Kenneth Cole


Who Mentored Kenneth Cole?

Photo by Jon Rau. Courtesy of Emory University Photo.
Photo by Jon Rau. Courtesy of Emory University Photo.

Footwear and accessory designer Kenneth Cole founded his company, Kenneth Cole Productions, in December 1982.

Kenneth Cole’s controversial advertising campaign has garnered worldwide attention for its humor and social consciousness. In 1985, he was the first member of the fashion community to take a public stand in the fight against AIDS.

My father, Charles Cole, would wake me up at 5:30 many Saturday mornings, starting when I was ten. He would invite me into his world, a world that he didn’t share with many people. At 5:30 we would have breakfast and talk about what was happening in my world. Then we would go to his shoe factory in lower Manhattan, and I would sit with him in his office and watch him as he worked.

He was very much of the “do as I do” mentality, not only to me, but to all of the people who worked there. He inspired everyone around him, and took a personal interest in the lives of all the people he worked with. His passion for business was not that much different than his approach to everything in his life.

In the early 1970s I went to Emory University in Atlanta for my undergraduate degree with the intention of attending law school. As I was about to embark on my legal education, my father’s right hand man left the factory to start a competitive business.

To help my father, I put off law school to learn the business as quickly as I could. I knew that in order to succeed I would need the support and respect of everyone in the company, including my father, but not having enough experience and knowledge, I realized I couldn’t impress them with the quality of my work. So I set out to show them what I could with the quantity of my work. If the first worker arrived at 6:30 a.m., I would arrive at 6:15.

Over the next five years my father and I built a successful business together. I then realized that I needed to take on the ultimate challenge of starting my own business. I did it confidently with his encouragement and never looked back. I was lucky that so early in my career I had a great role model who gave me the tools to be successful, the practical experience on how to use them, and the courage to trust my instincts.

I made great strides in a very competitive field, but I reached a point when it all started to become a little empty. I needed to find a way to make things more relevant. I knew that if I were going to continue to give so much of myself I would have to find a way to make it part of something bigger. So early on in the company’s development I decided to make the awareness of meaningful social issues an important part of the company’s culture, so that “what one stands for is more important that what they stand in,” and that “to be aware is more important that what you wear.” These principles would eventually become part of the company’s philosophy.

My father, my mentor, by his example, was a testament to the value of hard work and the concern for one’s fellow human beings. He did everything with all of his heart as well as his “sole.”