The master of the “urban uniform” sat down with us to talk about starting his iconic business, having a fearless voice, and the responsibility of dressing millions of people every day.
In the early stages of Kenneth Cole, you found a loophole and set up a trailer on the streets of New York to show your collection. Where did that come from?
I don’t know if it’s hustling as much as creative, resourceful problem solving, but I usually feel that how you address a problem suggests not-so-obvious solutions. I had a little bit of money and only a little bit of time to get into business and to distinguish and define myself.
Is there anything you did in the early days that you can’t do now?
There’s a lot that I did in those days that you can’t do today. But there are other things you can do today that you couldn’t do then. You can reach people in ways you never could, and you can connect people with ideas and concepts like you never could before. This new world has become very small. In the fashion industry, we refer to it as a borderless world.
You’ve been politically outspoken in some of your campaigns, which is something a lot of brands try to avoid. Why is that important to you?
I’ve wanted to speak to people about not just what’s on their body but what’s on their mind. It’s part of the business. We’re always buying new clothes because we’re refreshing ourselves.
“I think your voice is often your greatest accessory, and if you can find your voice, you can open doors you never could before.”
You famously write a lot of the Kenneth Cole campaign slogans. How did that start?
You know, it happened at the very beginning of the business. I learned early on that those powerful few words can often linger. I’ve always thought about how to say as much as I can in as few words as possible — long before the 140 characters on Twitter.
Do you worry about saying things online because of all the outrage it can attract?
As a brand, we’ve always sought to provoke healthy discussion and to engage people. I think your voice is often your greatest accessory, and if you can find your voice, you can open doors you never could before. My voice, which is the voice of the brand, is progressive. For 30 years I’ve mostly spoken about the same issues: women’s rights, social justice, equal rights. We have found our voice and we have found like-minded audiences.
As you were building Kenneth Cole into what it is today, was there a watershed moment where you said, “Okay, now we’ve finally reached the big leagues”?
Actually, I tweeted about this yesterday. If we spend too much time pondering our pasts, we lose the need and urgency to do what we do in the present. You can take a few moments to celebrate it, but then you have to move on because everything moves so fast, it’s like driving your car and spending a little bit too much time looking in the rear-view mirror. You’re not going to get where you need to go — not alive, anyway.
How does New York inform your life and your work?
I think New York very much speaks to my own personal values. Our mission is to be the global standard for New York style and social consciousness.
You dress millions of people every day and talk about making an “urban uniform.” What does that mean?
Nobody empties their closets at the end of the season and starts over again, so we just want to kind of refresh every season. That’s what we try to be and try to do. If I do my job well, people will say “You look great,” not “Where did you buy that sweater and how much did you pay for your shoes?” The product is really meant to empower the wearer, and hopefully, if they have confidence in their choices, then it will do that.