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."
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.