Much like his ubiquitous shoes, designer Kenneth Cole is stylish in an unassuming way; he's asymmetrically good-looking and deliberately dishevelled, and he commands attention by speaking almost inaudibly. One morning, as he rides an elevator in midtown Manhattan, Cole is telling the story behind his first big ad campaign, which established his company in 1985: "The idea was to get people talking about AIDS," he says, virtually in a whisper, "so we used all the top female models and multiethnic and -racial children. Children are cute no matter whose they are. But I didn't want them wearing my shoes, because I didn't want to be perceived as commercializing this. So I had them all barefoot." Cole has a rapt audience of two young women who are clearly trying to discern his identity. "And, um, the campaign was: 'For the future of our children.' " He pauses, bowing his head slightly. "And it was very meaningful." The elevator jerks to a stop; before she exits, the woman to his left asks, "What are the shoes?" "Kenneth Cole," he replies, and she does a wide-eyed double take, literally tripping over herself on her way out. Cole laughs, not so much at her klutziness as at her awe.
It's hardly a surprise that his new admirer knows the 45-year-old Cole's name but not his face. Since he opened shop in 1982, renting out a broken-down trailer to hawk a tiny line of women's footwear (including an $84 pair of stonewashed-denim boots), the Brooklyn-born designer has transformed his company into one of the leading labels in contemporary fashion -- one that grossed more than an estimated $300 million last year -- all the while letting his ads serve as his public image. Taking a cue from Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, Cole began licensing his name in 1988 and now profitably slaps his moniker on everything from eyeglasses to jewelry to menswear. His sportswear line, which debuted just two years ago, will pull in an estimated $100 million this year. Emboldened by its success, last fall Cole signed a licensing agreement with Liz Claiborne to launch his first womenswear line, which he will unveil later this year. Though he insists that "this was never about everybody knowing the brand, or about my name being on the tip of everyone's tongue," Cole is clearly positioning himself as a peer of the big four: Klein, Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger.
His company now operates 41 retail stores in 25 cities from Atlanta to Amsterdam and plans to open a giant flagship on Fifth Avenue next fall. Cole took his company public in 1994; its stock price has jumped by 144 percent in the past twelve months, pumped up by analysts who see the company as fashion's Next Big Thing. "You can compare us to Donna and Calvin aesthetically, that urban fashion with a European inspiration," says Cole's chief operating officer, Paul Blum. "But they all built their business selling very highly priced product. We're selling urban product at a price the consumer can really afford. It's a very different philosophy."
"Our customers aspire to wear Dolce & Gabbana, so we package that and give it to them," says Cole COO Paul Blum. "We make high fashion affordable."
In some respects, Cole is most akin to Ralph Lauren, a fellow middle-class kid who hit on a specific class-based style -- in Lauren's case, Waspy American aristocracy -- and packaged it in a way that was both accessible and aspirational, reinventing himself in the process. Blum qualifies the comparison to Lauren. "I don't want to name any names, but a traditional designer might want to create a blue-blood image that someone might aspire to be -- like a lord or something," he says. "We're urban. That's more realistic to aspire to. Really." Yet unlike Lauren, who has modeled in his own ads and used his own lifestyle -- genuine or cultivated -- as a form of branding, Cole has relied on his faceless rep as a left-leaning philanthrope, that guy with the quirky ads who's married to a Cuomo, golfs with Bill Clinton, and hangs out with the Kennedys.
And unlike Calvin Klein, who also used to appear in his own ads and self-consciously used his own persona as a tool to market his company, Cole, who commutes from Westchester, has for the most part eschewed the city's social whirl and adamantly declined the limelight. (He once said his idea of a good time was to hang out with his father-in-law, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, up in Albany, "where the smart people are.") But that seems to be changing. "Our associates are asking me to be out there more," admits Cole, who paints his decision to pose as People magazine's Sexiest Businessman of 1998 as a near crisis of conscience. "I was very torn," he says. "Because the brand was about something not so trite and trivial but hopefully something a lot more substantial. We cannot disregard the message we've worked eighteen years to communicate. We are not just a pretty face."
Indeed, he sometimes seems slightly embarrassed to be something so frivolous as a fashion designer: Kenneth Cole demands to be taken seriously. Though he claims to loathe fashion shows -- "I gotta spend $250,000 on a twenty-minute show, and it's an obscene waste" -- he is nevertheless staging his fifth menswear show on February 3 at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Typically, Cole wants to make sure the Gucci-clad buyers in his audience will go home with something more meaningful than a look sheet. As Cole's models saunter down the runway, a large monitor will project statistics about the homeless, what might appear to be a rather risky ploy in the wake of John Galliano's misbegotten foray into "homeless chic" at the recent couture shows in Paris. But Cole isn't concerned. "I don't know what Galliano was thinking," he says of his colleague from Christian Dior. "Apparently he dressed people as homeless and sent them down the runway. That's not very tasteful and somewhat exploitive." But Cole points out that he's not seeking inspiration from the dispossessed; he's just taking advantage of a captive audience. "It seems so frivolous to bring the fashion press to one place and not deal with something bigger than just clothes."
"I could write Kenneth a love letter," enthuses his friend and fellow nouvelle radical Billy Baldwin, who has modeled for Cole and long been a fan of his cause-related ads. "They've become his signature," he says. "Every designer finds his own angle." But as Cole's business rapidly expands, pithy social commentary may no longer be sufficient. His associates are urging him to develop a persona that embodies the brand -- like Calvin's or Donna's or Ralph's, one that will set him apart in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Except even Cole doesn't seem quite sure just what that is, or should be.