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The offices of Kenneth Cole Productions are decorated with shoes. Antique lace-up boots, old metal roller skates, long brown Oxfords that have seen one too many sidewalks. The shoes sit on coffee tables, in display cases and on window sills overlooking Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. And they serve as a constant reminder of the connection between present and past, between success and the journey it took to get there. Kenneth Cole has made that journey, as an entrepreneur, as a designer and as a man with a message.
“Do you like this tie… or this one?” he asks, holding up an alternative to the necktie he already wears. He says, “Thanks,” and folds the alternative neatly into his jacket pocket. Yes, his jacket pocket.
He’s outfitted head to toe in his own designs. His company, Kenneth Cole Productions, has been making shoes, clothes and accessories for almost three decades now, so the wardrobe selection isn’t slim. The company’s lines include Kenneth Cole New York, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Unlisted, and Gentle Souls. It also licenses Bongo and Le Tigre brands and continues to expand, adding fragrances and new lines for children. Nearly 5,700 department and specialty stores carry Kenneth Cole products, and the company operates more than 95 retail and outlet stores. Revenue in 2009 topped $410 million. That’s a lot of shoes.
But as Cole says in his 2003 book Footnotes: What You Stand for Is More Important Than What You Stand In, “It’s great to be known for your shoes, better to be known for your sole.” His company’s advertising campaigns, largely written and entirely directed by Cole, have solidified the brand not only as fashion-forward, but also socially conscious. And while people may disagree with the opinions stated, the good that Cole has done in raising funds and awareness for AIDS research, homelessness and other causes is undisputed. In 2008, he received the first ever Humanitarian Designer Award during the Islands of the World Fashion Week.
Footing the Bill
Cole earned his reputation through hard work and an innovative mind, two essentials to any successful entrepreneurial venture. He worked from an early age. “I always for some reason felt the need to be independent, and I had to find that independence by having my own disposable income,” he tells SUCCESS. As a teen, he worked in Shea Stadium selling peanuts, and in college, he had a job selling—of all things—shoes.
Cole had an early education in entrepreneurship—and fashion— from his father. Charles Cole was owner of a women’s shoe factory in Brooklyn and originator of the now-legendary wooden-heeled Candies shoes for women. The younger Cole had worked a few summers in the factory, and just before heading off to law school, he spent one last summer working for Dad. “And I was amazed how much I learned, and how much I enjoyed the little I had already come to know.” What captured Cole’s attention and ignited his imagination that summer was the idea of entrepreneurship.
“I came to realize early on that in law it’s essentially about reading a book, and he who interprets it the best goes the furthest,” he says. “In business, you essentially write your own book. And the further it is from anything that has been written before it or like it, the better it will likely be. So I just stayed on that course and I never looked back.” And he never went to law school.
Fortunately, Cole had a gift for design, and after teaching himself to sketch and learning to construct the designs himself, he quickly he developed his own line of women’s shoes.
His father was skeptical, which only fueled young Cole’s desire to succeed, in spite of the risk. “I didn’t have any fears, and I just knew in my heart I would figure it out because I just couldn’t go back,” he says.
“I knew I had to distinguish myself and step out in a direction I had never taken before,” Cole writes in Footnotes. “I needed to be a different kind of shoe person with a different kind of company. And while that was a little unnerving, I felt in my bones that ‘it’—whatever ‘it’ was—had to change, and that I would have to change, too.”
He used his limited funds to create signage, boxes, business cards—all printed with Kenneth Cole Incorporated. Then he lined up financing from Italian factories, which were more generous than American banks at the time, and headed to Florence to supervise the production of his shoe line aimed at high-end buyers.
With only enough money to finance this first collection, Cole knew he had one shot to succeed. And he needed to do it fast, before the money ran out. So he learned Italian and worked in the factory at night after regular production had ended for the day. “Because, regardless of all that I had done, had those first shoes not fit, or had they not been delivered on time or had they not been what they needed to be, then everything would have failed,” he says. “So I didn’t allow that.” He returned to the United States with a line of shoes that he knew was different than anyone else’s.
Off the Beaten Path
In December 1982, footwear buyers from all over the country converged on New York City for market week. More than 1,100 smaller companies vied for the attention of were already lining the streets, and larger shoe companies had set up showrooms within the hotel’s twinkling four-block radius.
But in 1982, Kenneth Cole didn’t have the money for a showroom. Or a hotel room, for that matter. And he didn’t think that lining up with hundreds of other small to medium-sized footwear designers was the way to make his products stand out.
