Skip to comments.Kenneth Cole's overt politics set him apart
Posted on 08/29/2003 7:58:29 AM PDT by TastyManatees
Kenneth Cole's overt politics set him apart
By Robin Givhan
The Washington Post
August 28, 2003
NEW YORK -- Fashion industry entrepreneur Kenneth Cole has, for 20 years, used snappy one-liners to promote a social agenda, burnish his corporate image and sell his shoes.
As early as April 1987, in the service of moving his midpriced footwear, Cole's advertisements boldly advocated AIDS education. "Our shoes aren't the only thing we encourage you to wear," read the tag line on an ad showing a single condom.
To underscore the numbers of Americans who live on the streets, Cole's advertisements have depicted the tattered work boots of the homeless -- in lieu of a shiny pair of loafers. The ads promised shoppers a discount on new shoes if they donated a pair of their old ones to the homeless: "Have a heart, give a sole."
In the beginning, AIDS and homelessness were the main focus of Cole's social and political commentary, but as his company has grown to include sportswear, accessories and fragrances, the scope of his advertised opinions expanded to encompass everything from patriotism to pay equity. His ads have been audacious enough to weigh in with humor on the mood of the country after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, with billboards that rang in 2002 by declaring, "Red, white and blue. It's the new black."
Political commentary has become the only thing that clearly distinguishes his company from competitors like Nine West, another brand known for its under-$200 fashion shoes.
Gucci advertising promises its customers a night of sweaty sex. Hermes ads suggest that a shopper has finally earned the keys to a private club. Buy a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes, his billboards announce, and you just might be responsible for bringing one homeless person in from the cold.
Kenneth Cole Productions is the only American fashion company that has built its reputation from a series of soapbox stances, and Cole spends a large percentage of any conversation about fashion fretting over the industry's shallowness. His tone is both apologetic for 7th Avenue's frivolity and prideful that he so astutely recognizes it. "Deep down, I know none of it changes people's lives," he says. "Our goal is to make you want it."
He is quick to declare that no one needs what he sells and if his very existence is to be justified, then his position must be used to accomplish something more important and substantial.
Just as surely as some designers stock their front row with celebrities or others create an invigorating pandemonium at the front door, Cole plays the gadfly at his runway presentations, offering up a series of wry taped comments imploring the audience to use condoms, support abortion rights or volunteer in their community.
"No matter what I do, I try to make it more than just about our business agenda," he says. "With the world's fashion press gathered in one room, to not take the opportunity to say more than just what to wear, it just seems inappropriate and wasteful and irresponsible."
In celebration of Kenneth Cole Productions' 20th anniversary, the designer has collaborated on a book: "Footnotes: What You Stand For Is More Important Than What You Stand In," to be published in the fall. "Footnotes" tells, through the founder's eyes and his often glib prose, the story of his company.
Incorporating a social agenda into a marketing plan does not make one's commitment to the common good any less sincere, but it can heighten expectations about the company and the man whose name it bears. Cole has cultivated the sense that he is a thoughtful man who has, by circumstances, fallen into a lightweight industry. The image created on billboards -- where pointed ads resemble a quickly dashed off memo from the man himself -- and at fashion shows is that Cole has an inner eloquence champing to elaborate on his perfectly calibrated one-liners.
Source of conflict
Cole says he is conflicted about taking advantage of his position, one that allows him to reach a wide audience of consumers and that gives him access to media and the sort of famous people who attract attention. "There are many people who feel politics has no place in fashion, that social perspective has no place in fashion, and so my voice is a little louder," he says.
Cole argues that his opinions are social commentary rather than politics, a distinction that probably has more to do with negative connotations associated with politicians than any true semantic difference.
Social activism -- and another of Cole's favorite phrases, "public service" -- implies an idealistic agenda aimed at aiding humanity. "Politics" can suggest duplicity, self-interest and expediency.
Cole has been entangled in politics since he married former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's daughter Maria in 1987 and became part of the Cuomo-Kennedy-Schwarzenegger family tree.
"The truth is I don't like to think of myself as a Democrat per se," Cole says, noting that he advocates free trade and less government intervention in business. "In certain ways it minimizes what we do. This is not political. Because of my relationships, it's perceived as political. But what I do is social."
Still, his advertisements have, at times, been obviously political and, at least once, blatantly partisan. Cole financed ads that criticized the Bush administration, mocked former Vice President Dan Quayle ("Don't forget to vot") and derided New York Gov. George Pataki -- his father-in-law's gubernatorial rival in the 1996 election.
Here is a businessman who is vice chairman of the board of directors of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, who has embraced cause marketing like no other American CEO. Yet he waffles on the subject of his company and its intrinsic relationship to his politics.
"I try not to offer an opinion unless it's asked for," Cole says. "Unless it's sought and encouraged, at great emotional cost I will try to restrain myself."
Why deny the political stance that so obviously exists? Like his advertisements, Cole isn't primarily trying to persuade the undecided or engage those who hold opposing views. Instead, he archly validates the belief of a young, cosmopolitan liberal that she or he was right all along -- about gun control, about abortion rights, AIDS research, the 2000 election, about everything.
Even the designer suggests that his is not so much a voice as a set of talking points.
"As much as I want to give the brand a voice, I don't because there's something to be said for obscurity," Cole says. "It's not unlike a candidate. The less you know about a candidate the more you like them. When they start defining themselves, there's all sorts of reasons not to vote for them."
(Excerpt) Read more at chicagotribune.com ...
"Isnt it a womans right to choose? After all shes the one carrying it
I decided long ago, Kenneth Cole was not a brand I would purchase.
You mean the guy actually found someone to be his "beard."