October 15, 2007 — “To be aware is more important than what you wear,” declared pun-loving Kenneth Cole during his keynote address Monday. Playing multiple roles as fashion icon, author, chairman and CEO of Kenneth Cole Productions, and social activist, Cole gave DMA07 attendees his perspective on balancing business with social responsibility.
Cole shared his experiences building his shoe company, from selling shoes out of a borrowed trailer, to the nearly $1.5 billion business it is today. “It’s the story of how a shoe company grew a social conscience as well as a business simultaneously,” Cole said. “The best solution is rarely the most expensive. It’s usually the most creative and the most resourceful.”
Fashion, Cole explained, is a humbling business, “because every day we have to reinvent ourselves.” This seems particularly true, given the dramatic change that US business and culture have undergone since Cole began his business 25 years ago.
For example, when Cole first started out, he had 44 department stores accounts in the US. Today, he said, that figure is down to three. The digital world too has transformed American lives and attention spans, Cole noted: “Today everyone has ADD…I was staggered to learn that even the word ‘ok’ is too long.”
As the man responsible for convincing consumers to buy square-toed shoes one season, and pointy-toed shoes the next, Cole admitted that he struggles with the idea of social responsibility. “It is great to be known for your shoes,” he told DMA07 delegates. “It is even better to be recognized for your soul.”
Cole admitted that he sometimes questions the significance of the fashion industry. “At the end of the day, nobody needs what we’re selling. We have to make them glad they thought they did, and we have to make them do it again.”
Although Cole said he believes that fashion serves an important purpose by giving people the ability to choose how they want to be seen by the world, he is also mindful that serious problems and hardships far outweigh fashion’s impact. “If you are ill, homeless, or don’t have food on the table, if you have HIV, then [fashion] is not very important.”
And Cole, it seems, has stood by his convictions. He’s long been active with the Board for The Foundation for AIDS Research. In 2005, he spearheaded the “We All Have AIDS” awareness campaign, which included T-shirts that benefited AIDS charities and expressed solidarity with those suffering from AIDS. Other charity campaigns have included relief funds for victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and a discount program for those donating shoes and clothing to the homeless.
Cole also has received numerous honors and awards, including Creative Coalition Spotlight award; Devine Design's Humanitarian of the Year, 1996; CFDA's award for Humanitarian Excellence, 1996; Mothers' Voices Extraordinary Voice award; Council of Foundations Humanitarian Leadership award, 1996; Footwear News Person of the Year, 1996; FFANY's Fashion Medal of Honor award, 1997; Amnesty International Media Spotlight award, 1998; T. Kenyon Holly award, 2000.
Cole ended by encouraging marketers and consumers to take responsible action, even if it means swimming against the tide of general approval. Besides, moving in the right or wrong direction can be a matter of perspective. He concluded his talk with a story illustrating this point: A man driving home on a dark night receives a frantic call from his wife. "Get off the road right now," she yells. "There's some lunatic driving the wrong way against traffic!" To which the man responds, "It's worse that than, honey-- where I am, there's hundreds of them!
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