Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — “These are critical times,” said designer Kenneth Cole in an address Tuesday morning at “21.” “There’s been more change in the past five years than in the past 50.”
In his 20-minute speech, Cole, whose company, Kenneth Cole Productions, posted sales of $310 million last year, talked about casualization, the impact of the Internet on the apparel industry and the necessity for fashion firms to be innovative in these times.
With the workplace becoming more casual, men need to find new ways of identifying themselves. “Getting dressed was such a brainless process,” he said.
Women, on the other hand, have it all figured out, Cole said.
“It’s called black,” he said. “You can wear it to the office and to a funeral.”
The breakfast event, which attracted 150 people, including Cole’s wife, Maria, and his father-in-law and ex-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, was part of the “21” monthly series. The audience typically includes leaders from business, entertainment and politics. Cole, who began selling online five years ago, said that the Internet will not mean the end of retail.
“Neither can exist without the other,” he said, adding that the Internet will help integrate all the distribution channels, from wholesale accounts to the company’s freestanding stores.
The plan, Cole said, is for the firm to roll out e-commerce kiosks in all of its freestanding stores over the next year. That will help create a database for all of its customers.
“We will know what you wear, what you bought last year,” he said. “It is amazingly efficient.”
After the address, Cole told WWD that the company has plans to open stores in Philadelphia and Seattle by the fourth quarter. The Philadelphia unit will be around 14,000 square feet; the Seattle unit is projected to be 18,000 square feet.
As reported, the firm’s 18,000-square-foot flagship in New York will open in October on Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Plaza. A 4,500-square-foot Reaction store, the firm’s first, will open at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 57th Street early next year.
Cole noted the company plans to take his products to Asia, South America and Europe, but Cole would not elaborate.
Cole fielded a few questions from the audience, including one that raised the issue of expansion without overexposure. Cole responded that the company has grown beyond shoes into accessories and apparel and has successfully branched out with other lines — Reaction targets the Gen X group, while aims at the Gen Y customer.
The Kenneth Cole New York sportswear line, a licensing partnership with Liz Claiborne, will be in stores for fall. Cole noted that the line has had a strong response with buyers.
Waxing philosophical, Cole said, “We have to know where the customer is going, and get it to her before she gets there.”