Kenneth Cole: Sole to Soul

9.27.2011

By Max Berlinger

How Kenneth Cole discovered his inner activist while building a fashion empire.

Kenneth Cole arrives 15 minutes late for our 7 a.m. meeting, slightly flustered yet charmingly apologetic. "I'm not usually late -- so sorry to waste your time," he says. No worries -- he's the one running a company estimated at more than $1 billion. Even at this early hour he's swoon-worthy: tall with dark features and a strong jawline. It's hard to ignore his good looks. The 57-year-old magnate typifies his brand's aura of urbane simplicity: Wearing an unassuming brown button-down and dark jeans, he's stylish but unaffected. But Cole's a businessman at heart, and, within moments of sitting down, he's ready to talk and not afraid to say so. "Let's do this," he politely instructs. If he's shrewd, it has yet to overpower his sense of compassion -- a quality that has been one of the guiding forces of his company since its conception.

Cole was born in Brooklyn and raised in nearby Long Island. As a child he'd visit his father's shoe factory in Williamsburg, well before it was the epicenter of New York hip. "Back then it was a run-down, tough neighborhood," he remembers. He learned the family trade and launched a successful shoe brand, Candies, with his brother before starting his namesake company in 1982.

Three years after launching, Cole started integrating AIDS awareness into his campaigns. Then, it was still an incredibly taboo subject, and a brave one for a straight man to take such a vested interest in. His most memorable advertisements included the 1985 campaign supporting the American Foundation for AIDS Research (with models Christie Brinkley and Paulina Porizkova shot by Annie Leibovitz), and his 1987 ads featuring no clothing, but instead a condom and the slogan "Our shoes aren't the only thing we encourage you to wear."

"No one was talking about an issue that was looming over our industry," says Cole. "People wanted to get involved with things that were bigger than they were, a new form of activism, something that hadn't happened since the '60s."

Kenneth Cole, the company, wasn't the household mainstay it is today, but Cole believed in the importance of the message, despite the possible consequences. "I had so few resources," Cole says. "I did think there was risk involved...but there wasn't. It was the first time I felt like I was doing something important."

To view our Kenneth Cole slide show, click here.

Tags: Fashion
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