Kenneth Cole on ‘branding’—and fighting for closet space

Fashion / October 05, 2018

I’m always in the mood to listen to fashion designers and their stories. You can trust that they are unique, full of insight, and offer a different point of view—not just about fashion, but about what’s happening in the world.

Kenneth Cole is one of these designers. He’s been in the business for 35 years, starting out by selling from a rented truck. Upon learning that permits in New York are only granted to production companies, he named his company Kenneth Cole Production, and applied to shoot a film called “The Birth of a Shoe Company.”

Today, the brand is still growing with six different lines and numerous stores across the globe, along with a website and a dynamic social media presence. I was lucky that on my last trip to New York, I got to visit their studio and talk to the man himself.

I admire how Cole was able to organically adapt to it all, and is now in the middle of influencer culture and the changing demographic of fashion. “It doesn’t feel like 35 years,” he says. “Every day is a new day, and every day you have to start over again, and I think everybody has his or her own brand.”

I was impressed when he said that. In a world where personal branding is everyone’s concern, Cole is thinking of synergy. He’s not thinking about competition. He’s more concerned about impact. “Everyone is consumed by their mobile devices and their social networks. It’s naive to think mine is any more important than yours,” he says. “So how do I make what I do meaningful to the both of us? How do I make what I do important for your brand so that you can make what you do good for mine?”

Cole is also aware of how everyone has their own voice and message. “I used to tell this story of how I used to think it’s my job to convince everyone to wear my brand, but I came to realize that everybody has a brand.” He even emphasizes how it’s a continuing process every day. “They wake up in the morning and curate their brand, their Facebook page, Twitter feed and their Instagram. They don’t just curate the content, but also the audience.”

He concludes that it’s better to support these stories. “So I’ve come to realize that my job is not to sell you my brand, but to encourage you to make my brand part of your brand, and to cobrand.”

Cole’s approach stems first from a practical dilemma. “Everybody’s closets are full. No one has extra space in their closets. One of the most precious commodities today is closet space,” he says. Given this, Cole says that it’s his job not to create something trendy. He defines personal style: “It’s more than just what you put on your body.” You need to make a meaningful impression every day if you allow yourself to be more than just what you wear.”

I think this is why you’ll see how Kenneth Cole as a brand produces shoes that think about the lifestyle of their consumers. You get shoes with microclimate systems that keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For the heels, he integrated a rebound technology that makes them feel like sneakers so you can walk in them all day.

I asked if this is connected to how he’s a natural in the urban jungle, being a New York native. “There is a conscious effort to integrate form and function in everything we do all the time.” He’s also a big fan of making dressing up effortless in order to have more time for other endeavors. Cole is all about “intuitive dressing,” where you don’t have think when putting together an outfit. Everything goes with everything else.”

It makes sense when you think about how Cole marries his social advocacies with his work. “It’s a privilege that I could do that. I was able to marry a lot of my personal choices with business, which makes it work for me.” The product is the ethos of the brand, which is to “look good for good.” “The company has a very strong commitment to role models as real models,” he says.

When everyone is going after the top spot, Cole sets himself apart by saying we all can occupy the same space and help each other get there. And in this world that’s drowning in a rush of what’s hot and what’s not, that’s refreshing. And that will last through the next 35 years, at least.

Fashion, Fashion Advice, Kenneth Cole, Kenneth Cole New York, New York, Style