Kenneth Cole reflects on two decades of fashion design, social activism and knowing when to play it safe.

There is a fine line that separates an opinionated person from being considered provocative or political, much as there is for humorists a clear delineation between being clever or groan-inducing.

In both cases, Kenneth Cole stands with one foot on either side.

As the designer marks the 20th anniversary of his company, Cole has found himself reflecting on his history, analyzing the growth of his brand and predicting its future. For most, it would be a celebratory moment, but Cole is a lot different from the archetype of a fashion designer, and for him, there is no position less comfortable than looking backward. Simply broach the subject, as dozens of reporters and countless Kenneth Cole devotees will during the publicity tour for the publication of his retrospective book, “Footnotes,” and Cole, who is 49, looks as if he’s been asked a personally intrusive question.

He nearly squirmed right out of his chair recently when subjected to a softball line of questioning about his best-known claim to fame as the fashion designer who’s out to save the world — what inspired him to tie the gritty realm of garmentos to uplifting social activism and why he built his company with a bottomless marketing campaign of progressive-thinking, bumper-sticker slogans. After a few false starts, the wheels started turning.

“We’re looking back at 20 years — what does it mean?” Cole said. “It’s a difficult process,” he added, as if scarred by the experience. “I have gone to great lengths to avoid this forever.”

But suddenly Cole’s eyes flashed and he was off on a tangent, delivering a rapid-fire series of observations on the process of reflection.

“Assessing where you’ve been instead of where you’re going is like driving a car, but focusing on the rearview mirror instead of the road ahead,” he said. “A more clear sense of where I’ve been will hopefully allow us to know where to go.”

If it sounds like something that should appear as a tag line on one of his advertisements, it probably will, for Kenneth Cole can’t control himself when it comes to corny wordplay. His tongue-in-chic advertisements have established the designer firmly in American pop culture, as has his connection to one of the country’s great political families, when he married former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s daughter, Maria, in 1987. Even this summer, he played a bit part during the tabloid saga of the broken marriage of Andrew Cuomo and Kerry Kennedy, having housed his brother-in-law throughout part of the crisis.The timing was unfortunate, as Cole was about to go on a major publicity blitz for his anniversary and the publication by Simon & Schuster of “Footnotes,” a 200-page tour of his musings on life’s lessons, through which the chapter titles tell it all: “Fashion is (not) important,” “Growing up in a trailer,” “What you stand for is (even) more important than what you stand in,” “Put yourself in my shoes.”

“I’m older, wiser and just as naïve,” Cole said, sitting in his office. “All I’ve learned is not to take what I do all that seriously.”

Puns, both silly and serious, are as much a part of his company’s heritage as black leather lace-ups and the story of how a plucky scion of a Brooklyn shoe family struck out on his own. It’s practically a legend in the industry by now, a tale so audacious that it still wows and inspires scores of aspiring fashion designers when Cole speaks at a college commencement or for a career day. After all, what young designer wouldn’t want to follow in Cole’s footsteps —building a fashion empire that went public nine years ago, with Cole getting the majority of the $22 million raised, and growing from revenues then of $84.9 million to sales of more than $430 million today. KCP currently has a market capitalization of $543.5 million and Cole’s personal stake, in Class A and Class B shares, is worth a total of almost $480 million. Last year, his salary and bonus totaled $3.2 million.

Growing up on Long Island, Cole sold peanuts at ball games or stocked shoes at a local store, and eventually went to work for the family business — the Candie’s shoe company, which exploded in the Seventies. Cole was the driving force behind that growth, developing the now-famous Candie’s slide, a shoe that made a fortune for his family’s company, which was then known as El Greco.

When he decided to open his own company in 1982, Cole moved fast, using his limited personal savings to design a line and establish enough credit in European factories to produce the collection, and then headed out to sell it. But at the most prominent footwear venue of the day, the Fashion Footwear Association of New York, he would have been lost among more than 1,000 companies, and the alternative of renting a showroom was outside his financial means.His solution was to rent a 40-foot trailer truck with the idea of parking outside the trade show venue, the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue. But when he approached then-Mayor Ed Koch’s office about a permit, he was told they were only available to film production companies or utility services. So Cole went to a stationery store and changed his letterhead to Kenneth Cole Productions, bought a video camera and applied for a permit, which was granted, to shoot a film called “The Birth of a Shoe Company.” The gimmick worked — buyers from Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Dillard’s all stopped into his trailer, impressed by the illusion of importance it lent, and Cole sold more than 40,000 pairs of shoes.