So he called a friend in the trucking business. “Sure, you can borrow a truck,” his friend said. “But good luck getting permission to park. This is New York.”
Then Cole called the mayor’s office. They told him the only way to get a permit to park along the street in New York City was to be a utility company… or a production company shooting a full-length motion picture.
Cole ran to the stationery store, changed the name on his business cards and boxes from Kenneth Cole Inc. to Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. and applied for a permit to shoot the full-length movie The Birth of a Shoe Company.
On Dec. 2, across the street from the Hilton and surrounded by footwear showrooms, Cole parked a 40-foot trailer filled with his new designs, painted his company name on the side and put a staircase at the back. He unloaded klieg lights, a film camera, a director, models as actresses and two policemen sent by the city to control traffic—and soon to be employed by Cole to control the crowd at the velvet rope.
Every important buyer in town for market week visited that trailer over the next few days to see what all the fuss was about. The longer they waited behind the velvet rope outside the police-guarded “movie set” trailer, the more intrigued they became. And the more they bought.
Kenneth Cole Productions sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in two and a half days. And a shoe company was born.
Watching His Step
“So at the end of the day I created a product that was unlike anything that existed, which enabled me to get the profit margin that I needed to do business, which was not insignificant,” Cole says. “If you are going to create a product that is similar to somebody else’s, invariably, you are going to struggle because you’re going to be more easily compared to others.” But Cole had conceived a line of shoes that was unlike others on the market—quality Italian-made shoes with sleek lines and upscale trendiness that changed with the season and his clients’ whims. For the next 18 years, the business grew no less than 25 percent each year.
From that December day working out of a trailer, Cole learned something valuable about risk-taking: “The lessons learned are that usually the best solutions are not the most expensive; in fact, they’re the most creative.... Calculated risk-taking is what most businesspeople do, and it’s something that I’m certainly very conscious of.
And it’s something that I’ve done my whole career. It’s what the fashion business is. That is what makes what I do so exciting and energizing, the fact that it’s always changing. And fashion, contemporary fashion, almost by definition means of the moment.”
Cole stayed true to his original idea of “selling cool shoes to cool people” when he was ready to expand his new business.
“I made a decision at a certain point that I needed to continue to grow because that’s part of my compulsive disorder, my need to explore new horizons and grow. And growing is not necessarily bigger, but it’s better.
“But I also came to realize that I had a few choices early on. I could find more women to sell shoes to and that’s one way to grow. But there was an inherent risk to that because to do that, in effect, would redefine the model, the business model, because I was selling cool shoes to cool people. And once I sell too many shoes, then, inherently, invariably, I’m going to start selling to people that are not so cool,” he says with a smile. “And then the cooler people are going to be less interested. So I decided to try to stay true to the customer I had and find more things to sell her or her male counterpart rather than find more people to sell the same product.”
Cole introduced men’s footwear, and ultimately, men’s and women’s accessories and clothing, as well as a line for children. Expanding to a line of men’s clothes presented one of the many other risks in the company’s history. Business casual wasn’t in most men’s vocabulary at the time, but Cole saw a burgeoning niche and sought to fill it ahead of the pack. The risk paid off.
“Every day you have got to be open to reconfigure and recalculate. The one great thing about the fashion business is it’s built on the notion of change. And change is a very empowering force, yet it is a very encumbering one for many. And unless you have a culture that is built on change—and we do—it invariably puts a lot of people out of business because you learned in business school, and often in life, that you need to amortize your investment over as long a period as you can. Your emotional investment, your financial investment, your investment in your time and resources.
“But in fashion you have to be prepared to abandon that investment constantly and move on. And to the degree you are able to do that, you can continue to reinvent yourself and redefine yourself based on the times and the circumstances that are changing probably even faster than you can.”
Taking a Stand
One of Cole’s recent ad campaigns trumpets his fondness for transformation: “You can change your outfit, you can outfit change, or both.” The designer learned early that he couldn’t ignore the larger issues affecting people’s choices, people’s lives. “I think fashion is great, what we do is great, but it exists in a landscape that is much bigger, much more meaningful.”
In 1985—a year before Cole would meet his future wife, Maria Cuomo—AIDS had begun taking a dramatic toll, although AIDS awareness was nearly nonexistent in the United States. “Nobody was talking about AIDS in those days because if you did, you were presumed to be at risk, which meant you were either a drug user or you were a gay male or you were Haitian. And since I was a single male designer, I knew that everybody probably assumed I was Haitian,” he says, pausing for a sly grin. “People were not talking about their lifestyle choices in those days, let alone their status, their health circumstances, because the stigma was so devastating in those days—not much better today.”
