Originally created 10/13/03

Business and life lessons from Kenneth Cole



NEW YORK -- Fashion designer Kenneth Cole makes big, bold statements with a quiet, almost anonymous voice.

"I've got the best of both worlds," he says. "People know my name - I can always get a reservation at a restaurant - but, yet, no one usually knows what I look like so I can walk down the street and have my privacy."

Cole was the first to show fall's mod fashion trend when his runway show opened New York's Fashion Week in February but he didn't generate as much hype as fellow designer Marc Jacobs whose similar 1960s-inspired skirts were shorter and soundtrack was punk rock.

His advertisements are often done in simple black lettering on a white background - but are known for strong social messages, such as "Red, white and blue: It's the new black" on a billboard that went up shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and "It is a woman's right to choose. After all, she is the one carrying it" as a motto for handbag shopping. When Cole himself says insightful things, it's in a barely audible tone and done only after careful consideration.

But then he comes out with: "I've kind of hovered for a long time over the relevance of what I do because, historically, the fashion business has been perceived as trivial and frivolous. I know nobody needs what I sell. There isn't anyone in America who needs another pair of black shoes. Or a tie, for that matter. So it's my job to make them want it."

In the new book "Footnotes: What You Stand for Is More Important Than What You Stand In" (Simon & Schuster), Cole outlines his role in creating a company that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. He also examines how the world around the company has changed in those same two decades.

"I used to think my job as a designer was to tell people what to wear. Wrong!" he says. "It's my job to give people what they want, in a way they aren't expecting."

Kenneth Cole Productions was born in a tractor-trailer full of women's shoes outside a Manhattan hotel where established footwear manufacturers were selling their goods. (Cole got a permit to park on the street by posing as a film production company, hence the company's name.)

Since then, the company has launched men's footwear, accessories, menswear and womenswear, and licenses hosiery, luggage, watches and eyewear. Last year, sales totaled $433 million.

As chairman and CEO, Cole, 49, maintains control of the overall design aesthetic and the company's "messages," but he says he can't be in charge of everything. That would take its toll on his family, including wife Maria Cuomo, daughter of New York's former governor, and their three daughters, who range in age from 9 to 16.

In "Footnotes," Cole recalls a particularly hectic period in 1992 when he was preparing to take the company public.

One of his daughters had come to his home office and asked if he could do something with her. When he said she'd have to wait, she responded with, "Why do you work so much?"

"Because it needs to get done," Cole told the then-7-year-old.

She asked that question a week later - and got a similar answer.

But it was Cole who got frustrated. Recounting his daughter's questions to a friend, Cole said, "I don't understand, she's a bright kid, but clearly she just doesn't get it."

"Maybe you don't," the friend said.

Cole writes that's when he knew the company was running him instead of vice versa, and that's when the Type-A boss made some changes. He even goes on vacation now, he just packs all his digital toys (including a personal digital assistant, a digital tape recorder and the smallest cell phone you've ever seen) to keep in touch with the office.

But as he has delegated some aspects of day-to-day business to others, the advertising, and the charitable and political causes have become even more important to Cole.

"The business can't just be me anymore," says Cole. "But my social message ... it's genuine, it's not marketed and it's not interpreted for its audience. It's real," he says.

Cole doesn't seem overly concerned about turning off potential customers with his social statements. "I think more people than not appreciate it (my message) for what it is: one person's opinion."

He has been surprised, though, at the reaction of the public to some of his ads. In the book, Cole says the 1986 tagline, "Regardless of the right bear to arms, we in no way condone the right to bare feet," was supposed to be his way of tackling the gun control issue without taking a side.

"We did not condone firearms, nor did we expressly condemn them, but when it came to footwear, our position was clear," Cole explains.

But the letters of protest started to flood in. And in real Kenneth Cole fashion, Cole fought back by bombarding the world with more information. The next ads included the sayings, "The family gun is more likely to kill you than a stranger," and, "There are more federal regulations on a teddy bear than a handgun."

In hindsight, Cole says his next step probably went too far. He wrote an open letter to gun manufacturers, gun enthusiast Charlton Heston, 26 governors, the entire state of Texas and Kmart shoppers that said, "Congratulations. We hear your product is really making a killing."

Cole insists he never sets out to incite a specific action other than buying shoes and his other products. What he's really interested in is sparking debate.

Sitting in his office that overlooks the Hudson River, Cole shows a visitor all the newspapers he reads each day - though he avoids the fashion and gossip pages. "I have a responsibility to be informed. To be a part of the community, I have to know what's going on in the community."

Considering his own strong, well-researched opinions, it seems sort of odd that Cole landed - and is successful - in a business that relies on fads and fickle buyers.

But Cole sees fashion as a commentary on society: "Fashion is very much a reflection of the times, both individually and collectively. It's where we are at any given point of time."

On the Net:

http://www.kennethcole.com