The lesson of that moment was not lost on Cole, who has gone on to build the company into a business with net revenues of $433 million last year. The strength of his contemporary designs and their general appeal cannot be underestimated, but his success is due in equal measure to Cole’s marketing prowess, his sheer will to succeed and his resourcefulness. He’s a nice, good-looking guy, but he’s never been the kind of designer looking to make some extravagant statement on the runway. He’s actually a family man with three daughters, who likes to fish and has a 15 handicap in golf.

He’s also quiet.

This, more than anything about Kenneth Cole’s personality, is the big surprise, considering some of the advertisements that have come out of his company over the years have lampooned political officials; presented frightening statistics on AIDS, homelessness, capital punishment and gun control; innocently goofed around with double entendres using the words suit, sole, last or wing-tip, or conversely demonstrated questionable taste, in the case of his 9/12 campaign. What these messages have in common in their blatantly liberal and progressive sentiments is a willingness to provoke, which gives the impression of a seasoned politician pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Instead, it’s someone who would like nothing better than to be described as “safe.”

“I have avoided being political,” Cole said. “Sometimes I have done this better than at others. It’s questionably appropriate for the business community to get involved in the world of politics, but it is appropriate for us to get involved in the social fiber of our community to address various social needs, which, in turn, rewards all of us both collectively and individually.”While provocative, his advertisements stop short of advocating a clear position on most subjects, although the statistics he cites tend to point toward obvious conclusions: “For every dollar a man makes, a woman makes 75 cents,” “Four out of 5 people who witness a crime do nothing,” “One in 27 people executed is later proven innocent,” or “One-hundred people contract HIV every 10 minutes.” On occasion, Cole is more direct: “We think women should have a choice when it comes to being pregnant,” one advertisement reads, and then the punch line — “Barefoot is another story.”

The company itself carries a mission statement that “what you stand for is more important than what you stand in,” but when it comes to his personal politics, it is difficult to engage Cole on the issues — on the record, anyway. The war in Iraq was too touchy, so on to lighter fare. Does he support Arnold?

“I think Schwarzenegger could be California’s next governor.”

Gay marriage?

“I think people should have the right to make whatever personal commitments they want to make,” he said. “I’m not sure the government should have the right to make that decision.”

Would he ever run for office?

“I think right now I’d probably run from office,” Cole said, prepared for that one. “If elected I will not serve. I have an opportunity to do extraordinary things without dealing with government oversight and scrutiny. If we want to do public service, there are ways we can do it here now.”

This is exactly where the designer plays to his strengths — making a statement that is provocative without the risk of political liabilities. In the Eighties, he latched on to the feel-good, we-are-the-world wave of social activism that spawned events like World Aid, Farm Aid and Hands Across America, demonstrating Kenneth Cole was a label that cared. But as much of corporate America was hopping onto the bandwagon of supporting philanthropic causes that were of general and unimpeachable concern — homelessness and world hunger, for instance — Cole differentiated himself with an unlikely alignment at the time, promoting AIDS awareness and prevention when the disease was barely understood and highly stigmatized.“I was surprised,” said Mathilde Krim, founding co-chair and chairman of the Board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmFAR. “He was the first straight man in a position of leadership, the authority of a corporation, who spontaneously came to me wanting to raise AIDS awareness and work for its prevention.”

Cole recalled that in 1985, three years after he had started his business, it was necessary to begin advertising, even though the company had nowhere near the budget that would be required for an appropriate campaign. Again, he showed his resourcefulness.

“I needed to say something,” he said. “There was a pervasive consciousness at the time that was speaking to a sentiment that hadn’t existed since the Sixties, which was to be part of something bigger than we were. Mostly, this was toward hunger in Ethiopia, but AIDS was just being defined. We knew how to contain it then, it was about human behavior. It was just becoming clear how real that threat really was, yet no one wanted to talk about it because of the stigma attached to at-risk groups. Nobody else wanted to do it, and that made it even more compelling.”

