How the clothing and shoe designer continues to raise eyebrows--and consciousness.
The offices of Kenneth Cole Productions are decorated with shoes. Antique lace-up boots, old metal roller skates, long brown Oxfords that have seen one too many sidewalks. The shoes sit on coffee tables, in display cases and on window sills overlooking Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. And they serve as a constant reminder of the connection between present and past, between success and the journey it took to get there. Kenneth Cole has made that journey, as an entrepreneur, as a designer and as a man with a message.
“Do you like this tie… or this one?” he asks, holding up an alternative to the necktie he already wears. He says, “Thanks,” and folds the alternative neatly into his jacket pocket. Yes, his jacket pocket.
He’s outfitted head to toe in his own designs. His company, Kenneth Cole Productions, has been making shoes, clothes and accessories for almost three decades now, so the wardrobe selection isn’t slim. The company’s lines include Kenneth Cole New York, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Unlisted, and Gentle Souls. It also licenses Bongo and Le Tigre brands and continues to expand, adding fragrances and new lines for children. Nearly 5,700 department and specialty stores carry Kenneth Cole products, and the company operates more than 95 retail and outlet stores. Revenue in 2009 topped $410 million. That’s a lot of shoes.
But as Cole says in his 2003 book Footnotes: What You Stand for Is More Important Than What You Stand In, “It’s great to be known for your shoes, better to be known for your sole.” His company’s advertising campaigns, largely written and entirely directed by Cole, have solidified the brand not only as fashion-forward, but also socially conscious. And while people may disagree with the opinions stated, the good that Cole has done in raising funds and awareness for AIDS research, homelessness and other causes is undisputed. In 2008, he received the first ever Humanitarian Designer Award during the Islands of the World Fashion Week.
Cole earned his reputation through hard work and an innovative mind, two essentials to any successful entrepreneurial venture. He worked from an early age. “I always for some reason felt the need to be independent, and I had to find that independence by having my own disposable income,” he tells SUCCESS. As a teen, he worked in Shea Stadium selling peanuts, and in college, he had a job selling—of all things—shoes.
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