Kenneth Cole grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., with plans of one day playing shortstop for the New York Mets. Instead, Cole chose the career path most children choose when they realize they’re not good enough to play in the big leagues—he decided to design women’s shoes.
While many designers come and go, Cole, at age 59, just keeps on coming. He recently marked his 30th year in business with the publishing of his book, “This is a Kenneth Cole Production.” Complete with full-page spreads of Cole’s often-irreverent ads and the brand they helped build, the book also traces Cole’s roots as the son of a hard-working shoe factory owner. Cole’s father, Charles Cole, owned his factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and finally tasted success when the family built up one of the most popular shoe brands of the Disco Era, Candie’s.
Though the family was raking in millions from the high, wooden platform shoes made popular by Olivia Newton John in “Grease,” working with—or for—his father, was not what young Kenneth had in mind.
“I always aimed a little higher, but I didn’t really feel I had the right to impose that upon the business,” says Cole.
Patriarch Charles Cole told his ambitious son, “‘All right, I’m going to save your office for you, because you’re going to be back.’” It was the “ultimate challenge” according to Kenneth. “In my mind, at that point, the door closed.”
Cole left without a dime from his father. “It was very important to me that I do this on my own,” says Cole. But finding the amount of liquid cash money necessary to fund a new shoe business during the economic doldrums of the early 1980s proved problematic.
“And I came to realize that I had a far better chance of getting credit from an Italian shoe factory that needed business than from an American bank that didn’t,” recalls Cole. “So I quickly went to Italy [and] designed a cool line of ladies' shoes.”
Armed in late 1982 with the capacity to produce tens of thousands of pairs of shoes, Cole now had to move them without any of the retail stores or brand penetration he has today.
“At the time, you had two choices. If there were trade shows, it was in New York … you could take a room at the Hilton Hotel, be one of 1,100 companies—not very brand-defining,” says Cole, “or I could take a big, fancy showroom within a two-block radius of the Hilton Hotel. [But] clearly I didn’t have the money.”
With everything on the line during Cole’s first season in business, he decided to rent a trailer and park it near a large trade show. But since one can only park a trailer on a Manhattan street if you’re A) shooting a movie, or B) a utility company, Cole needed a novel idea. He chose option A), which is how Kenneth Cole, Inc. officially became Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.
“Filed for a permit the following day with the Mayor’s Office to shoot a full-length motion picture called ‘The Birth of a Shoe Company,’” Cole recounts. “[Hired] a cameraman—sometimes there was film in his camera, sometimes there wasn’t.”
Though it sounds cliché—and ignores the hours, days and years it took to become an empire that now grosses hundreds of millions annually—the rest was literally history.
“I sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in two and a half days,” says Cole. The film, however, is still 30 years in the making and yet to be released.
Today, Kenneth Cole the business is known as much for its urbane and classy aesthetic when it comes to shoes, clothing, and you-name-it accessories, as it is for its left-leaning advertisements.
“I always believe that if you’re looking at a magazine and I’m one of 40 ads, I—in effect—get one-fortieth of your attention. But if, when you close that magazine, you’re still thinking about my ad, I’ve got a lot more than one-fortieth of your attention.”
Equal parts social engagement and about selling stuff (with a dash of blush-inducing punnery), past ads have read, “52% OF AMERICANS THINK SAME-SEX MARRIAGES DON’T DESERVE A GOOD RECEPTION. ARE YOU PUTTING US ON?” and, “REGARDLESS OF THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, WE IN NO WAY CONDONE THE RIGHT TO BARE FEET.” The latter ad, a late ‘80s classic, featured a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes slung over an assault weapon.
When asked whether he ever worried his edgy ads might be a liability for his business, Cole answered, “I think we’ve done it in a respectful—somewhat respectful—and relatively appropriate, way.” In the end, Cole admits he’s really just trying to engage people into thinking a little more deeply about whatever social issue he’s addressing.
“For years, I put out thoughts, I didn’t really express opinions.”
Cole also puts his money and time where his mouth is. Kenneth Cole Productions only consumes half his life. The other half is consumed by charitable and social awareness efforts, namely amfAR—The Foundation for AIDS Research.
Cole has been involved with amfAR from its earliest days and became its chairman nine years ago, a post he still holds today.
If the fashion business wasn’t always Cole’s most “important” business, AIDS research was. “I realized that what I was doing can be important,” explains Cole. “Four of the six drugs that are keeping millions of people alive today have roots in amfAR funding. The two people who have been clinically cured of AIDS have roots in amfAR funding.”
Still, after 30 years, Kenneth Cole Productions is going nowhere soon. “My job is to create a business model that’s built on a platform that has the ability to change quickly,” says Cole. “I feel the best part of this story is what’s ahead.”