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20 Questions for Kenneth Cole

The ever-provocative designer on idolizing Armani and tweets that ruffle more than a few feathers

ONE THEME PRESENT throughout Kenneth Cole's 30-year career: going against the grain. The footwear and clothing designer made headlines recently for a controversial tweet, his second such contentious message in less than three years. This one seemingly referred to the conflict in Syria in the same breath as shoes. "'Boots on the ground' or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear," he wrote.
The tweet was met with outrage—but anyone who knows Mr. Cole is familiar with his penchant for envelope-pushing. "This is a Kenneth Cole Production" (Rizzoli), a new hardcover book released for the 30th anniversary of his company, recaps his history of provocative marketing. An ad from 1989, for instance, showed the fall of the Berlin Wall and read: "Now there's nothing to keep anyone from coming to our Semi-Annual Sale." In a recent interview, Mr. Cole put it this way: "Creating intelligent, thoughtful dialogue on important social issues is what I've done for 30 years."
The book also highlights charitable causes in which Mr. Cole and his wife, Maria Cuomo Cole, are active, particularly amfAR, a foundation that raises money for AIDS research. Mr. Cole, involved with amfAR since 1985, has been its chairman since 2005. He was also an executive producer on "The Battle of amfAR," a documentary that debuts on Dec. 2.
Mr. Cole's do-things-differently approach also applies to how he runs his business. At a time when Michael Kors is enjoying the returns of his rising stock price and Marc Jacobs is focused on an initial public offering for his eponymous brand, Mr. Cole is relishing having taken his company private. The deal, which closed last September and valued the company at about $250 million, freed Mr. Cole of the stresses of quarterly reports, he said, and allowed him to focus on other things, such as international expansion.
The company has store openings planned for India, central South America and Thailand. Mr. Cole believes that sales outside the U.S. can potentially account for as much as half the business. "If a brand is relevant anywhere, it's essentially viable everywhere," he said.

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