Cole created a striking image with Annie Leibovitz that showed the big models of the day — including Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Andie MacDowell and Joan Severance, embracing young children — and drew enormous amounts of attention and support for both AmFAR and Kenneth Cole. The photographer and the models worked for free and magazines ran the ad as a public service. It could be described as calculating or opportunistic, as Cole was selling himself, but he was doing something beneficial to humanity at the same time, something that, because of the greater good, changed him as a person. And Cole has donated both his own time and company resources to AmFAR and many other causes, directing AmFAR’s communications and marketing campaigns, serving on its board since 1987 and becoming a vice chairman of the organization a year ago.

“I never realized how important it could be to the individuals involved in this company,” he said. “Over the years, we have attached ourselves to other opportunities. We identified social needs and attached our resources to them in a way where one plus one can equal five. It’s made us a better company, and it makes everybody here feel better about what we do. The better we do, the more of it we can do. The more effective we are at what we do here every day, the more we can do, as far as social outreach.”It is hardly uncommon for corporations to exploit the public relations benefits of corporate outreach, but in Kenneth Cole’s case, his friends and employees do not doubt the integrity behind his motivations.

“He found a niche for a corporate head, something to do that was unusual and distinguished him from everybody else,” Krim said. “I’m sure it works in his favor, as well, giving the company a sense of uniqueness, particularly among young people, but he is very concerned by social problems — I would say honestly concerned — because privately, as a friend, I see that this is not a fabrication. It just happens that his concerns have translated to the ads.”

Even if his campaigns give a strong impression of leaning toward the left — one image shows a pair of canvas and leather wing-tips captioned: “If you insist upon the right wing, we’d like to make a suggestion” —?Cole has made a conscious effort to address issues on all sides of the political spectrum.

“We talk about very social realities or circumstances, and we let you draw your own conclusions,” he said. “Nobody is going to change their opinion on anything if you just ask them to. You might, however, be inclined to, if you are given a credible rationale for something that you hadn’t had until then.”

The safest ground for Cole, as it would be for any politician, is somewhere in the middle, where he can make cases for either side of the coin. He has to please his constituents, after all, both in stores and on Wall Street. So, Cole can just as well rationalize an argument for gun control as he can a case for being a designer in a supposedly frivolous field who’s serious about serious issues, even if he isn’t always serious.

“The fashion industry is often construed to be irreverent and frivolous, and I have a hard time accepting that,” he said. “The fashion industry is very relevant. It is a reflection of us both as individuals and as a community. By no means do I want to construe that what we do isn’t important.“It is a defining element of what everybody is, and maybe the only one that allows us to be what we want to be,” he said, conjuring up a picture of waking up every day to a blank canvas on which a person creates an image that then becomes the self-fulfilling prophesy of their day. “If you feel you’re going to look great, you’re going to; if you feel it just isn’t right, you’re going to be less than you could be.”

Then there’s that other hand.

“But on the other hand, I think it’s important not to take yourself too seriously,” Cole said. “At the end of the day, it’s just clothes and shoes. If you are homeless and hungry, the last thing on your mind is what you’re wearing.”

Bring on Confucius to explain Cole’s yin-yang approach. But the thing about Cole that his employees and his family seem to enjoy so much is just how honestly herelishes a neurotically pensive approach to the everyday nuts and bolts of life, his job, his children, their future. More than that, his charm is such that when Cole cannot find a deep underlying meaning in a loafer, he can at least find a joke.

“I love him,” said father-in-law Mario Cuomo. “He is highly intelligent, but he does not attempt to glitter intellectually. He is not one of those intelligent people who feel the need to persuade everyone around him, but he’s very highly imaginative, and quiet, too, in a way, because he still searches. He’s achieved a whole lot. He has a wonderful family, reputation and business, and he is still young and strong. But you still get the sense he’s still searching for a way to make his life as meaningful as it can be.”

And that search produces its fair share of chuckles and groans. Given such an admirable testimonial from Cuomo, Cole would come back with the line that appears on the back cover of his book: “20 years later and still sole searching.”

