Kenneth Cole Talk Recap

By Kelsey Zimmerer
Photos: Kelsey Zimmerer

photo-4To celebrate the release of his new book, “This is a Kenneth Cole Production,” Kenneth Cole teamed up with College Fashionista’s founder, Amy Levin, on a five-city book tour, which recently landed them at Harvard on Wednesday, Oct. 30.  The book is a tribute to his wildly successful 30 years in the fashion world, both as a designer and a businessman.  But the talk that took place in the elegant Loeb House (hello glam chandeliers!) focused mainly on Cole’s impressive, philanthropic work and entrepreneurial spirit.

He began by sharing the story of his unusual start in the industry: in order to park the trailer he was selling his merchandise out of in NYC, he learned he would have to either be a utility company or a production company to be granted a permit.  Beginning what would be a business plan continually built on innovation, Cole changed the name of his company from Kenneth Cole, Inc to Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. Cole also recruited a crew to film the feature film “The Birth of a Shoe Company,” while simultaneously selling 40,000 pairs of shoes in two and a half days.

“The best solution is rarely the most expensive, but the most creative,” Cole explained, the first of many life lessons he shared with the audience, all of us eager to hear about his experiences.  The dialogue freely flowed between Cole, Levin and the audience, probing Cole to share his thoughts on the importance of philanthropy, adapting to a changing industry and knowing what you stand for.

Cole has been deeply involved in social activism including supporting HIV/AIDS awareness in the 80s (he’s currently the chairman of the board for amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research), protecting civil liberties, preserving freedom of expression and helping with disaster relief, just to name a few.  He stressed the need to incorporate giving back into your career, particularly in the fashion industry: “What we stand in is not as important as what we stand for. What we wear is not as important as what we’re aware of.”  For Cole, his activism changed him: “All of a sudden what I was doing felt very meaningful.”

While he was candid and made several jokes, such as the quip about using drugs to handle all of the multitasking he has to do (I repeat, it was a joke), Cole and Levin gave advice perfectly fit for their collegiate audience.  What seemed to resonate the most was their career advice, or better put, advice on how to not worry so much about careers.

“I feel like so many of you feel like you need to know what you want to do when you’re in college,” Levin observed, and used Cole, who studied law in college, as an example of how things can fall into place, even if it’s thirty years later.

photo-3“What you do is not who you are,” Cole said.  “People get hung up on how to define yourself… you’ll find your place.”

So even though he was not overly enthused about having a Kenneth Cole book, in fact he said he hates the book and thinks it’s a little indulgent, there is no doubt that it is filled with as much inspiration as his talk was, both in fashion and in life.  He described it as a pictorial compilation that tells what the Kenneth Cole brand has done in the last thirty years– which is a lot.

Expecting to hear more about the fashion aspect of the fashion industry, it was refreshing to hear a designer talk more about details of his life and career that didn’t revolve around clothes and shoes.  Cole showed his incredibly business savvy side as well as his passion for advocating for those who need it most, while just lightly touching on his obvious talent for design.  Based on the stylish ensemble of the audience, it was clear that most were there as fans of his fashion line; yet the discussion that ensued was inspiring for any career-driven college student.

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