My father was in the shoe business, so I worked with him for a little while. He had a small shoe factory in New York making ladies’ fashion shoes and we started a footwear business in the United States called Candie’s.
At a certain point I felt that I wanted to do something different and that if I didn’t do it then I probably never would, so I set out to design, create and distribute a different kind of ladies’ shoe. I wasn’t completely sure where I was going to wind up or where it was going to take me.
I was in my mid to late twenties and unsure what this company was going to look like and who, ultimately, our customer would be, but I knew it was going to be something different from what I had been doing to date, and I also knew that I had a bit of money and not a lot of time to create a return on an investment. I also knew that, like today, most businesses fail in the first year because people underestimate the time it takes.
First I needed a name for the company. We didn’t have Google in those days so there wasn’t the ability to search the globe for what already existed, but I knew that if I made up a name there was a great likelihood I might have trademark problems further down the road. I didn’t have a lot of time, and I knew that if you put your own name to your business, you could almost always get that registered. So I registered my business as Kenneth Cole.
I set to work creating not just the product by also the brand – the packaging, stationery and letterhead. Applying for a place at a tradeshow was a priority. I went to Italy to look at factories. I needed to source one that could make cool ladies’ shoes; plus I knew I had a better chance of getting credit from an Italian shoe factory that needed business than from an American bank that didn’t. It wasn’t hard to find a great manufacturer in Italy. I convinced them of my viability, designed a small collection of shoes, came back to the United States and focused on trying to sell it.
‘At a certain point I felt that I wanted to do something different and that if I didn’t do it then I probably never would.’
I had two choices in those days. There was a trade shoe show, and I could either take a room at a nearby hotel – the New York Hilton, where there were about a thousand companies, 30 floors, 30 companies per floor; or, I could do what the bigger, more successful companies did and take over a grand showroom within a two-block radius of the hotel. The problem was, I had neither the time or the money to do either. So, on a whim, I called a friend in the trucking business and asked him whether, if I could figure out how to park one of his 40ft trailers across the street from the Hilton, he would lend one. He agreed, but there was a proviso: ‘I hope you decorate it,’ he said, ‘because this is New York: you can’t park a bicycle for 15 minutes, let alone a truck for three days.’
We called the Mayor’s office to ask how to go about getting permission to park a 40ft trailer on the corner of 6th Avenue and 56th Street. We were told they gave permission only to utility companies servicing the city or to production companies shooting films. (This latter exception was, I believe, because the ‘I Love New York’ campaign was still relatively new in the early Eighties and there was lots of filming on the city’s streets.)
I was inspired to change the name of my company to Kenneth Cole Productions, and the next morning I filed for a permit to shoot a full-length motion picture called The Birth of a Shoe Company. I received the permit within a couple of days and opened for business a week or so later on 2 December 1982.
We parked the trailer, which was painted up with ‘Kenneth Cole Productions’ on the side. We had a director, lights, rolling cameras and models as actresses. As a result, I saw everybody I wanted to see from the shoe retail business. Within two-and-a-half days I sold 40,000 pairs of shoes.
I didn’t tell my story for a little while after – I was afraid I would get into trouble. The truth is, that film is still in production. Ironically, though, for the 30th anniversary of the company, this year Kenneth Cole Productions did produce its first film. It’s called The Battle of amfAR and it’s the story of how two extraordinary women, Elizabeth Taylor and research scientist and campaigner Mathilde Krim, came together to form amfAR (The American Foundation for AIDS Research). That was my first official production and it was screened at the Sundance and the Tribeca.