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Kenneth Cole kicks back in his own Kenneth Cole New York Oh-Val! frames from ClearVision.

Photos by Margaret Gibbons

Anniversaries are normally a time for reflection; a time to look back on past accomplishments. But for designer Kenneth Cole whose company Kenneth Cole Productions is celebrating its 20th year, there is little time to get caught up in the past.

“It’s a point of time where you are supposed to sit back, reflect and look at where you’ve been and contemplate where you really want to go, which is something I’ve emphatically refused to do over the years believing that in this business you can’t look back,” he says. “It’s probably the worst thing you can do. It’s almost like looking in the rear view mirror while you’re driving. This business is all about focusing on where you’re going. And everything we’ve done up until now has brought us to this place where we are. In effect we’ve spent 20 years building this foundation.”

That’s not to say that Cole is ignoring this milestone. Hardly. The designer is introducing a 20th anniversary collection featuring a special label with his signature. “It’s an opportunity to earmark this event,” explains Cole. “To note this anniversary and do it with something that is a little bit more timeless and a drop more classic yet at the same time modern, which is the essence of what I’ve always tried to do over the years. It is the opportunity to do a small exclusive group in each collection. It’s my personal signature—my personal perspective on things.”

As for eyewear, ClearVision will release the  Kenneth Cole Signature Collection series in mid-October. It consists of 11 ophthalmic styles and three sunglasses. ClearVision has had the Kenneth Cole license for the optical arena for 10 years and Cole notes that the partnership works well. “There’s been very much a sameness in spirit, culture and energy,” he says. “There’s a willingness to find that common ground and figure out how to make it work for both parties. It’s been a great partnership.”

Cole himself began wearing glasses a few years ago when he became presbyopic. It has given him a different outlook on eyewear. “It has made me more sensitive to the practical elements of eyewear,” says the designer. “It’s given me a better sense of my task and my responsibilities when I set about designing it. I love today that you can take an optical frame and wrap it. There’s something very comforting about being able to look every which way without having to turn your head each time. It’s a practical payoff. The frame [style Oh-val!] that I wear is that shape.”

Kenneth Cole’s new book reflects on his 20 years in fashion. His shades of choice: Kenneth Cole New York sunglasses (style Quite a Steel from ClearVision).

The Kenneth Cole Productions story began in 1982 when the designer’s women’s footwear collection debuted. Prior to that he worked in his family’s shoe business; they launched the ultimate disco era shoes—Candies—back in the early ’70s.

“I made a pretty big step when I left behind a successful family business to start this with not that much money,” says Cole. “I was asked often at the time what would I have done had it not worked. At the risk of sounding a little arrogant I would often reply that that was never a thought. My heart knew it would work. I just never knew what ‘it’ was. I still don’t. And I think that’s maybe one of the reasons we’ve been able to succeed to the degree that we have. Because every day we’re kind of rethinking ‘it.’ ”

The Cole empire has since grown to more than 70 multi-brand product categories—including menswear, womenswear and kidswear—with 17 licensees and numerous retail stores across the globe. As for recent endeavors, besides the Signature collection, Cole just launched a new men’s fragrance “Black.”

Cole often expresses his concern
for social and political issues in
company ads.
With so many products bearing his name, Cole says it’s a challenge to make an item truly Kenneth Cole and not just something with Kenneth Cole’s name on it. “That’s my greatest challenge,” he maintains. “That I look at and consider the most important role I can play in this process. That is to create, initiate and maintain a cohesiveness across all products—price, value, aesthetic, consistency—wherever the brand appears. It’s very important. Otherwise the brand loses most of its value. If a brand doesn’t consistently say it’s something everywhere it appears to the customer then it loses its reason to be.”

One of the elements that makes Kenneth Cole products very much Kenneth Cole-like are that all of them, from the eyewear to the footwear, are given a name and not just a style number. “The concept of giving the product a name goes back to our first day in business,” notes Cole. “That’s because the product needs personality and a number just doesn’t do it very well. We think after all the effort and energy that goes into bringing it to the market, it deserves more.”  

As part of his 20th anniversary celebration, Cole has also written a book, Footnotes, a fully illustrated retrospective exploring his journey through the fashion world, which should hit shelves mid month. “This book, I was told I needed to do, and it was a very long and wearing process,” admits Cole.

However, he says looking back proved to be energizing—especially when reviewing the company’s innovative advertising. Kenneth Cole is well known for his ads that rely on clever phrasing and plays on words. Often times they are a used as a forum for his concern over social issues. For example: “If the President had AIDS he’d need more than just your vote.” And “Red, white & blue. It’s the new black.” The 20th anniversary ad campaign was shot by renowned photographer Richard Avedon.

“Looking back on the advertising kind of re-energized and recreated certain moments and thoughts,” says Cole. “It serves as a reminder that today we’re not really doing much different than we did then. We’re just doing more of it and on a bigger scale. The company in many ways really hasn’t changed. We’re a lot bigger today but we’re a compilation of a lot of small entrepreneurial initiatives all rolled up into a bigger company.”

While social issues have been incorporated in Kenneth Cole’s advertising since its inception, the designer does more than just lip service to causes. Since 1985, Cole has served as a board member of amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research). He is also a founding board member of HELP USA, the nation’s largest provider for housing, jobs and services for the homeless. A recipient of numerous awards for his philanthropic efforts, last year Cole received the Corporate Equality Award from Human Rights Equity and was named Humanitarian of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee. He says being a company with a social conscious is the “easy part” of his work.

“That’s a personal expression,” he explains. “It’s a human one that’s turned into a professional one. It creates a better sense of purpose and greater sense of accomplishment. Eyewear is great; yes it makes us see better. But does it in fact really change our lives from one frame to another? I say it doesn’t. But if we can make it and everything else we sell part of something that does change our lives and does effect our daily being then all of a sudden the whole becomes more important. It’s not cause-related marketing. It is culturally penetrated. It’s a part of who we are as an organization and what we believe in. It’s not a cause du jour or an opportunity to market and sell more of anything in particular.”

So after travelling down the road for 20 years, what lies up ahead for Kenneth Cole?  “I’m very excited about where I’m going although I have no idea where it is,” says the designer with a smile. “We’re reconsidering the playing field and re-evaluating all its prospects and boundaries and guidelines and rules and regulations as we go forward. Every day is different, which is why this business is so wonderful.”