More than 30 years ago, Kenneth Cole wanted a showroom for his line of shoes, but, unable to afford a proper space, he decided to park a trailer filled with shoes in Midtown Manhattan. Realizing he would only be allowed a permit for a trailer if he was a utility company repairman or somehow connected to a motion picture company, he changed the name of his company and found a cameraman. He sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in those 2.5 days. And it was then that Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. was born. That was back in 1982.
Cole also found a passion for social activism, particularly AIDS awareness and research.
“In those days, if you mentioned AIDS, people would assume you were either Haitian, an IV drug user, or gay. I was a single male designer, so I knew everyone would think I was Haitian,” Cole quipped.
Cole spoke on Penn’s campus last month about his past 30 years in fashion and social engagement. The interactive discussion coincided with the release of his book, This is a Kenneth Cole Production. Amy Levin, founder of the college fashion blog College Fashionista, moderated. The event was sponsored by Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center and Undergraduate Career Services.
Since the ’80s, Cole has continued to support AIDS awareness and research as a “big believer in the power of independent storytelling,” which explains his position as a Sundance board member and his involvement in the documentary The Battle of AmFAR. It tells the story of the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and will be released on HBO on World Aids Day (Dec. 1).
Due to his love of social media, Cole coordinated his talk at Penn with a live stream of tweets projected to the audience—and encouraged them to ask questions online using the hashtag “#30yearsbold.” However, we were feeling a bit social media shy. We turned instead to a live Q-and-A session that was entirely quotable.
During the session, Cole said:
• “My job is not to tell you what to wear but to ask what you want and give it to you, but not in the way you expected.”
• “What isn’t proprietary is the brand.”
• “Everybody has become their own brand, and they curate their brand on Twitter, Instagram … my hope is that people will welcome me to be a part of their brand.”
• “It’s a great industry because you can’t be complacent.”
• “I’ve earned the right to be considered, but every day I must earn the right to be chosen.”
• “What you do is not who you are.”
• “What you need to do, by the way, is you need to follow me.”
As the Q-and-A session had to end and transitioned to a book signing, Cole encouraged us to continue the conversation by sending questions via Twitter. I responded to his request. After all of the intellectual business questions, I just wanted to know a simple thing:
As a professed shoe addict, I quite agree with Mr. Cole.