Kenneth Cole returns to fashion week on his terms

SAMANTHA CRITCHELL
The Associated Press
Modified: February 6, 2013 at 6:10 pm •  Published: February 6, 2013
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photo - This Jan. 29, 2013 photo shows designer Kenneth Cole in his office during an interview in New York. Cole returns to New York Fashion Week Thursday, Feb. 6, after a seven-year hiatus, seemingly putting his hand on everything before the runway lights go up: the clothes, the shoes, the handbags, the hashtags. He bought his company back from investors last year, and it's once again privately owned with Cole fully in charge.   (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
This Jan. 29, 2013 photo shows designer Kenneth Cole in his office during an interview in New York. Cole returns to New York Fashion Week Thursday, Feb. 6, after a seven-year hiatus, seemingly putting his hand on everything before the runway lights go up: the clothes, the shoes, the handbags, the hashtags. He bought his company back from investors last year, and it's once again privately owned with Cole fully in charge. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Otherwise, he seems relaxed, neither tired nor daunted by the week that lies ahead of him, with fashion week, the amfAR gala and market week for retailers all coming at the same time.

"Rest is overrated. I rested last Wednesday," he says.

Cole is capable of connecting with consumers — and he did it long before social media, largely through the ads and buzz-generating events. (He is personally active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. His new fascination is with Snapchat, where photos are shared and then disappear.)

He says he believes the modern business model for fashion companies isn't to worry so much about exact products. Other than quality, companies shouldn't get bogged down in delivery dates and magazine picks, he says. Shoppers aren't looking to match the exact handbag or sweater they see on the catwalk or on a cover, Cole says, they are buying a dream.

"What people are consuming is what things represent. It's people defining themselves through what they wear."

On this day, he has two jackets in his office — which boasts old-fashioned shoemaking stations. One is a slim, stylish blazer, the other a ski jacket that makes more sense on a chilly afternoon.

He goes jacketless, however, to his meeting with his men's shoe team. With his shirt sleeves rolled up and two smartphones (one an iPhone, the other a Blackberry) hanging from the pockets of his jeans, he asks about the textured treatments to the leather and the placement of the shelves in the showroom.

Cole's top-level corner space on the building where his offices are located on the far west side of Manhattan provides a view of the Hudson River. But one gets the sense that he spends a lot of time in the elevator, starting many days in the new digital photo studio in the basement and then moving upstairs to sample production rooms and then the showrooms, which are divided by brand, gender and vibe. An electric guitar and skateboard hang on the walls of the more casual Reaction room. There are more books for the Collection customer.

"We are trying to speak to the consumer by their lifestyle. We are trying to match product to their lifestyle, and that's what brings it to life now," Cole says. "Doing it this way forces you to know those people that we're trying to sell to. We all have to know this guy and we all have to like this guy."

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