The sun-drenched deck of the coffee shop at The Lodhi hotel in New Delhi is the ideal setting to meet the iconic American fashion designer Kenneth Cole. The ambience allows not just for a sparkling conversation but for a perfect photo shoot as well. The natural light filters through the expansive glass walls, offering a pleasant view of the greenery outside.

The 59-year-old designer, who launched his own label in 1982 in New York, US, looks dapper in a pair of jeans and jacket. If he is exhausted after a series of meetings and photo shoots, he does not let on and sips his sugar-free coffee that’s turned cold without a fuss.

Much to the photographer’s delight, he turns out to be the coolest subject she has shot in recent times. Poised, pleasant, plain humble and arguably the best model for his own clothing and shoes label, he’s skilled at striking a pose.

Although Kenneth Cole stores have been in India for the last one year in a franchise arrangement with Reliance Brands, this is Cole’s first visit to the country after partnering Mukesh Ambani’s premium and luxury fashion company.

He first visited India 15 years ago, though not for business. But between then and now, the difference in the country is stark. “It is astounding how evolved and progressed India has become. It is holding on to its extraordinary rich culture and becoming global and Western at the same time," he says.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

In the past, he has designed T-shirts for people with or without AIDS that said: “I have AIDS", to help reduce the stigma attached to the disease. The two women who inspired him to work in the area were Mathilde Krim, a Swiss doctor and founding chairman of amfAR, and the legendary actor Elizabeth Taylor.

The involvement with AIDS awareness happened early in his career. “In many ways, it has helped the business though it is not why I did it or not why I do it," he says.

The conversation makes it difficult to pin down the real Kenneth Cole—a designer, an activist, a businessman. “I am probably not the best creative person in the industry. I am probably not the best business person in the industry. But by nature being both, I think, is a strategic advantage," he says.

What has kept him inspired in the business for the last 30 years is the “love for being able to connect with new audiences and, hopefully, figure out how to make a difference in people’s lives in how they present themselves…as far as what’s on their minds and what’s on their body," he says.

He believes the decision people make every morning on what they are going to wear is a significant one as it defines who they are at that point in time. “That’s because most people they meet on any given date don’t really get to know them more than how they choose to look. If I am (as a fashion brand) allowed to be part of that decision, it is a real gift," he says.

Kenneth Cole is today a $1.2 billion (around 7,440 crore) brand, with stores in the US, Canada, Mexico, UK, Japan, Thailand and South Africa, among other countries. It has seven stores in India, and the number is expected to go up to 20 in the next five years.

Kenneth Cole Productions was publicly listed in 2004—it won several awards for being among the best small companies in the US. However, unhappy with the way things panned out for the designer label, Cole bought back the shares of the company a couple of years ago.

“I realized afterwards why anyone would want to be public, unless they need the money or resources. Today, as a private company, one can do so much more. One can plan strategically and compete without having to tell everybody what you just did and why. I wanted to make the brand cool again. I needed to make it a little smaller to make it bigger and I needed to change the consumer experience." Now that Kenneth Cole is privately held, is it a better place to be in? “It is the only place to be in, if you can afford it," he says.

Although Kenneth Cole is the umbrella brand, his portfolio consists of other lines such as Reaction, Unlisted, New York and Le Tigre for both apparel and accessories that retail at different price points. “Kenneth Cole is personal to me and it is how I dress. It has a voice and aesthetic," he says.

For all his humility, Cole refrains from naming any particular designer he likes. “I admire other people’s clothes but I only wear my own," he smiles. He is most comfortable in a mixed style, “which is also a big part of what the brand is". He is not comfortable either in torn jeans and a T-shirt or a suit. “But I am comfortable in torn jeans and suede jacket," he says.

Though Cole’s father owned a shoe factory, he became curious about fashion pretty late in life. He wanted to be a baseball player and, later, a lawyer. Finally, when he decided to launch his own shoe label, he began his business out of a truck parked in Midtown Manhattan. He is said to have sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in two-and-a-half days.

Hasn’t the world of fashion changed dramatically in the last 30 years in terms of cuts, silhouettes, people and power centres? Cole says fashion used to originate every few months in Milan and Paris. Six months later, it would find its way to New York and London. Then a year or two after that, maybe to Los Angeles, and perhaps one day, to India. But it was always interpreted and filtered. “Now, because of the Internet and social media, fashion happens in real time. So everybody experiences fashion when it happens," he says.

People consume fashion differently. It is actually interpreted for people who buy it, based on their resources, availability and geography. “Those who do not buy it as of the moment, consume fashion in a unique way. They pin it, post it, tweet it, they Instragram it. Then it ultimately becomes part of their own brand," says Cole.

The fusion and blend ensure that if a brand is relevant anywhere it is essentially relevant everywhere. If it is relevant anywhere, it is available everywhere. Although Kenneth Cole is distinctive, urban New York contemporary dressing, now people dress like that everywhere, he says.

Currently, his favourite shopping destination is “a unique one. It is called the World Wide Web." He thinks it ironic that designers who were used to getting on a plane and travelling everywhere to look for stuff, sit at their desk with their mobile devices. “You can see more in an hour than what you used to be able to see in months," he says.

So does he consider himself to be successful? “It’s hard to look at it that way. I’ve said to people that I have been doing this for 30 years and that has earned me the right to be considered. Anything you do, you have to be chosen. The consumer has a lot of choices today...so I fortunately am a choice. But every day, I have to earn the right to be selected," he believes.

In an earlier interview, Cole mentioned that fashion labels are not need-based and you have to make the consumers think again and again about them. “They don’t need it but at the same time, it is a powerful tool that people have that makes them feel good about themselves. It becomes a self-fulfilling offering. If you look good, you invariably feel good. You relax more, you smile more," he says.

On this visit, Cole was accompanied by his wife Maria and one of three daughters. What role do they play in his business? “Whenever I do something that’s not right, they have a clear way of bringing it to my attention, which is helpful."

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