Kenneth Cole: Sole to Soul

9.27.2011

By Max Berlinger

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

Now, Cole's label is synonymous with a cosmopolitan, understated mien (once dubbed "Prada for the people" by New York). The campaigns have gotten wittier, and the activism broader. In addition to AIDS awareness (like 2005's "We All Have AIDS" ad), campaigns have espoused his thoughts on gender equality ("For every dollar a man makes, a woman makes 75 cents. Change please"), and political involvement ("Not voting is so last season."). While amusing and effective marketing ploys, these approaches ended up helping business as much as they led Cole into a world of humanitarianism. "I was emotionally connecting with people," Cole says, "in a far more meaningful way than the product alone was. It changed me personally." Today, he rounds out his extracurricular activities serving as the chairman of the board at amfAR, founding member of the homeless organization HELP USA, and a board member for the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

At the heart of his company remains the desire to synthesize his commercial and altruistic endeavors. It's a demanding challenge he's imposed on himself: to straddle the cause for human rights -- a recent billboard reads "Gay People Getting Married? (Next they'll be allowed to vote and pay taxes.)" -- while navigating a fickle fashion industry. "Fashion is the one universal language," Cole muses. "People express themselves through their wardrobe. But I don't take what I do that seriously, in that regard. We need to remind ourselves and others that we are a fashion company, but with a platform."

After 30 years of chasing the runway zeitgeist, plus managing his borderline-obsessive dedication to philanthropy, Cole shows no signs of slowing down. "The bigger the business gets, the harder it is to navigate," he admits. "But everything has changed. We don't do anything the way we used to, and that’s what’s exciting about fashion. Our business thrives because we’re energized and invigorated by change." It's this adaptability that has seen him through the inevitable ups and downs of business. He's still standing on his own two feet -- in a pair of shoes with his name on them.

To view our Kenneth Cole slide show, click here.

Tags: Fashion
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