How Kenneth Cole keeps his brand and voice relevant after more than three decades in the business
by Hunt Ethridge
Kenneth Cole as a brand has been around for 35 years; in the fast-moving fashion world, that’s practically an eternity. What does the label and its founder do to bring growth, stay relevant, and adapt? In Cole’s own words—from a man who, compared to spotlight hungry counterparts like Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford is practically a media monk—the key is to “Embrace change, but don’t be changed,” as he explained to graduates of Merrimack College at its 2017 commencement ceremony. “Don’t disconnect from what makes you you. There is now an information inundation, which induces attention deprivation. Stay present. Have the courage and discipline to be “the brand” you would want to friend, like, post, pin, share, Snap, Tweet and re-Tweet.”
The founder of Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc., an umbrella company which encompasses the labels Kenneth Cole Collection, Kenneth Cole New York, Gentle Souls, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Kenneth Cole Unlisted, and Tribeca, and with nearly $500 million in yearly revenue, knows his way around identifiers. Born in Brooklyn, and the son of Charles Cole, who owned the Port Washington, Long Island-based El Greco shoe manufacturing company, Cole, 63, graduated from Emory College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta. In 1982, he borrowed his friend’s 40-foot trailer, painted “Kenneth Cole Productions” on the side, and parked it down the street from where NYC’s Market Week [Fashion Week for shoes] was held. In order to leap through legal loopholes, he pretended to be filming a documentary about starting a shoe company, and in that seminal week, sold 40,000 pairs of shoes…and an empire was born. What started as an entirely footwear-based business quickly expanded into menswear, hand bags, leather goods, and other lines.
Detailing how he stays on the style bubble lo these many years, Cole explained in an interview with the Boston Globe that “Years ago, I used to think that as a designer my responsibility was to determine what a customer should wear. Today I’ve learned that my responsibility is to give them what they want. I’d spend time in the stores to see what people were trying on. I’d go to clubs at night because people would dress to impress, and I’d try to interpret what they wanted. To expand, I could either find more people to sell shoes to or find more things to sell to the same people. I chose to sell in more categories.”
While he was adapting to suit the needs of that growing clientele, he also merged political activism into his brand with the slogan, “Look good, for good.” In fashion’s often divisive and charged atmosphere, this could have backfired, but instead, it has helped drive business while bettering the world. Over the years, Cole advertising has raised the issues of HIV/AIDS, homelessness, gun control, abortion, the environment, and same-sex marriage. He has recently been in the news again with the launch of his End AIDS Coalition. At a time when many think the epidemic has subsided, its mission is to remind of its ongoing gravity and the need for further research.
For his Ready to Wear Fall Collection, Cole was inspired, according to a company statement, “by the love of labor, focusing on a simpler time with an emphasis on craftsmanship. Authenticity, attention to detail, and pride in one’s work are highlighted in every piece.” Crushed velvet, burnished and patent leathers, faux fur, and cozy knits mark the women’s line, while the men’s emphasizes cool, easy-to-put-together items, often in colors of pink and bordeaux (though grounded in black, as well as brown, blues and an abstract camo)—all in modern, slim silhouettes with functional details.