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Kenneth Cole’s Shoes And Clothes Feel As Good As They Look. He's Hoping You Will, Too

Kenneth Cole is not one to walk away from a fight. He built a footwear empire by tackling head-on consumer demand for style and social awareness. In the 1980s and ’90s, his provocative ad campaigns—with clever puns and cheeky swagger—cast a spotlight on issues like the AIDS crisis, homelessness, and gun violence at a time when few, if any, brands dared to align their name with such causes.

Today, at 65, Cole shows no signs of slowing, whether we’re talking collections—from his high-tech Techni-Cole gear to the just-launched bedding, bath, and beach line for spring—or the causes that are dear to him. Last October, he announced the formation of the Mental Health Coalition, an alliance of experts he’s brought together to change the way people talk about and address mental health. (The coalition will unveil an online platform and resource hub this May during Mental Health Awareness Month.)

After raising three daughters, Cole and his wife, Maria Cuomo Cole, split their time between a luxe New York co-op and a classic shingled colonial north of the city designed by Stanford White, adorned with verdant gardens and gracious porches outside, and a relaxed, understated elegance within.

An ad for Kenneth Cole’s spring 2020 collection
An ad for Kenneth Cole’s spring 2020 collection.

The interiors of your Stanford White home bear the hallmarks of your brand—clean, sleek lines, but not hyper-designed or trying too hard. Luxe, but lived in.
Thank you. My aesthetic is what it is, wherever it is manifested. I aim to create basics that aren’t basic—clothing and footwear that is easy to wear and, in the case with my home, easy to live in.

Your Techni-Cole shoes and apparel feature tech elements (hidden cushioning, wrinkle-resistant fabrics), but still look tailored. Is that the goal—to offer high-tech benefits without looking like it?
Exactly. The Kenneth Cole brand is synonymous with New York style. All our Techni-Cole products aim to be effortless, versatile…providing comfort and performance. In footwear, this is done by adding advanced cushioning layers, flex laces, stretch, and more lightweight materials. We never sacrifice design for comfort, so these wearable shoes still look good, too.

Kenneth Cole has made a habit of focusing on social awareness through his company.
Kenneth Cole has made a habit of focusing on social awareness through his company

What made you want to form the Mental Health Coalition?
According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will experience a mental health condition in their lives. However, I’ve come to realize four in four live with it. If not themselves, [via] a member of their family, community, or workplace. Which means it’s a near certainty that you or someone you know is affected.

And they’re probably not talking about it.
The force of stigma is powerful and silencing.

So what do we do?
The Mental Health Coalition’s first step is to address the stigma’s impact on youth ages 15 to 25, which is believed to be the time when mental health conditions most often first appear and treatments are more likely to have a long-term impact.

So how does a guy who’s headed to law school wind up a rebel shoe designer?
I graduated from Emory University [in Atlanta] and was on my way to law school, but I put that on hold to help my father when one of his senior executives left. He had a small women’s shoe factory in Brooklyn. I was always intrigued by the sample room and by designing shoes, specifically the engineering and architecture that goes into creating a shoe. It amazes me how you can change one small component and it will change the entire shoe. Through working in the business, I realized that what I loved about fashion is that there are no rules. I came to realize that the law is about a book of rules, and I never ended up going to law school!

Shoes from the spring 2020 collection feature Techni-Cole components
Shoes from the spring 2020 collection feature Techni-Cole components

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