The Un-Calvin

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.

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.”

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.

The Un-Calvin