Since 1982, Kenneth Cole has worked to transform his name into one of fashion’s most recognizable brands. During a trip to Toronto Wednesday, he sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss the change in the retail landscape, what social media has done to branding and how revelations about Harvey Weinstein have instigated difficult discussions around sexual harassment — such as in the fashion industry.
About a year ago, your organization announced the closing of all but two of the stores in america. Why?
The retail model has to be re-imagined. We’re looking to concentrate on the brand experience in the digital world, and then recreate a new physical encounter.
How much of your earnings from the future do you imagine coming out of the brick-and-mortar space?
Everybody is trying to figure it out. The shopping experience has to be somewhat different. It is happening really fast. It’ll be an interesting time. A good deal of people are not going to survive it. At the end of the day, you will get a more powerful, more efficient market.
Over three decades into the company, how has your view of advertisements changed?
Before, my aim was to sell my new. Over the past five decades, it seems everybody is their own brand — they wake up daily and curate it on their Facebook, their Twitter feed, their Instagram feed. My goal is to hopefully convince you to let me be a part of your brand. All that is changing.
There are a good deal of hard conversations occurring since the revelations in Hollywood, and it reverberates to other businesses including yours. You’ve got the likes of Condé Nast cutting ties with fashion photographer Terry Richardson due to numerous accusations of sexual harassment. What responsibility do you feel as a significant name in vogue to speak out about this matter?
A lesson we have all learned here is that there’s a moral standard that’s part of this brand. These are interesting times. It’s good. Business is indeed balance-sheet driven, but there’s a humanity that must override that.
Are you ready to take a position your company won’t work with people once we hear such stories?
I don’t know that I want to stand on a stage and do this, but we won’t. There’s diversity in all our messaging. We certainly would not [work with Terry Richardson] now. There’s a responsibility on business people to have some ethical criteria.
Some board members of amfAR recently raised concerns regarding its work with Harvey Weinstein on a 2015 fundraiser. [Mr. Cole is non-executive chairman of the New York-based charity, which raises money for AIDS research.] Have you got anything to say about that?
Mr. Weinstein’s actions are reprehensible, there is no question. If I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have supported amfAR working with Mr. Weinstein. AmfAR’s objective is to find a cure for AIDS. We have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and had a significant effects. However, in the end of the day, there are criteria that needs to be non-negotiable. That is one of them.
What about the questions they raised about dividing the profits of the fundraiser with him? [According to current , Mr. Weinstein helped to organize some items for auction in the fundraiser, and in trade took $600,000 of their profits to lead to the non-profit American Repertory Theater, to be able to cover the expenses of a trial run of a Weinstein-produced Broadway musical. Four board members complained to the New York Attorney-General, whose office responded that it would research the charity’s corporate governance.]
Revenue splitting is done all of the time. We have always done it. Many charities do it. It’s legal, it is ethical. It’s what happened then became questionable, it was not the fact that we are sharing revenue. This one became questionable how it unfolded at the end, how it was transacted. All that was proven ethical and legal and within all boundaries [in a review the amfAR board commissioned, which was done by law firm Gibson, Dunn amp; Cutcher]. But regrettably, it cast a negative shadow on amfAR. AmfAR has to be allowed to do what it does, as it is helping millions of people. The objective is to remain focused on that.
From the mid-eighties, as soon as your brand got really involved with fundraising for AIDS research, it was rather unusual. These days, it feels just like every other advertising campaign is touting an effect. Is it tough to remain relevant in that environment?
Cause messaging has changed a lot. In the first days, it was all about conveying important messages. Nowadays, it’s about using a substance and sustainable effects. It needs to be real, or it does not work. When I did my initial AIDS effort, it was 1985 and I talked about AIDS when most would not.
Including the president at the time.
Including the president. I’ve completely immersed myself in the quest for the treatment.
We had a homeless effort for nearly as long. It began as a bit of a marketing initiative, [asking customers to donate] a pair of sneakers and we’ll provide you a discount on a new pair. It was a way for us to draw people in through the cold months of winter once we’ve already converted to spring [styles], and at precisely the exact same time we did not devalue the brand by selling it at a more affordable price. That initiative accumulated more than two thousand pairs of shoes, in addition to clothes. During the earthquake in Haiti, we gathered shoes for the Haitian marketplace and increased funds. We assembled a health-care centre.
Do you think it makes a difference to your own brand? Do people think of those things when they purchase your products?
It is not why we do it. But in the end of the day, I really do think it is appreciated. We probably do not spend enough time talking about it but to the amount people feel I am doing it for the wrong reasons, it fails.
This interview was edited and plotted.