Since 1985, designer Kenneth Cole has been openly involved in publicly supporting HIV/AIDS awareness and research. He is one the first in the fashion industry to do so. He uses fashion as a medium to promote socially conscious ads to help fight various causes from AIDS to homelessness. He has donated proceeds to such organizations as Mentoring USA, amfAR and Rock the Vote. Since 2005, Cole has served as chairman for AmFAR.
Born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, his father owned the El Greco shoe manufacturing company. Before learning the family business and starting his own company, Cole graduated from Emory University.
Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. was founded in 1982. Wanting to preview his line of shoes at Market Week at the New York Hilton, but unable to afford the purchase of a hotel room or showroom to display his items, Kenneth Cole inquired about parking a trailer two blocks from the Hilton. Upon discovering that permits for trailers were only granted to utility and production companies, Cole changed the name of his company from Kenneth Cole Incorporated to Kenneth Cole Productions, and applied for a permit to film the full-length film The Birth Of A Shoe Company. In two and a half days, Kenneth Cole Productions sold 40,000 pairs of shoes, while chronicling the beginning of his company on film.
Kenneth Cole has landed on Forbes Magazine annual list of 200 Best Small Companies four times.
Cole designs men’s and women’s footwear, men’s and women’s clothing, and accessories. Cole himself controls almost all of the voting rights and owns 45% of the company.
In 2001, The Kenneth Cole Foundation, in association Emory University, created The Kenneth Cole Fellows in Community Building and Social Change Program at the university.
Cole’s socially conscious advertising for the causes that he champions have always been controversial. For his campaign for World AIDS Day in 2005, he designed tee-shirts for the campaign which were sold at such stores as Barneys New York, Scoop, and Louis Boston. The messages on the shirts stated either, “We All Have AIDS” or “I Have AIDS”. Cole created the shirts in hopes that those with or without AIDS would wear the shirts, to help diminish the stigma attached to the disease. Cole stated:
There is a legend of the Danish king, Christian X, who, during World War II, when Hitler insisted all Jews publicly wear a yellow Star of David, would wear the star himself, hence making it difficult to differentiate who was Jewish. This is kind of like that, hopefully.
In the summer of 2007, Kenneth Cole Productions began another “Awearness” Campaign, producing a line of tee-shirts to benefit the charities that he supports, with proceeds will go to the Awearness Fund. The campaign was promoted by a book Awearness: Inspiring Stories About How To Make A Difference featuring celebrities writing about their various causes.
But in the 1980s, it was an era when HIV/AIDS was a stigmatized and not yet understood “gay virus”. Cole cared about the plague that was already the scourge of the decade, taking millions of young men, many in creative fields, and some with whom he worked. One of them was David Brugnoli, a visual designer for the company. Whenever Cole asked him if he had gotten tested, Brugnoli said no. In fact, there was no real benefit for him to do so at that time. In the 1980s, if you tested positive for HIV, with no assurance of confidentially, you could lose your job, your medical insurance, and alienate your friends and family. And, for what? There was no treatment yet available. Cole had not seen him for a while when Brugnoli showed up at the office with a visible Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a symptom of the AIDS virus, on his face. It was too late. Cole:
…he was the first person I knew who died of AIDS.
By 1985, like many, Cole was surprised that so few people were talking about the devastating virus. Homophobia was on the rise. Those who required blood transfusions were marginalized, and intravenous drug users were beneath reproach. Stealthily, the virus seemed to be gaining ground. President Ronald Reagan cast a willfully blind eye to the plague as numbers were rising. A lot of his support came from the Republican Party, especially from the incipient Religious Right, many of who believed ”the inflicted were getting what they deserved”.
Kenneth managed to get some of the supermodels of the day, including: Paulina Porizkova, Christie Brinkley, and Beverly Johnson, to do a public service ad, shot by Annie Liebovitz. Working with Liebovitz helped draw the high caliber of models the campaign needed. The beautiful women were each holding onto a child. The women and the children were from diverse backgrounds. The models wore black; the children wore white. The copy said:
For the future of our children… Support the American Foundation for AIDS Research. We do.
In small type on the lower right corner was printed: ”Sponsor: Kenneth Cole”. No one in the photograph wore shoes. Cole did not want to use this advertisement to showcase his products.
”For the Future of our Children” looked just like a fashion ad, an expensive one with supermodels, it didn’t look controversial, though its message was important. There was no such thing as public service ads in mags at that time; now a well-established convention in publishing. Nevertheless, Hearst, Condé Nast, and all the major publishers ran the ad. In some cases, Cole agreed to buy a full-page ad if the magazine would donate a page. 23 magazines ran the ads in 1986.
Cole was always sensitive about being perceived as exploiting the crisis and he was always thoughtful about how he spoke of it. He has never profited financially from any HIV/AIDS-oriented messaging.