Falling somewhere between affordable and aspirational, Cole's price points are largely responsible for the instant success of his cosmopolitan men's line, which has a slightly European feel but is in no way intimidating. "Our guys aspire to wear Dolce & Gabbana, so we package that and give it to them," says Paul Blum. "It's called the international urban aesthetic," continues Blum, "We make high fashion affordable." Part of the brilliance of Cole's clothes is that they are akin to a well-crafted uniform: Unless you are truly a moron, it's nearly impossible to look unfashionable in his designs. "My goal is to make wardrobing easy," says Cole. "We use neutrals and fabrics with lots of stretch, a little bit of shine. Modern." "People don't want their clothes arriving before they do," concurs Blum. "We're kind of an accessory, even in clothing." It's true, and though it seems nearly every New Yorker owns at least one pair of Cole's shoes, this ubiquity is a weakness as well as a strength. "Kenneth's designs are not evolving the category," says one observer who, like Cole, was raised in the industry. "You don't see a lot of editorial credits for Kenneth Cole. But it's very clear that he's a savvy marketer."
Both Cole and Blum insist that Cole is the house designer, not the brand manager. Still, the process is incredibly collaborative: Cole, says Blum, comes up with "the vision," which the product people put on paper. The production-development people, often the licensees, begin executing the designs, adding components and colors, and Cole then edits the collection until it meets his approval. "Kenneth is the creative director for ads and product," says Blum. "He sets the tone."
From the back of the chauffeured Town Car ferrying him to his CNN interview (where he will punnily exhort fellow retailers to "commit with all your sole" and "put ourselves in the customer's proverbial shoes"), Cole reiterates that he is not as consumed with marketing as with "invariably elevating the product." He says he's always been socially and politically motivated yet can't pinpoint why. "It's like, 'Why climb a mountain?' " he says blithely, reaching for his ringing cell phone. "It was very brave of Kenneth to rally behind aids as publicly as he has," says his friend Lisa Birnbach, author of The Preppy Handbook. "Does he look like a hero?" she asks. "I don't know. I don't know what a hero looks like." As for criticism that Cole's activism is really a shrewd marketing ploy to generate buzz and create a beneficent persona -- he is offhandedly sympathetic. "I certainly understand people being sensitive to that, because I was," Cole says, before launching into the story behind the '85 aids campaign for the second time. Again, his loose-lipped brother Neil: "I don't know if Kenneth would like me to say this, but I don't think it was 100 percent philanthropic. I think Kenneth felt it was a good business decision." Neil pauses. "And I believe quite honestly that he married a lot of that. What he gets from his father-in-law and Maria showed him the importance of giving back."
Cole met Maria Cuomo in the summer of 1986; they were married a year later. "I saw her at a party," Cole recalls, "and I imposed myself on her, asking if she wouldn't mind compromising her time and circumstances in order to have dinner with me one night. Although I'm not sure I worded it that way." One would hope not. Today the family lives in Westchester; Maria, who for a time ran her own P.R. firm (Cole was a client), is now the chairwoman of help, the nonprofit housing association started by Andrew Cuomo. "You know, when you sit around the dinner table and you talk about the death penalty, all these issues, it's hard to, um, find the relevance in what color shoes will be next season," Cole says. What he does not offer is that he is a big contributor to the Democratic National Committee, has spent time at the White House, even golfed with President Clinton. "It's a wonderful experience to play golf with the president," says Cole, smiling placidly. "Golf is a very personal thing." So what did they discuss? "Golf," he earnestly replies. "Because golf is a way of relating to people."
And this is Kenneth Cole's rather formidable goal: to relate to people. Specifically, his consumers, few of whom own a private plane or attend christenings with the Kennedys or play golf with the president of the United States. Still, he sees himself as a regular guy. "You know, I am very lucky," Cole insists, "because I am the customer. I haven't created a life for myself to jump-start a business. To be successful, you really have to put yourself in the customer's shoes -- what they're thinking, feeling, what motivates them, inspires them. And the customer has enabled me to create product that's very much me." Even if he has a hard time articulating just who that is.
Cole hopes his customer will enable him to successfully buttress his clothing lines with a fragrance and home lines, and envisions a chain that is something like a more upscale Gap. "That's the plan," says Blum. "It's why our stock has been such a solid performer. We have a clear strategy that Wall Street understands." But for Cole, the goal is more poetic, if muddled: "I believe that fashion today is not about how you look," he says. "It's more about the whole person and what ultimately comes into the ultimate process of defining himself. It may have nothing to do with anything, but that's my goal." Which, as he would agree, is only fitting.