For 20 years, Kenneth Cole has used the medium for messages larger than fashion.

Puns, politics and the personal beliefs of its founder have been the advertising foundation for Kenneth Cole Productions from day one. Besides Benetton, no other designer has dared to present itself to the world using ideas and images that often have little to do with clothes and everything to do with AIDS, abortion, gun control or whatever else happens to be on its founder’s mind.

“How do we talk about something bigger than the product?” Kenneth Cole asked rhetorically. “And what message can we offer that will survive the individual fashion statement?”

In the process, Cole and his collaborators have built a brand that manages to transcend clothes. While Prada, Gucci and other luxury brands tell stories in their ads about their ideal customers, Kenneth Cole has always seemed to sell ideas, which, not coincidentally, has made it easy for Cole to expand from shoes into apparel, fragrances and accessories without diluting the brand.

The flip side is that sometimes the clothes seem overshadowed. The company’s first ads 17 years ago were just text, with no shoes in sight, and a sizable portion of today’s campaign remains dedicated to just the issues. Even in ads which feature Cole’s urban designs, the accompanying text stays focused on AIDS or the aftermath of 9/11 — seemingly competing with the fashion.

“It appears to me that he wants to feel more,” said creative consultant Raul Martinez about Cole. “He wants more depth than just a fashion image, and that isn’t for everybody.”

Martinez, a co-founder of A|R Media, has directed numerous campaigns for image-rich clients like Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. “I think his ads work on different levels. I think the statement they always make is the statement. And the fashion is the fashion. They work together because you are seeing them at the same time, but some of the political statements go beyond the fashion. For me,” he added, “it is Kenneth Cole. I think he has a personal need to communicate this way. And to me, it is the brand. It doesn’t matter what you or I think of the clothes, I think you buy into that world.”“Our goal is to make [those messages] relate,” said Cole. “And I like to think that our customer is a contemporary person with a perspective not just on their wardrobe but on the community and has much bigger interests than what they’re going to wear that day.”

But Cole has always assumed a certain familiarity with current events and a fair understanding of geopolitics in order to understand all the jokes in its ads, which, as well as AIDS, have riffed on subjects ranging from Nelson Mandela to California disasters to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The very first one made infamous shoe addict and dictator’s wife Imelda Marcos the star back in 1986. Richard Kirshenbaum, co-founder of the agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, tells the story that he pitched Cole shortly after starting his agency and “he wasn’t interested in starting to advertise,” Kirshenbaum said. “But he told us, ‘If you come up with anything great, come up and see us.’ Imelda Marcos was in the news, and my partner and I were thinking it would be a great way to capitalize on it by using her.” The ad, which like so many others was simply a quote attributed to Cole himself, read: “Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could’ve at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours.”

“The whole idea of associating [the brand] with the press and politics was something that we kind of hit upon that evening,” said Kirshenbaum. “The timing was fortuitous. What was unique about it at the time was that we didn’t show product; it was a statement from the company, it was fun, and it was Kenneth commenting on a situation from a political point of view,” in effect establishing the template for all Kenneth Cole ads to come.

The company brought its advertising in-house 10 years ago, and since then Cole and his creative team have sat down at the beginning of each season to ponder the directions both the business and the culture at large are headed over the next few months. After reflecting on current business realities and the effectiveness of last season’s campaign, “we then approach the future from two perspectives,” Cole said. “One is visual — what images and aesthetics relate to the brand — and then, what is the message? Where is the customer at that given point in time and what are they thinking? What’s on their mind? And how do we connect with them?”The one thing they don’t do, he said, is “sit down and say to ourselves, ‘How can we sell to progressive people?’”

Kenneth Cole himself and his executives downplay “political” when describing the tenor of their advertising and tend to use “socially responsible.” But while wryly commenting on world events or punning on seat-belt safety are fairly nonpartisan activities, during the Eighties the company was urging safe sex in its ads when the AIDS debate was at its most divisive. “Seeing how people reacted to AIDS in the first stages —?how controversial that was to even [portray] one person in a hospital bed —?those were days when it was a risk for you in a lot of ways to step forward in lending a hand or offering assistance,” said Cole’s father-in-law, former New York governor Mario Cuomo. “But he was there early, abundantly and there ever since. Any intelligent businessman would have said at the time that this is not an intelligent move, but he did it anyway.”

Still, Cole insisted he’s not deliberately targeting liberal sensibilities; his fans simply tend to be liberal. “A contemporary customer happens to be progressive in most of their life choices and perspectives.” Translation: It’s no coincidence that city dwellers tend to buy his clothes, an urban demographic that voted for Al Gore in the 2000 elections. In fact, the company’s most controversial ad, which appeared in August 2001, pictured a street corner of “Bush Ave.” and “Cheney Lane” with a “Dead End” sign planted conspicuously nearby. Such an image was unacceptable in the aftermath of 9/11, and even today Kenneth Cole executives are penitent.

“It was marginal at best, and the timing of it made it unbelievably inappropriate,” said Lori Wagner, senior vice president of marketing. “Never in a million years could we have known what would happen, and we pulled it immediately.”

One of the ads that followed was equally controversial. The “September 12” campaign focused on how the world had changed in 9/11’s aftermath…and how it hadn’t. “On September 12, 14,000 people still contracted HIV,” read one ad. The New York Daily News published an article accusing Cole of exploitation, and both Fox News and CNN were soon weighing in on the tempest in a teapot. Cole and his team still stand behind it.“There was nothing else we could have talked about,” said Wagner. “Anything else would have seemed silly. It was certainly on all of our minds. It would have been irresponsible of us to not discuss it, and we thought ‘Here’s a perfect opportunity to reach out and speak to our customers.’ I’m very proud of it, as is Kenneth.”

But hitching commercial brands to politics and social commentary is an inherently risky business, considering how easy it is to step over the line. Just ask Benetton, which alienated large swaths of customers with its “Death Row” campaign and its magazine Colors, which once envisioned then-President Ronald Reagan dying of AIDS.

“It’s a gut instinct” when it comes to guessing where the line is, said Wagner. “Obviously Kenneth eats, sleeps and feels the brand and so has that instinct.”

“The difference is not what you do, it’s how you do it,” said Kirshenbaum. “There’s a difference between espousing safe sex and doing a 1-800 catalog showing a man dying of AIDS — that’s crass. But you’re talking to the fashion world and you need to speak to opinion leaders — there’s a trickle-down effect when it comes to this sort of stuff.”

But still, “I’m not sure it sells products or that he doesn’t lose as many customers as he gets,” said Cuomo.

Cole disagreed. “I know we lose some customers. But based upon the mail and response we get, I know we encourage more than we discourage them.”

Besides, the campaigns tend to have a better sense of humor than The New Republic. Although not all that much better, considering Cole’s personal flair for puns. Think: “God Dress America!” after 9/11, or “sole searching” for ads of any occasion. Promoting a fragrance? “Wear me out.” Touting kennethcole.com? “Time to reboot?” And when a Kenneth Cole store comes to town: “We’re finally coming to New Orleans. Okay bayou?”

“They’re all his,” moans Wagner, referring to Cole. “He bounces ideas via e-mail all day long.”And no one is likely to be offended by the current, 20th anniversary campaign, which was shot by Richard Avedon and only pokes fun at Kenneth Cole itself. “We know this ad won’t change the world,” reads one. “We weren’t born yesterday.”

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