself in the market, which is a process that is always evolving.

“The only constant is change and that almost defines what we do every day,” Cole said at the seminar, held here at The Princeton Club.

For Cole, the process includes being flexible about terms and standards, but not necessarily making things costly.

In a now-famous industry tale of determination and creative thinking, Cole recounted how he founded Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. with “some money” more than 20 years ago by finding an inexpensive and compelling way to market his shoes.

In 1983, to differentiate his product during a trade show in New York, Cole borrowed a friend’s 40-foot trailer and, with the proper permits, legally parked it on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan by telling the city officials that he was filming a movie called “The Birth of a Shoe Company.” He sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in four days out of the back of that trailer.

“The best solution is very much the least expensive and most creative,” said Cole, who holds the positions of president and chief executive officer of his company. Further, the more creative a product or process, the better chance it has of sticking in consumers’ minds, which has indeed contributed to the overall success of his company.

To ensure that he will be able to make consumers realize they want his product, Cole employs an old tactic. “For me,” he said, “it is always putting myself in the proverbial shoes” of the consumer. He conceded it’s a hard task, but one that gives his products depth. “If this doesn’t feel real then the consumer sees right through it.”

Closing out the seminar’s string of speeches, which included those from executives of Federated Department Stores Inc. and Kellwood Co.-owned David Meister and Liz Claiborne Inc., was a talk by Elie Tahari, ceo of women’s apparel company Elie Tahari Ltd. Tahari focused on the origin of his creative juices — more a philosophy than a concrete process. “Creativity to me is the life force in all of us; it’s of a human being’s animalistic instinct for survival.”

Tahari stressed that, for him, creativity means the designer becomes part of the flow of life and love. “It’s a desire to live life fully with complete love and be part of the flow,” he said.

Tahari, who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, said that experience “made me hungrier” to live out his wishes and desires. “To make it happen, the ingredient is love —” love of family and loving what you do, he said.

In order to make that creativity work and pull everything together, he stressed the importance of technology. It takes the creative thoughts and helps execute them.

Said Tahari: “Creativity without execution is a tree that doesn’t bear fruit.”