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Heart and Soles : Kenneth Cole's Shoes Grab Our Feet--and His Social Concerns Grab Our Attention


Some shoe designers are famous for their shoes. Kenneth Cole is famous for his ads.

Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could've at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours.

That was one of his first, from 1986, just after the collapse of the corrupt Marcos regime. The quick wit and political correctness suggested fashion meant for your head as well as your feet.

Over the next seven years, Cole and his New York ad agency, Kirshenbaum and Bond, issued a series of promotions that looked like cut-and-paste projects and read like liberal campaign slogans. They touched on everything from presidential races to gays in the military, abortion and AIDS.

Along the way, the ads have chiseled an image of the man behind them. This has to be one cool character, with a knack for picking the social causes that will grab attention and a skill for mixing fashion and politics.

"The shoes are a vehicle that enables me to do other things," Cole says, sitting on a stack of wall boards in what will be his first Los Angeles store, on Sunset Boulevard. It looks like a carpenter's supply room now but is scheduled to open Labor Day weekend. The billboard outside raises some doubt:

We hope our store opens before San Andreas .

He talks about the other things he does in life far more than he talks about shoes. He is on the boards of HELP, a New York agency that assists the homeless, and AmFar, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Buy one less pair of shoes, and donate the money to AIDS research.

That ad appeared in '86, long before AIDS research was a stylish cause in fashion circles. "It was a risky stance for a young, single man," says Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum and Bond. "Kenneth is always on the cutting edge, but he follows his heart. He is a visionary."

"The ads help my life make more sense to me," Cole says in his typical measured, understated way. "I often say in jest, 'We haven't changed the world but hopefully we've become an accessory.' "

Not that there is a Cole in every closet. But 11 years after it began, the business last year did an estimated $100 million in retail sales, with boutiques in Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco and, now, Los Angeles. Besides women's and men's shoes, briefcases, belts and handbags carry the Cole label. And the designer's leather accessories are distributed throughout Japan. This fall, he plans to ship his first mail-order catalogue.

Four years ago, Cole launched Unlisted, a lower-priced line of trendier styles whose name was inspired by snooty New York businesses with private phone numbers. Two years later, he added Tribeca, a young-spirited line named for the hip shopping district in lower Manhattan. Shoes from the main collection sell for about $100, while those in the lower-priced lines go for about $90.

Not that either is inexpensive--Americans pay an average of $25 to $30 for a pair of shoes. But his signature label styles get high marks for quality among retailers. They are carried at Nordstrom stores and Shooze, a Beverly Center and California Mart boutique.

"They're trendy without being extreme," says Shooze owner Deborah Pearlman of the Kenneth Cole label. At her store, Cole's best customers are in their 20s and 30s, she says. "His name has instant recognition. People see it and think the shoes must be right."

Asked to describe his customers, Cole says, "Anyone who voted against Dan Quayle." He made his opinion of Quayle even more clear last summer, in an ad that mimicked the then-vice president's well-publicized spelling-bee blooper. Quayle added an e to potato. Cole's ad read:

Don't forget to Vot .

Thirty-nine years old, attractive, smart and rich, Cole could easily take his place among fashion's playboy boomers--men with a wife, an heir and a mistress, several expensive houses and a fast car. He could be sitting in the front rows of fashion shows, making passes at the models, flirting with the audience and pushing his product in every conversation.

But Cole seldom travels the fashion circuit. In 1987 he married one of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's daughters, Maria, stirring speculation that he has his eye on a political career. He says he married for love, and that he is serious about shoes.

"When I first fell in love with Maria, it was because she really cares about things," he says, adding, "I don't care as much about politics as about social service."

"Kenneth is private about his personal life," says business associate Dick Jacobson, president of the Fashion Footwear Assn. of New York. "I don't get a sense that he uses (his marriage).

"And he didn't need it to make him successful. He's a young maverick who's done quite well. I'd say he has some substance."

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