So Cole initiated an advertising campaign to talk about what few dared. His first edgy ads asking people to support AIDS research raised some eyebrows and some hackles. “I thought that was an enormous opportunity to say something that very few were. And I didn’t think the risks were high. People disagreed with me.” But Cole continued to risk the disapproval to take a stand for his beliefs and to make a name for his brand. “Over the years I’ve made a point to talk about most of the issues that are probably not smart. A wise, thoughtful businessperson in my situation would not. I tried to do it in a way that I hope to be acceptable.”
He writes many of the ads, some calling attention to homelessness or to the importance of voting, and edits all of them as the keeper of the brand. “It’s a very personal expression. I’ve got some very talented associates who help me with it. But it is as personal as our fashion message. It’s been an extraordinary opportunity over the years to make what we do relevant, meaningful. Because at the end of the day, the brand needs to be relevant.”
Cole’s own social activism spread as his ad campaigns expanded. He was a founding board member of the homeless organization Help USA, is on the board of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and is the chairman of amFAR, the largest not-for-profit AIDS research organization. “I consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play such an important role in something that is so significant, so devastating on so many levels. And so I’m still on the train and I’m not slowing down.
“I jokingly tell people that you can be successful in this business by working half the day. Any 12 hours you choose. But the truth is, you have to work long hours, and you have to make personal choices and compromises. If this is going to work for you, if it’s going to be what you want it to be, you have to make some choices. And it’s hard to do. But somehow if you can make it more than just about making money, it becomes not so hard.”
Putting His Best Foot Forward
A few years ago, several staffers took Cole aside and told him that they wanted the chance to make a difference for their own causes. In response, Cole created a community outreach program inside the company. Then he established a fellowship program at Emory University intended to teach students the skills they need for community building and social activism. Cole hired one of the first Emory grads to run his internal community outreach initiative.
When the company reached its 25th anniversary, Cole decided to “widen the tent” and include the broader community in his efforts. He developed a message about awareness and volunteerism and, with his trademark tongue-in-cheek wording, christened the new program AWEARNESS. Published in 2008, the Cole-edited book Awearness: Inspiring Stories About How to Make a Difference, contains 86 essays from celebrities, politicians and everyday people who were inspired to effect social change, mainly through volunteerism.
“The goal was to inspire others on how to make a difference, and how with your extraordinary resources you can do extraordinary things, but also with ordinary resources, you could do the same,” Cole says. They set up an AWEARNESS presence online where people share their stories of change on the website and through the blog.
One Step at a Time
Cole’s wife, Maria, and their three daughters, are also deeply committed to giving back. In the aftermath of Haiti’s recent earthquake, Cole watched his legacies of risk-taking and social consciousness in action. “My youngest daughter’s name is Catie,” he says of the 16-year-old. “She came home from school one day, and she had ordered these bracelets on the Internet for 45 cents. She was selling them to kids at school for $5, and she wanted to send the money to an organization that helped Haiti relief.” Catie asked Cole to help her find a suitable organization to donate the funds. “Then she started selling them in local stores. She’s already raised several thousand dollars, and I’m helping sell them where I can,” he says. “We spent yesterday going around to local stores replenishing their supplies of rubber bracelets.”
Cole has made finding a balance between a relevant fashion message and a relevant social message one of his main priorities. He goes to great lengths to stay current, to keep up with his clientele, what they care about and what influences their choices, both in life and in fashion. “I read papers; I spend a lot of time on the Internet. I’m talking to people, and I’m just out there observing, trying to understand essentially what the relative landscape/canvas looks like. And I’m fascinated by it.”
His company continues to change with the times, an attitude he learned from his dad, whose knack for spotting the next big trend rocketed his own sales to $190 million by 1984, just two years before he retired (Charles Cole passed away in 1992). Of course, the younger Cole says, “the bigger you get, the harder it often is to change.” But the recent recession didn’t dissuade him from taking risks. “I started my company in 1982 during a recession, during a downturn in the economy, and we had no problem finding people. In fact, we didn’t have enough shoes to put on the feet once we got them in the door. There was a large audience and there was product to supply. “When things are going well, people want to do what’s working and more of it. It’s only in difficult times that people are open to creative alternatives. So we defined ourselves as that creative alternative.”
And as he has said before, “There are no hard and fast rules. That’s part of being a successful entrepreneur—the ability to not be married to a specific path.”