Shoe maven puts best foot forward at Wharton

Our outfit is 20. Who cares?

— Kenneth Cole

The would-be entrepreneurs in Wharton who filled the Jon M. Huntsman Hall auditorium Dec. 3 did. The overflow crowd was treated to an entertaining, humorous talk from one of the fashion industry’s most socially conscious designers.

In his talk, Cole, who is currently promoting his new corporate biography “Footnotes: What You Stand For Is More Important than What You Stand In” (Simon and Schuster, 2003), described how he got into the fashion business and how he managed to sell both hip clothing and worthwhile causes to the American public.

Creativity is key in both, Cole said, using the tale of his company’s birth as an example. He began selling shoes by borrowing a 40-foot truck trailer from a friend and parking it outside the annual New York Shoe Show in 1983. When he found out that the city would only give permits for parking the trailer to utilities and film production crews, “I went down to the courthouse, refiled my incorporation papers and changed my company name to Kenneth Cole Productions”—the company’s name to this day—“then applied for a film crew permit, saying I was shooting a movie called ‘The Birth of a Shoe Company.’

“The next day, I was on Sixth Avenue with my trailer, a bodyguard of New York City police, and a movie camera. Sometimes it had film in it, sometimes it didn’t. We sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in three days.”

The moral of this story, he said, was, “The best solution is not always the most expensive one, but the most creative one.”

His advertisements promoting such causes as AIDS research and homelessness have been equally cheeky and have often stirred up controversy. Cole made no apologies for his in-your-face approach. “I know I’ve lost customers for it, but I believe I’ve gained more than I lost.”

When an audience member asked whether his company’s shareholders were happy with his mixing of good works and high fashion, he said, “The Street knew what it was getting into when it invested in me.” Cole argued that concern for the community was actually in his company’s self-interest: “If business doesn’t support the communities, the communities won’t be there to support the business.”

Cole’s own academic background included no business courses. To a questioner who asked him whether an MBA degree was useful in the fashion industry, he said, “The degree isn’t important, it’s what you do with it.”

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Originally published on December 11, 2003