Since 1982, Kenneth Cole has worked to transform his name into one of fashion's most recognizable brands. During a visit to Toronto Wednesday, he sat down with The Globe and Mail to talk about the shift in the retail landscape, what social media has done to branding and how revelations about Harvey Weinstein have instigated difficult discussions around sexual harassment – including in the fashion industry.
About a year ago, your company announced the closing of all but two of your stores in the United States. Why?
The retail model needs to be re-imagined. We're looking to focus on the brand experience in the virtual universe, and then recreate a new physical experience.
How much of your sales in the future do you envision coming from the brick-and-mortar space?
Everyone is trying to figure it out. The shopping experience needs to be very different. It's happening really fast. It will be an interesting time. A lot of people will not survive it. At the end of the day, you'll have a stronger, more efficient marketplace.
More than three decades into the business, how has your view of advertising changed?
In the past, my goal was to sell my brand. Over the past five years, it seems everybody is their own brand – they wake up every day and curate it on their Facebook, their Twitter feed, their Instagram feed. My goal is to hopefully convince you to allow me to be part of your brand. All of that is changing.
There are a lot of hard conversations happening since the revelations in Hollywood, and it reverberates to other industries including yours. You have the likes of Condé Nast cutting ties with fashion photographer Terry Richardson because of multiple accusations of sexual harassment. What responsibility do you feel as a major name in fashion to speak out about this issue?
A lesson we've all learned here is that there is a moral standard that is part of the brand. These are interesting times. It's good. Business is so balance-sheet driven, but there is a humanity that needs to override that.
Are you prepared to take a position that your company will not work with people when we hear these kinds of stories?
I don't know that I need to stand on a platform and do that, but we won't. There is diversity in all of our messaging. We certainly wouldn't [work with Terry Richardson] now. There is a responsibility on business people to have some ethical standards. I think it's great, people are finding their voice, and they're empowered. That is critical.
Some board members of amfAR recently raised concerns about 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.] Do you have anything to say about that?
Mr. Weinstein's actions are reprehensible, there's no question. If I knew then what I knew today, I would not have supported amfAR working with Mr. Weinstein. AmfAR's goal is to find a cure for AIDS. We've raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and had a meaningful impact. But, at the end of the day, there are standards that should be non-negotiable. That's one of them.
What about the questions they raised about splitting the proceeds of that fundraiser with him? [According to recent reports, Mr. Weinstein helped to arrange some items for auction at the fundraiser, and in exchange took $600,000 of the proceeds to direct to the non-profit American Repertory Theater, in order to cover the costs 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 look into the charity's corporate governance.]
Revenue splitting is done all the time. We've always done it. Many charities do it. It's legal, it's ethical. It's what happened after that became questionable, it wasn't the fact that we're sharing revenue. This one became questionable the way it unfolded in the end, the way it was transacted. All of that was proven legal and ethical and within all confines [in a review the amfAR board commissioned, which was done by law firm Gibson, Dunn & Cutcher]. But unfortunately, it cast a negative shadow on amfAR. AmfAR needs to be allowed to do what it does, because it's helping millions of people. The goal is to stay focused on that.
In the mid-eighties, when your brand got very involved with fundraising for AIDS research, it was quite unusual. Today, it feels like every other marketing campaign is touting a cause. Is it difficult to stay relevant in that environment?
Cause messaging has changed a lot. In the earliest days, it was about communicating important messages. Today, it's about having a material and sustainable impact. It has to be real, or it doesn't work. When I did my first AIDS campaign, it was 1985 and I spoke about AIDS when most wouldn't.
Including the president at the time.
Including the president. I have fully immersed myself in the quest for the cure.
We had a homeless campaign for almost as long. It started as somewhat of a marketing initiative, [asking customers to donate] a pair of shoes and we'll give you a discount on a new pair. It was a way for us to draw people in during the cold months of winter when we've already converted to spring [fashions], and at the same time we didn't devalue the brand by selling it at a cheaper price. That initiative collected over two million pairs of shoes, as well as clothes. During the earthquake in Haiti, we collected shoes for the Haitian market and raised funds. We built a health-care centre.
Do you think it makes a difference to your brand? Do people think of these things when they buy your products?
It's not why we do it. But at the end of the day, I do think it's appreciated. We probably don't spend enough time talking about it – but to the degree people feel I'm doing it for the wrong reasons, it fails.
This interview has been condensed and edited.