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Kenneth Cole on Remaining Relevant: ‘Every Day We Have to Earn the Right to Be Chosen’

“Remain essential” was the message Kenneth Cole imparted to brands as the Magic trade show kicked off in Las Vegas Monday morning.

In a discussion with Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman, the event’s keynote speaker addressed the challenges of starting and maintaining a fashion business through the ages—and overcoming the headwinds posed by a once-in-a-lifetime event like the pandemic. “This has been a year unlike anything any of us have ever lived through,” Cole said, noting how the Covid crisis has brought about a “disproportionate focus on the planet and the mental and physical health of its inhabitants.”

Cole has always wanted his eponymous fashion business to stand for more than just footwear and apparel. During the ’80s HIV/AIDS crisis, Cole debuted a campaign designed to alleviate the stigma of the disease and raise public health awareness—an unorthodox stance for a fashion brand to take at the time. “When I started my business in the ’80s, we were going through a downturn in the economy,” he said. “We were also going through the beginning of an epidemic that arguably was worse than this one.”

As fear gripped the globe, Cole felt compelled to take a stand on behalf of those impacted, and that passion led to his serving on the board of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, for the next 30 years. Jumping into a relevant cultural conversation feet first put the brand on the map as not just a purveyor of product, but a thought leader as well. Today, as the world is plagued by similar uncertainties and anxieties, “the goal is to stay relevant,” Cole said. “People are anxious and looking for inspiration,” and brands must be at the forefront of addressing the concerns on consumers’ minds, he added.

Five years after the AIDS campaign, in 1989, Kenneth Cole launched a campaign to help the homeless by soliciting shoppers to donate their unwanted shoes in exchange for a small discount on its products, yielding  more than 2 million pairs for those in need.

Today, Cole has shifted his focus to promoting mental health awareness alongside the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Cole founded his own activation, the Mental Health Coalition, in 2020, working in tandem with social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to normalize conversations about mental health. “I’ve never had a pair of shoes that everyone wanted to buy, but this is an issue that everyone has embraced in a meaningful way,” he said.

Now more than ever, Cole believes brands must showcase their values through game-changing work. Shoppers—especially the younger, more conscious generation that is beginning to age into its purchasing power—will accept nothing less. “It’s not about just giving money away, you need to make an impact,” he said. “You need to articulate that impact, and you need to be transparent about the impact,” because today’s consumers are more sophisticated in their understanding of social issues—and attuned to PR spin—than ever before, he added.

What’s more, Cole told Sourcing Journal, modern consumers have their own personal brands to maintain, built on their singular preferences and values. Kenneth Cole must act almost as a co-branding partner, rather than an arbiter of taste.

Fashion icon Kenneth Cole spoke with Sourcing Journal's Edward Hertzman at Magic Las Vegas on how brands must prioritize more than fashion.

Kenneth Cole

“You have to be present and out there, having conversations physically and socially, and look at what people are responding to,” he said. “It used to be my job to tell you what I thought you should want, but I learned quickly that I have to give you what you want in a way that’s unexpected,” fresh and new, he said.

Even for a household name like Kenneth Cole, the work of remaining relevant in such a crowded space is ongoing. “There’s so many choices that customers have, I think after 30 years we’ve earned the right to be considered,” he said. “But every day we have to earn the right to be chosen.”

Maintaining his brand’s integrity has not been without its challenges, Cole admitted. While Kenneth Cole went public in 1994, the designer pulled back to private status again in 2012, seeking to regain control over certain elements of the business.

“I was traded on the New York Stock Exchange for nearly 20 years, and I had a whole new breadth of life the day we went private,” he said. “The public markets have value only if you need access to resources,” but can be “debilitating in some ways” for a creative with a forward-facing vision, he added.

“You’re running a business based on expectations and short-term needs, but if you’re driving a car you need to be looking more than five feet in front of you,” Cole added. Going public changed the company’s objectives in a way that the executive found detrimental to its ability to grow and evolve.

Inventory was viewed as a liability, not an asset, he said, while spending on functions like marketing was seen as an expense, rather than an investment in the brand. “If you’re running a public company,” and are beholden to shareholder interests, Cole said, “I don’t believe you’re ever going to maximize or optimize your approach.”

Going private again has also renewed Cole’s liberty to intertwine values with business. “It’s great to be known for your shoes, but it’s better to be known for your soul,” he added.

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