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Kenneth Cole at 92Y: Fashion From A Humanitarian Perspective

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I had the pleasure of attending the Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis: Kenneth Cole Discussion and Screening with Simon Doonan and Alan Cumming.

Upon my arrival at 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, realizing I was a few minutes behind schedule for 7:30, I quickly picked up the press ticket and was promptly seated in the Kaufman Concert Hall for the talk and screening of the new HBO documentary “The Battle of amfAR”. When I settled in, the wonderful Fern Mallis was at the podium about to introduce Kenneth Cole to the stage. Visionary Fern Mallis is creator of Fashion Week in New York City. Mallis brings Cole out and they briefly discuss his upbringing, his first job selling peanuts at a baseball stadium, the start of well known shoe company “Candies”, being named the sexiest business man of the year in 1988 by People Magazine and finally the start of his Kenneth Cole business.

An extraordinary career

By far his legacy is full of moments of creative genius, as he told us the endearing story of when he started up his business with limited capital and couldn’t afford to showcase his shoes at the trade show. When he phoned the mayor’s office and inquired about how he could park a forty foot trailer across the street from the trade show for 3 days in Manhattan, he was told only production, and utility companies with a permit could do so. Later, he subsequently changed his company name to Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. This story made everyone in attendance giggle, and he followed up with some wise advice that only a seasoned creator could give.

[quote]The best ideas won’t always be the most expensive but usually the most creative that works.[/quote]

Cole went on to describe how he sold over 40,000 shoes in just under 3 days from his forty foot trailer parked on 1370 6th Avenue, across from the New York Hilton on the day of the shoe show. The audience was in total awe. Once Kenneth Cole started his company in 1982, he then went public in 1984 and later came to question his decision to do so as he felt it compromised his brand. Although, Cole was delighted to tell the audience that buying his business back in 2012 was the most exhilarating experience, and they have been privately owned for about 1 year. Congratulations to Kenneth Cole!

Fashion from a humanitarian

Among his many accomplishments, Kenneth Cole started a shoe drive initiation to support the homeless and distributed through Help USA. He also raised funding to build a healthcare facility in Port Au Prince, Haiti after the disaster, and he is the Chairman of the AIDS organization amFAR. In his own words Cole said, he “believes his platform in fashion is an opportunity to do something greater.” This is something he lives by. The adage “with great power comes great responsibility” is the theme here. The fashion industry as a whole, and it’s lovers are usually viewed as very superficial, or snobby elitist without a care for the common cause. However, designers like Kenneth Cole and many others disprove this ideal. Cole’s humility was apparent in his mannerisms and the way he held his head down and looked at his feet at times when being questioned by Fern Mallis. Truly fashion is wonderful, but what is more amazing than the companies, manufacturers, products, models, clothing etc. is the force behind the brand. What does your brand represent, and once you have a platform will you let the superficial ideals of the industry define you? Clearly, Kenneth Cole does not.

The documentary is about 2 women from totally different worlds coming together and uniting for a common good, and working together to create something awesome. Mathilde Krim, Ph.D., was a researcher at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who formed the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation in 1983 with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Michael Callen, and several others. While, in Los Angeles, Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb and Elizabeth Taylor spearheaded the creation of the National AIDS Research Foundation. These two organizations merged in September 1985 to become the american foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

When amfAR was founded, Dr. Krim and Dr. Gottlieb were named Founding Chairmen and Elizabeth Taylor became Founding National Chairman. Twenty-eight years later, amfAR remains one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to fighting the AIDS epidemic, and has invested more than $340 million in support of its mission to find a cure for the AIDS epidemic.

The film was well put together, and was in short, an eye opening experience for me and I’m sure many others. Growing up in the 80’s, I do not remember the details of the AIDS epidemic. What I do remember were children saying you couldn’t go near or even touch someone with the disease. This brief memory reemerged after watching the horrifying way the general public, and the government treated those suffering with the disease as outcasts and less than human. I was disgusted, and astonished at how the government refused to even acknowledge the issue, and did their best to avoid dealing with the epidemic altogether — as if it would just go away. It didn’t. amfAR‘s work has been crucial in the progress towards AIDS research and it’s publicized success.

Overall, I found it interesting that I attended the event to learn about Kenneth Cole and his rise to fame in the designer shoe and fashion industry, but I left with an acute knowledge and respect for the AIDS epidemic, the efforts of Elizabeth Taylor and the philanthropy of Kenneth Cole. While most choose to watch the mayhem from a distance, Kenneth Cole and others like him remind us that we can use our platform and power to affect change, educate and inspire the masses no matter the industry. Bravo!

Visit Kenneth Cole’s site by clicking this link.

Written by Manny King John


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