NEW YORK — Kenneth Cole will be hitting college campuses this fall promoting his new book, “This Is a Kenneth Cole Production,” which looks back at the brand’s 30-year journey.
With text by Lisa Birnbach (coauthor of “The Official Preppy Handbook”) and published by Rizzoli, the book provides a history of the accessories and apparel company and Cole’s social activism. It also contains letters from such well-known people as former President Bill Clinton, Robert Redford, Diane von Furstenberg and Mark Seliger. All of Cole’s profits from the coffee-table book, which retails for $75, will be donated to amfAR, of which Cole is chairman.
“It’s mostly pictorial. It’s a visual representation of this 30-year journey,” said Cole, chairman and chief creative officer of Kenneth Cole Productions Inc., in an interview at his New York headquarters.
“Our messages have reflected the times. I believe what has kept us relevant over the years is not just the fashion — which has sometimes been more timely than other times — but has also been our messages, which have consistently reflected the context of the world we’re living in and what was happening and that which was affecting what we were thinking and what was inspiring us,” said the designer.
Often witty and irreverent, Cole’s ads have spoken out in support of the HIV/AIDS community, gun safety, marriage equality and the homeless. They have frequently been amusing, but sometimes they have provoked hate mail. The book contains letters from people supporting him, as well as those saying they’ll never buy his clothes and shoes again.
Cole has always opted to use words to get his message across. “To the degree you could provoke people and engage them in a unique way, your message is more likely to resonate longer. I figured out the less-than-140-character concept long before Twitter came along,” said Cole. In addition to his company’s Twitter account, Cole has a personal one. “I tweet multiple times in a day, and sometimes less,” said Cole.
During the first 25 years of the company, Cole could communicate provocative thoughts during its semiannual ad campaigns, which he said was empowering, because it was twice more than most people were communicating. “Now I’m realizing there are no boundaries, and to the degree there are, they are self-imposed,” said Cole.
Asked if he believes it’s more difficult to break through the clutter today than it was 30 years ago, Cole replied, “Arguably, I would say it’s significantly easier to break through today. That’s because of social messaging. [With the Internet] you have the ability to reach and connect with massive amounts of people everywhere simultaneously,” said Cole. “In the past, you needed extraordinary access in certain markets to communicate your message. Today you can get through to audiences on your own terms. Everybody curates their own program today, and they do it on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. They decide who they want to be their audience and who they want to have access to their platform. It’s amazing today,” said Cole.
So was it fun to go down memory lane and put this book together?
“No, I kind of do better looking forward than I do looking back. What was healthy was building an archive. We’ve been working on it for a year and a half,” said Cole. Most of the ads are on the Web site, 30YearsBold.com, along with upcoming events tied to the 30th anniversary. The ads can be navigated chronologically or by topic, and can be shared on different social media platforms.
Cole said his most memorable ad was part of a multipage campaign he did in 1996, in which he asked, “Where will we be in 2020?” “It talked about our ability to craft the world we’re about to live in. Some of it was very clever. It said, in the year 2016, a woman’s place will be in the House.…the White House.”
The book also features additional behind-the-scenes content in the form of augmented reality. Consumers can scan the sticker on the book cover to download Junaio, a free mobile app, which will launch an image and personal message from Cole. In addition to the cover, select pages of the book have been activated with augmented reality, giving readers special access to insider video content about the designer and KCP. Designed by Lee Swillingham, the book goes on sale Tuesday at all Kenneth Cole stores worldwide, on kennethcole.com and at bookstores.
Cole’s book tour will take him to such schools as the Fashion Institute of Technology; Academy of Art University in San Francisco; University of California, Berkeley; University of Pennsylvania; Harvard University; Columbia University; University of Miami, and Miami International University of Art & Design, as well as stores such as Nordstorm in San Francisco and Bloomingdale’s in Aventura, Fla.
Cole said he’s looking forward to sharing his story with students and customers. “I plan to tell them that their opportunities are boundless, and there are frontiers that are first being defined and explored. I will also tell them that business and philanthropy are interconnected and interdependent,” said Cole, who will also be traveling this fall to Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai and Bangkok for an international AIDS conference, for various amfAR events and to screen “The Battle of amfAR,” which he executive-produced.
Looking ahead, Cole — who took his company private in 2012 — said he’s feeling “energized and invigorated” about KCP’s future. He sees a “very significant opportunity” in accessories and plans to capitalize on that. “Footwear and accessories have become a very defining characteristic of most global brands today. Our roots are in accessories,” he said.