Live from DMA: Kenneth Cole’s Major Production

Chicago–Did you ever wonder why shoes manufacturer/marketer Kenneth Cole is called Kenneth Cole Productions? In his keynote address at the DMA annual conference, Kenneth Cole himself detailed how he started the company 25 years ago.

Cole, who had been in the family shoe manufacturing business and pioneered the launch of the icon ’80s brand Candies, decided to create an eponymous shoe line in 1982. He went to Italy to have the shoes made, “because I knew a had a better chance of getting a line of credit from an Intlian shoes manufacturer who needed the business vs. an American bank that didn’t,” Cole said. One he had the shoes, the next question was how to sell them.

He had the idea to borrow a friend’s giant truck and set up shop for a few days near the Hilton hotel in midtown Manhattan. But the office of then-mayor Ed Koch denied Cole a permit, saying that only utility companies and film production firm were eligible for such permits. Cole spend about $14 to get new stationery printed that said “Kenneth Cole Productions” instead of Kenneth Cole Inc.” and filed for a permit to shoot a film titled “Birth of a shoe company.” It worked: Cole didn’t specifiy how much of the sale was captured on film, but “we sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in two and a half days.”

The now $1.7 billion brand has since expanded into men’s shoes, apparel, and fragrance, and includes 155 stores. “Fashion is empowering bu humbling,” Cole said, because you have to contantly reinvent yourself and add value for the customer. He noted that “products are manufactured, but brands are what people buy.” Building a successful brand is all about understanding your target customer. “I try to put myself in my customers shoes so that hopefully they’ll put themselves in mine.”

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