Kenneth Cole's shoe career got off to a rocky start in 1982 when he set up shop in a borrowed trailer outside a New York City trade show because he couldn't afford the cost of displaying his shoes at the event. There was just one problem NYC only grants trailer parking permits to utility companies and filmmakers shooting movies.
"I changed our company letterhead... to Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc," says the American shoe designer, "and the next day applied for a permit to shoot a full length film entitled, The Birth Of A Shoe Company." And the ploy worked. Kenneth and his makeshift "movie" showroom sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in just two days.
Still called Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc, the firm has since expanded throughout the world and now includes a full line of women's and men's wear as well as shoes. But the story all began when, as a 20-something political science graduate, Kenneth was sidetracked from a career in law "I was going to change the world," he says by his father, who needed help with his shoe factory.
Planning just to lend a temporary hand in the marketing department of the El Greco Leather Products, Kenneth ended up spearheading a 1978 campaign for the company's Candie's line which was to make the firm famous. Four years later, the man who as a child cut patterns and glued soles for his dad, left the company to form his own.
After a stint in Europe learning how to design shoes, Kenneth returned Stateside to open his first shop in New York. Though his philosophy of creating upmarket, hip, urban footwear at less-than-exorbitant prices was new at the time, it was the shoe designer's ad campaigns that drew the most attention.
One of the fashion world's earliest AIDS activists, Kenneth chose to feature not his shoes but children making a plea for AIDS research funding, in his first ads. He later followed up by tackling causes such as nuclear power and reproductive rights, an issue addressed with the controversial slogan: "We think women should have a choice when it comes to being pregnant. Barefoot is another story."
The Kenneth Cole motto is: "What you stand for is more important than what you stand in" and the designer puts his money where his mouth is. On World AIDS Day he donates 40 per cent of sales to AMFAR, and every year he hosts a shoe exchange for the homeless. "Fashion is a passion I have," says Kenneth, who in 1998 was awarded the Amnesty International Media Spotlight Award. "But it's a means to something bigger. This thing needs to be about more than making money."
And it's a philosophy shared by his wife Maria Cuomo, daughter of ex-New York governor Mario Cuomo, who serves as chairwoman of homeless charity HELP USA.
Now dad to three daughters, Kenneth has an interesting take on how to design the perfect pair of shoes. "I have to think how I would feel if I were a woman and what I'd want to wear," he says. "There's nothing more sexy than comfortable shoes."