Did you grow up in a politically active household?
I was brought up in a progressive house, but we weren't overwhelmingly socially inspired. When I did my first aids-awareness campaign, in 1985, it was just a great time to say something important. It was something that so devastated our communities, and oddly, no one was speaking about it.
Were you worried about how the public would respond to that initiative?
The business wasn't that big, and I didn't have that much to lose. I wasn't at risk. I wasn't concerned with being stigmatized or characterized as being at risk. We expected some sort of criticism for our efforts, and we were prepared for it, but it didn't come.
Are there any ad campaigns you regret?
Timing is everything. There was an ad that was supposed to go up just before we entered Iraq. It was a billboard that was ready to be posted, and THE MESSAGE WAS THE LAST THING WE ALL NEED NOW IS A NEW WAR and, in small letters, wardrobe. Everyone said to me, This is not the time to be critical of this country's decision. So I withdrew the message. We ran it a year or two later when there seemed to be an appetite for a conflicting, alternative point of view.
Is there an issue you'd still like to take on?
We've spoken about everything you're probably not supposed to speak about. But at the end of the day, the hand that feeds usand the bigger agenda hereis the fashion message.
Has the company's activism ever obscured the fashion?
Yes, I think we have gone too far on occasion. Our goal going forward is to try to bring the fashion message forward. It has existed inside of our retail space, and the social message has existed outside, in the media. The goal now is to marry the two and to bring the social voice a little inside the store, into some of the merchandise and, at the same time, make a more visual and compelling fashion statement outside of the store.
So is the social message being toned down?
It will have its place. There's a blog: kennethcole.com/awearness. That's going to be the one place where I will probably not resist the opportunity to discuss certain issues that are questionably appropriate.
What do tough economic times mean for the shoe business?
Shoes are an interesting accessory. Most things you wear affect how you look. But shoes, uniquely, also affect how you feel. I think that in times like this, people are inclined to save. They'll buy fewer cars, but I think they'll often indulge themselves in their wardrobe and little things that help get them through the day.
You famously started your company selling shoes out of a truck in midtown Manhattan. Are you ever wistful for those days?
When you become the size that we are today it's harder to do some of the very entrepreneurial things you can do when you're smaller.
What was the first shoe you ever designed?
In those days, there were these Earth shoes that were very popular. Espadrilles were very popular. So I put rope bottoms on these little Earth-type shoes, and I called them Earthpadrilles. I sent the shoes to the fashion editor of Footwear News at the time, and she writes a cover story about this new designerwhich was anything but what I thought I was! It started me down this road of re-creating that which we know, using elements that are not so unique but putting them together in ways that are.
If you had to design a pair of shoes for each of the presidential candidates, what would you create?
For McCain, a pair of the "right wing" tips. For Obama, a comfortable sport shoe, good for "running in." May the hardest-working and best candidate win, and may the only loafer that makes it into the White House be mine.