Kenneth Cole is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but he may be the last person to find out.
Just look at the footwear designer’s recent book, Footnotes: What You Stand for Is More Important Than What You Stand In, released this fall. In it, Cole revisits the history of his company and its famously buzzy ad campaigns. While he might have taken the opportunity to address the notable controversies surrounding his company, especially those stemming from its leftist activism, Cole instead offers a slick rags-to-riches story. The tale is neither interesting nor inspiring: Cole does not give himself enough credit for his entrepreneurship; nor does he reflect on or learn from his failures. He simply glosses his achievements and setbacks as products of chance.
Cole is an innovative businessman who has made charity profitable, yet whose ads often land him in political hot water. As such, an explanation of his crusades for liberal causes would have been welcome. He doesn’t give one, it seems, because there’s nothing to explain: It’s all common sense.
Consider his impeccable leftist credentials. He married into the bedrock of Democratic politics when he wed Mario Cuomo’s daughter. From there, Cole made a place for himself among big names in the Democratic party; he has donated to the Democratic candidates in all recent presidential elections, given money to major Democrats in New York, and made sizable annual donations to the Democratic National Committee. He has even played golf with Bill Clinton, while the former president was in office. Cole’s advertising campaigns are highly politicized, but to hear him tell it, he is just an unassuming cobbler mistakenly caught in the culture wars.
“Fashion,” according to Cole, “is reflective of the times.” The world then, according to Cole clothing and ad campaigns, must be pro-gun control, pro-choice, and very gay.
One of Cole’s gun-control ads originally read: “We condemn the right to bear arms and bare feet,” but was rewritten to be less flagrantly antigun. He later made his view on guns clearer in an open letter addressed to gun manufacturers, K-Mart shoppers, Charlton Heston, and the state of Texas that read, “Congratulations. We hear your product is really making a killing.”
Though his pro-gun-control sentiments enraged the NRA and many Second Amendment supporters, Cole didn’t get what they were so upset about, insisting, “Nothing about what I do is political.” It is a bit too difficult, though, to ignore the liberalism behind advertisements like this: “It’s a woman’s right to choose, after all, she’s the one carrying it.” Many pro-lifers took offense at an ad that equated having a child with choosing a purse. Cole, however, made it apparent that he doesn’t want conservative customers. In fact, he thought people who got upset were lying: “The writers often pretended to be customers to strengthen their threat.” And when they say they will no longer buy his products? Cole says: “I can come to terms with that.”
Though he often relies on subtle word games and puns, at times Cole comes right out and puts his politics on the table. After the 2000 election, Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. ran an ad that showed the intersection of Bush Avenue and Cheney Lane alongside a road sign that read “Dead End.” Implausibly, Cole says that “the message really wasn’t meant to be political, it was meant to talk about how we’d put in office someone who had gotten less votes than the next person and kind of addressing our frustration with the process.” In other words, Cole’s candidate didn’t win, and he wasn’t happy.
Kenneth Cole’s fashion activism is a “social message, a human message,” he says. His political myopia might seem arrogant in other parts of the country, but it’s pretty standard for a New York liberal. In the circles in which he travels, Kenneth Cole is relatively apolitical. Compared to his in-laws, the Clintons, or other big-name Democratic donors, he really isn’t involved in politics at all.
–Meghan Keane is a NR editorial associate.