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Fashion-Conscious Social Conscience

Designer Kenneth Cole is at it again with sleek advertising that carries political messages


It looks like a typical newsstand scene: a woman engrossed in a newspaper, a man gazing toward the racks and another walking away gripping the headline of the day, "Holy War." Though the news is on target, the staged scene is a fashion ad, accessorized with the legend "Mideast peace is the must-have for fall."

The ad--featuring male models in sleek, dark pinstriped suits, a woman counterpart in a cargo pocketed trench coat and wool knit hat--is part of New York designer Kenneth Cole's new campaign for his fall collections. Long known for his sociopolitical marketing messages and his company's creed, "To be aware is more important than what you wear," he launched the campaign Sunday with newspaper inserts in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and other metropolitan centers.

Customers familiar with Cole and his campaigns know they can expect this kind of thing from him, says Ruth P. Rubinstein, sociologist and author of "Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture" (Westview Press, 2000), who teaches a clothing and society class at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

"A lot of people feel that way anyway, that there has to be peace in the Middle East. Kenneth is really just putting his feelings and money where his mouth is," Rubinstein says.

But Cole's critics have said his messages (AIDS, homelessness, gun control and reproductive rights, among others) are shameless marketing tools to generate publicity for his company, Kenneth Cole Productions, which has annual worldwide sales of $1 billion. Seven months ago, critics accused him of exploiting the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in a group of ads about how the tragedy brought Americans closer together.

"Our ads always begin with a conversation with Kenneth about what's on his mind, what he's mad about, frustrated about. It becomes an ongoing dialogue for weeks about the issues that are important to him and relevant to the consumer," says Lori Wagner, senior vice president in charge of marketing and advertising for Cole.

"We work very close on the edge," she says about Cole's campaign concepts, including the current one that features the slogan "Some statements are more fashionable than others," a staple of Cole ads for the last several seasons. The slogan is among a series of provocative catchphrases in the insert: "Wearing protection is the new black," "Not voting is so last season," "Gun safety ... it's all the rage," "Security ... the accessory for fall," and "Choice. No woman should be without one."

Cole, 48, was unavailable for comment and because he was preparing for his men's spring 2003 show tonight at Bryant Park in Manhattan and for his women's show later in the week. As his firm's executive creative director, the designer, who is married to Maria Cuomo, daughter of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, still writes ad copy just as he did in 1983 when he founded his company and launched his first advertisement promoting AIDS awareness, Wagner says.

"Our current campaign represents the lifestyle of a Kenneth Cole customer who looks forward to the messages and believes in the same values that Kenneth believes in," Wagner says.

"It's always been Kenneth's philosophy that the ads should be expressive, a way to communicate to customers. Our voice is our brand and our voice is Kenneth's voice. What he is hoping to do with these statements is generate conversation and talk about issues that are important. We get both positive and negative reaction," Wagner says, adding that tonight's menswear show will feature a new television commercial to launch Cole's new fragrance for men and women.

"It's not a typical fragrance commercial. It's not about romance or flowers or puppies. I can't say it's controversial but hopefully it will stir people in some way," she says about the spot featuring a man and woman with opposing views on various subjects.

The spot will break in 38 markets, including Los Angeles, next week and is consistent with the company's national campaign, says Wagner, who says Cole e-mails staff to remind them to vote at election time.

"People have always accused fashion designers of being frivolous and meaningless rather than caring about society," says Rubinstein of FIT.

"But most people don't understand fashion. They think that people in the industry are empty-headed and that the industry has no feelings," she says, adding that other designers began to focus on social issues three or four years ago hoping to change that image. "For designers, maybe it takes care of their sense of guilt."

Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, a market information company based in Port Washington, N.Y., says that in the 1990s controversial fashion ads were the sexy ones. "But political and sociological issues have become something that consumers are looking to associate with."

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