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The Un-Calvin

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It's a little past noon on a Wednesday, and Cole is anxiously preparing for a business trip to Europe; it's his last day in the office, and he has a clogged itinerary. First he meets with the contractor who is building his new offices in Hell's Kitchen ("The neighborhood's a little cooler"), where the company -- now headquartered in the Carnegie building -- will relocate this summer. Next is a merchandise meeting with his senior vice-president, a trip to his midtown showroom to review fall handbags, a thank-you to videotape for overseas factory workers, and a live CNN interview, his cell phone ringing all the while. Cole has taken to working from home on Fridays, he says, so he can spend more time with his three young daughters. "I believe much of our lives is about guilt management," he says, reclining behind his expansive oak desk. "I feel very connected to my kids, which I didn't before." How, exactly? "We have more of an ongoing relationship," he says with a curious gravity. His sister, Abbie Cole, tends to speak less guardedly about the family: "My nieces will set up tables outside their rooms and sell things, but you find out afterwards that you can't take anything with you. He's the only person that could have come from." She laughs. "Kenneth will probably kill me." Indeed, Kenneth Cole -- both the man and the company -- is seemingly casual yet precisely modulated. It's evidenced in Cole's aggressively relaxed dress: belted indigo-blue jeans so stiff they seem starched; an undone tie, unwrinkled, slung -- carefully and evenly -- under his collar; a manicured five-o'clock shadow. His current offices are an ode to neutrality, bathed in hues of beige, tan, and oatmeal (though he excitedly reports the new offices will be housed in an authentic old warehouse with "some very urban characteristics -- metal planks, wood beams, very uncontrived"). The wall behind Cole's desk is studded with twelve framed black-and-white photographs from previous ad campaigns, all artfully askew. The employees who saunter through the carpeted halls are outfitted -- voluntarily -- in black shoes, black pants or skirts, and white shirts. "It's almost cultlike, the people who work for him," says his good friend Bill Apfelbaum, an ad exec who lives in Greenwich. "He is just so magnetic."

After completing his morning meetings, Cole saunters down the hall to record his greetings to his overseas licensing group, and the "magnetism" Apfel-baum extols nearly overwhelms the room: "The message is very real," Cole says, barely blinking under the harsh lights. "It's bigger than a product. You're more than what you wear, which is so much a part of the fiber of this organization." (Cole, it should be noted, is a huge fan of puns.) "So I want to thank you, and I know the future only brings better things." He smiles. "Which, as they say, is only fitting."

"The puns," says Cole's friend and distant in-law Robert Kennedy Jr., "are not funny. He did a whole speech one time filled with them. I think people complained. I'm sure I have." "He is capable of some of the worst puns ever," says Mario Cuomo. "I call him my pun-in-law." Aside from his unfortunate sense of humor, Cole's sole (!) flaw is, apparently, a fierce sense of competitiveness. "He hates to lose," says Cuomo. "He once gave me a huge gash over the eye while we were playing basketball, then asked for a rematch -- while I was still bleeding." "I've known Kenneth for eighteen years," says comedian David Brenner, "and I have yet to see the dent in the armor. I've never known him to be visibly angry. If I met him today, I'd think he's a phony, but he really is the American dream living -- and handsome, huh? Wow, is he handsome!"

"When you sit around at dinner talking about the death penalty," says Cole, "it's hard to find relevance in what color shoes will be next season."

This kind of fervent testimonial isn't uncommon. "Ken doesn't go out of his way to be sexy -- he just is," gushes Apfelbaum, who, like Brenner, says he has never known Cole to be upset or frustrated. "I have never seen him hang up on someone, or raise his voice, or throw a golf club," adds Apfelbaum. "I can't come up with a flaw." Yet he admits that his friend of ten years is something of an enigma. Of Cole's competitive streak, Apfelbaum says, "I think it stems from his childhood. But I don't know much about that." Blum doesn't, either, but he thinks the aspirational aesthetic that defines the brand is a direct outgrowth of how Cole felt as a young man, commuting from the place he lived to the place he longed to be. "To bring yourself up to another level," says Blum, "you've got to be somewhat unhappy with what you have."

Though reluctant to divulge much in the way of personal information, Cole alludes to a complicated relationship with his late father, Charles Cole, who lived with his family in Great Neck and owned a shoe factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "My father was very committed to his work," says Cole. "First and foremost." Kenneth was on his way to law school when he took a summer off to help his dad, whose sales associate had just resigned. "I felt a responsibility to learn the business quickly, should anything happen to my father," says Cole in a rare moment of candor,"because this factory was feeding the entire family. But it was not my career choice -- taking the subway to Williamsburg and walking twelve blocks to make women's shoes." Yet Cole says he chose to view his predicament as "an opportunity," and it cheers and visibly relieves him to talk about his upbringing as a series of vague object lessons in "the process" and "empowerment." To wit: He recalls his industriousness at age 15, when he got a job at Shea Stadium. "That was a-ma-zing," he says, squinting for punctuation. "I couldn't get tickets for the 1969 World Series, so I thought, Imagine if I could work as a vendor! Invariably, I found a way to balance my passion for sports with this desire to make money." Inspired, he next got a job selling peanuts at Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, where he says he "learned how to survive." In what sense, exactly? "It was like an inner-city-type job," he says, straight-faced. "A lot of the tough city kids would be in the corner, pitching quarters. And I was out there hustling." He pauses for effect. "You learn to mind your place." Soon after joining the family business, El Greco, Cole, who had graduated from Atlanta's Emory University in 1976, jettisoned law school and began traveling to Europe, picking up trade tips and designing shoes. The company had its biggest success in 1978 with the Candie's slide, though it was not an original creation. "We found the shoe in Europe and trademarked the name," Cole says, "and, invariably, it sold." In fact, that shoe made millions for El Greco; Cole left the business soon after to start his own footwear company. His father declined to give him a cut of the Candie's profits. "I think Daddy wanted me to do well," he says diplomatically, "but he wasn't going to help me in the process." His face brightens. "But that was okay. I figured that this was a great challenge. And I went and started a business in my apartment."

While Cole's disinclination to delve into familial strife is understandable, others think there's a far more pragmatic rationale for his inscrutability. "Kenneth is very image-conscious," says his younger brother Neil, who started the No Excuses line of jeans in the eighties (more famous for scandalized spokesmodels Donna Rice and Marla Maples than for the denim itself) and now owns and manages Candie's. "He doesn't want to admit any sort of vulnerability, because that will hurt the brand he's building. And the brand is him." Neil, who also worked at El Greco and says he is close to his brother, adds that they hardly toiled in the Dickensian squalor of industrial Williamsburg. "I don't know if Kenneth would like me to say this," he says tentatively, "but we definitely grew up in an upper-class neighborhood." "I think Kenneth comes off as a self-made man, and that's not the case," says a former business associate of Charles Cole's. "The company his father created was really the start of the business for Kenneth and Neil."

If Cole's particular genius isn't aesthetic -- really, he's more of a fashion interpreter than he is a designer, culling ideas from high-end houses like Prada and tweaking them -- he's always had a canny instinct for marketing. "In the beginning," Cole concedes, "my ads were probably more distinctive than the product. For years, people would say, 'Are you Kenneth Cole? I love your ads.' And I'd say, 'That's nice. What do you think of the shoes?' " But Cole was rightly confident that he would fill a gap in the marketplace -- the fuzzy demands of the underserved customer, one with an interest in trends who was willing to pay $150 for a bit of mainstream urbanity. "In shoes, the higher price points are the trendsetters," agrees Kate Betts, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar. "His stuff has a funky streetwear feeling, but his strength is the price."


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