“Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then if you don’t like what they have to say, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes,” laughed Kenneth Cole.
In a lighthearted fashion, Cole spoke passionately about how he was able to marry his business and philanthropic activities, and how he and his company have managed to keep up and distinguish themselves in this ever-changing universe.
“I’m a designer, I’m a businessman, I’m a brand, I’m a frustrated activist, a philanthropist and a questionably proficient social networker,” said Cole, chairman and chief creative officer of Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. He said each role has its own challenges, expectations and responsibilities, and he’s spent his life trying to “marry the multitude of agendas, absent of therapy and a generous pharmacologist.”
Cole said he has never done the same thing two days in a row, and called the fashion industry “all-consuming, forever changing and never boring.”
Often he finds himself evaluating the wardrobe decisions and life choices people make. Recently, someone asked if he grew up in the business, and he replied, “No, but I intend to.” He said that remark alone speaks to the reality that often leaves him sleepless. “If we don’t keep growing and evolving, I fear we’ll be consumed by change, fail to be relevant and ultimately die a consumerless death,” he said. He told the audience that in order to survive, one has to embrace change. “By nature of what we do and design, the fashion business is more resilient than most. That said, whatever can change will. Change can be a powerful and energizing force, operated while not under the influence,” he said.
Cole spoke about how, over the last few years, fashion has evolved from being “a defining characteristic of a few confident and courageous urbanites to becoming an almost ubiquitous commodity available and consumed by all.” He believes the media has democratized fashion, and the virtual world has brought it into everybody’s life. “This newfound pervasive demand has made our industry now accessible to all. Arguably, fashion may now be the first universal language,” said Cole.
He noted that more people are reading fashion blogs than fashion magazines, and that being seated in the front row of a fashion show has lost its cachet, because now almost anybody can watch a fashion show live online. The bottom line is all information is available to anyone, anywhere and anytime, “and sometimes it’s even true,” he said.
Because of the innovations of social media, Cole explained that people are no longer held to the confines of the cyclical seasonal calendar. “Consumers now expect to see now, buy now, free-ship now, wear now; some even expect return now, send me a different size now, and maybe I’ll try it on in the bathroom now,” said Cole.
In response to a question posed to him a few months ago about where he sees himself in five years, the designer said one can’t think that way anymore. “Even two years ago, how many would have predicted what would be defining and inspiring our life today? Few knew what posting, blogging, friending, texting, might I say sexting, were, let alone that it would be part of their everyday vocabulary. That tweeting would become a verb and that 140 characters would be the length of any thought worth expressing.”
The consumer has become arguably as influential as the media, Cole pointed out. He noted that those businesses that did reinvent and transform prevailed.
Switching gears to the early days of his company, Cole recalled how he began his footwear firm in 1982 when he had a little bit of money. He originally named it Kenneth Cole Inc. and designed his first line of “cool ladies shoes.” However, once he discovered how expensive it would be to take a room at the New York Hilton and be one of 1,100 companies, or to lease a big, fancy showroom near the New York Hilton, which he couldn’t afford, he realized he needed a more creative solution. He asked one of his friends in the trucking business to lend him a 40-foot trailer, but knew there was no way he’d be allowed to park it near the Hilton in New York. “This is New York. You can’t park a bicycle,” his friend said.
Cole called the mayor’s office to inquire about parking and found out the only ones allowed to park a truck were utility companies or big production companies shooting a major motion picture. He immediately changed the name of his company to Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. and filed a petition to shoot a full-length motion picture called ‘The Birth of a Shoe Company.” “We sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in two and a half days,” he said — later explaining that he had no inventory but had contracted with an Italian factory to produce that many pairs.
In order to grow the company in the same entrepreneurial spirit, he needed to find more customers, or find more products to sell to these customers. “We were selling very cool shoes to very cool ladies. If I were to sell more shoes, I would have to sell to less cool people, and I would potentially have a less cool brand, which would be very unappealing. So I chose the other path — to create more products for the same customer,” he said.
By 1985, Cole wanted to bring more meaning to his life and chosen profession. “I wanted to connect my brand and our business in a more meaningful, substantive way. At that time, there was something that was really close to home and nobody was talking about it, and it was AIDS. The reason nobody was talking about it? If you did speak about, you would have been perceived to have been at risk, which meant you would have been an IV drug user, gay or Haitian. Now, I was a single male designer, so I knew everyone would just assume I was Haitian,” said Cole.
Because he wasn’t in any of these high-risk groups, he realized it presented a great opportunity to say something important. By 1987, 40,000 people had died of AIDS. “I set out down that path and it became all-defining and all-consuming. It changed me in many profound ways, and changed the company and the brand, and made everything become so much more important. I became chairman of amfAR seven years ago.”
Cole said this platform allowed him to combine what he cared about with the business that he loved. “Business and community are not independent, but in fact interdependent. They are the proverbial hands that feed each other. I do believe all businesses will get there, either through their hearts or their bottom line. I hope it’s the former.”