Kenneth Cole Talks Candidly About Rebranding His Namesake Label

In late September, before his big amfAR Gala in Milan, Kenneth Cole spent a week on the outskirts of the city at his new Italian office. Speaking to Footwear News the day before the event, Cole was eager to discuss the “evolutional refresh” he’s leading for the company.

“It’s not about getting bigger, but getting better and more efficient and more productive,” he said. “That’s the journey we’ve been on.”

Cole and his new CEO, Marc Schneider, who was previously a top exec at PVH Corp., have redesigned the brand’s logo and website, opened a concept store on Bowery in downtown Manhattan and launched a campaign featuring a handpicked “courageous class.” Plus, the 32-year-old brand has strengthened its product with the addition of offices in Italy and Asia and a more efficient merchandising strategy.

“We needed to elevate the product and switch to a single brand strategy to make the business model a little less complicated,” said Cole, adding that the office in Civitanova, Italy, will play a key role in the upgrade.

Kenneth Cole Rebranding
Women’s spring ’16 style.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

“We are making a big commitment to Italy,” Cole continued. “We have deep relationships and history [in the country], and there is an embrace and enthusiasm on both sides. So many of the [employees there] are born into the industry, and they know the shoe business. There is a real passion to be great again.”

The CEO echoed that footwear is crucial to the company’s expansion efforts. “We’re going to put footwear first. We started as a shoe company, and our heritage is as a footwear company,” said Schneider, who joined the team in February. “It is part of our present and a major part of our future.”

In addition to Italy, Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. is growing its presence in Asia with an office in the Dongguan region of China.

“We’re now a global sourcing agency, as far as how we operate,” said Roberto Zamarra, president of women’s footwear and handbags. “We’re not just China-based — we have an Asia office. And we’re back in Italy, which is huge.”

Kenneth Cole NYC Store Opening
Cole with Alan Cumming.
CREDIT: Billy Farrell Agency.

These factory moves, executives said, have led to better materials and a push for more strategic product categories. “We’re constructing an initiative called ‘supplying consumers product for the urban uniform,’” said Schneider. “We’re focusing on modern dress, modern casual and modern sport, using materials in the $300-to-$600 range and putting it in our zone.”

Greg Tarbell, president of men’s footwear, said a major objective in creating the latest collection was an emphasis on “style, not fashion.”

“We like to be on trend, but not trendy,” Tarbell said. “We came up with this capsule-collection idea that if you only had four shoes in your wardrobe, these would go with everything.”

The revamped product takes center stage at the Bowery store, which opened last month. The concept is to merge physical retail with a virtual experience — one highlight being a “memory mirror” where customers can try on product in various colors.

Currently, Kenneth Cole Productions also operates more than 150 stores globally.

“We feel strongly about connecting with our consumers,” said Schneider. “We’re looking at this store to see the results, and our intent is to consider opening stores in more city locations.”

While Cole and his namesake company are well-known for activism and a socially conscious mindset, there will be a shift to being more product-focused along with the message. “The company will always pay attention to those issues, but how we communicate them has changed,” said Cole. “We are going to tell the product story better. In the advertising and messaging, you need to see the product more.”

“In the past, it has been much more about social awareness,” added Schneider. “[Now], it’s about the product first — the product and brand are no longer secondary.”

Case in point: the recently launched Courageous Class campaign.

The fall ’15 ads star trans model Andreja Pejic, humanitarian hip-hop artist Rhymefest and deaf professional soccer player Jamie Clarke, among others.

“Social awareness is part of our DNA — our point of view is that you should get involved, engaged,” said Schneider. “That’s what we feel strongly about, and that’s what you’ll see in our campaign.”

Additionally, the logo has transitioned from a script font to an updated, modern look. And the website was redesigned to incorporate more navigable technology and an appealing aesthetic.

Kenneth Cole Rebranding
Bowery store interior.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

Of course, with a large number of changes come obstacles.

“Probably the biggest challenge is that the [company’s] history is terrific, and [keeping that intact] is critical,” said Schneider. “We are [trying] this edgy and entrepreneurial way to take that courageous heritage without the baggage — shedding the baggage but making sure we don’t leave the heritage behind.”

Kenneth Cole NYC Store Opening
Cole with Vanessa Williams and Jillian Hervey.
CREDIT: Billy Farrell Agency.

According to Cole, the timing of the reboot is in line with the company’s decision to go private in June 2012.

“Rebranding is very hard to do in the physical world,” he said. “I felt it required going private.”

Overall, Cole and his team are bullish about the brand’s evolution.

“From my standpoint, there is significant opportunity to have a brand that has a heritage and is focused on being relevant today for the future consumer’s needs,” said Schneider. “We are strengthening our relevance.”

With product first, of course, said Cole.

“Our heritage in footwear is not to be underestimated,” he said. “We have unique product, and I’m excited about reinvigorating that part of the brand and making it great.”

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