Cuomo recalled that he and the comedian David Brenner once followed Cole as speakers at an event, and as they stood offstage and listened to him roll off one terrible pun after another, “I said, ‘This is too much.’ I went out and said, ‘I’m delighted to be here with my pun-in-law,’ and thereby falling victim to the disease I was so repulsed by.”Cuomo added that he has had difficulty in penetrating Cole’s book, for the same reason.

“It is a struggle,” he said. “I’m very interested in walking through this 20-year period. It would be like walking through a lovely garden, except that at every turn of the page, there’s this ugly verbal tiger ready to jump out and eat you at any moment, and then on the next page, one’s hiding around the corner waiting to throw up on your new suit.”

It’s not hard to imagine Cole fitting into New York’s great political dynasties, as it would take a man with a good sense of humor to withstand their ribbing. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a close friend through the Cuomo and Kennedy clans, named Cole as godfather to his son, Finn, who is five, and spends a lot of time with the designer and his children hunting for fossils in the Catskills, skiing in the winter and going on an annual men’s-only weekend with the designer and Terry Lundgren, chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores. He also enlists Cole to design a T-shirt for an annual conference for Riverkeeper, an environmental organization that protects the Hudson River, “but it is not the usual people you would see wearing Kenneth Cole,” Kennedy said. “They’re lobstermen and fishermen who look more like Pluto from the Popeye cartoons, usually more of an XXL.

“I’ve known him for 15 years,” he said. “He’s everything you would want in a friend. I would say most designers tend to have progressive views about politics, but Kenneth has been more willing to take risks by associating his product, not just his personality, with progressive politics, with the inclusion of a sense of community. A lot of times he’s dealing with grim issues like AIDS, but he brings something to advocacy that a lot of time is missing, which is a sense of humor.”

Kennedy wears Kenneth Cole shoes, too, but is not one of the designer’s best customers.

“His stuff is a little bit out there for me,” he said. “I’m accustomed to a more conservative look.”Perhaps if the Kennedys want to stay out of the fashion game, that’s why Cole tries to stay out of politics. Whenever he is about to take a full leap over that line, something seems to hold Cole back. Three weeks before American troops invaded Iraq, he wanted to put up a billboard that said, “Just what we all need is a new WARdrobe.” But he pulled it.

“It’s true that in times of war, we all need to be supportive and we need to be united,” Cole said. “But in this country, it is construed that you can’t be a supporter and at the same time disagree with the agenda. It’s been frightening that for two years, I’ve been overwhelmed how the press has been stifled in this country. There is no opportunity to hear a contrary opinion, only to hear that of your own administration.”

Things are more complicated for anyone trying to deliver a message today, the press and Kenneth Cole included. Consumers want to be given credit for being smart, thinking, productive human beings, he said, adding that there is still an ability to strike an aesthetic cord and an emotional one at the same time.

“It’s a little more complicated today,” he said. “There are lots more pieces in a puzzle that is more intricate. The boundaries are more severe, and the margin for error is smaller.”

Looking back at the past, as painful for Cole as that might be, through the company’s introduction of new labels; going public in 1994; introducing men’s and women’s collections, and having big runway shows, Cole hopes to find some indication for the road ahead. So far, he sees more challenges on the horizon.

“I see that the consumer is becoming far less compromising, and I have to be more and more demanding upon myself, and on our individual and collective performance,” he said. “We need to get better, providing service on their terms — how and when they want it —?and providing a wardrobe that serves all their lifestyle needs, clothes to wear Sunday or Monday, this season or next season. To the degree that you can execute this, the more likely you are to be rewarded. I see us being challenged even more and hopefully executing even better.”At 20, Cole compared his company to a person who is old enough to drive, but not drink — someone who is at the threshold of life’s big decisions. Similarly, he is trying to figure out where Kenneth Cole Productions will live out its future.

“Writing this book has been painstakingly counterintuitive to everything I ever believed — it’s about reflecting, and fashion is about moving forward,” Cole said. “It’s the most indulgent thing I could have done as a designer.”

Well, not exactly. The book comes with an added inside joke typical of his sense of humor: Kenneth Cole was actually incorporated in 1982, making the company 21.

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