Why Kenneth Cole and Donna Karan Have Worked Tirelessly to Ignite Change in Haiti

On Dec. 3, Kenneth Cole and Donna Karan will be honored as the Icon Award for Social Impact winners at the FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 2 print issue about their mutual mission to help support the country of Haiti.

Nearly 10 years after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the country remains in rebuild mode, and despite progress, it still faces extreme turmoil to this day. While many came to the nation’s aid soon after the natural disaster, that support has since waned.

Designers Kenneth Cole and Donna Karan are among the few still dedicated to helping its people recover, and their help has been much more than a paycheck. Over the years, Cole and Karan have each been major proponents of Haiti’s improvement through various methods that include helping to fund construction projects, fueling job creation, supporting vocational education and visiting the people of Haiti.

“When the earthquake happened, it was a call to action,” recalled Karan. “A handful of us went down there and we stayed. It was a moment of collaboration to come together and create the change that was needed.”

Donna Karan
Donna Karan at her Urban Zen store, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Amanda Demme

The fashion legend added that she remains committed, thanks to her sense of a personal connection. “Haiti is a place where you feel the soul of the country,” she said. “I discovered a community of artisans and fell in love with their creativity. I never left. It was about giving them a fishing rod to fish — a long-term strategy to help.”

The mutual passion and drive of these longtime friends brought the two together for a special project this summer aiming to create more change.

Through Karan’s Urban Zen retail concept and Cole’s Gentle Souls footwear label, the duo debuted a shoe collection in July featuring 10 Haitian-inspired looks made by a group of the country’s artisans.

Consumers responded to the line’s elevated craftsmanship, according to Cole. “The fact that the shoes were designed by both Donna and I during a trip we took to Haiti is something that resonated with both of our consumer bases,” he said. “[I think shoppers] are also proud that they are purchasing and wearing shoes that help to promote Haiti’s rich artisan culture and empower the workforce there by creating jobs in the country.”

Though the designers produced the collection in limited quantities, their goal is for this to become an ongoing sustainable business.

So far, top styles include the Rafine and Vayan embroidered sandals, which were made in partnership with Pascale Théard, a Haitian artisan whose workshop helped develop the line. For this holiday season, new styles incorporating metallic colorways will be released on Dec. 6.

“Our intention is that these shoes are a vehicle for telling the story of the Haitian artisan community,” said Cole. “And if nothing else, it shines a light on a culture that deserves to be celebrated. We want to support the Haitian economy at a time when they are in absolute chaos.”

He added that the challenges of a project of this sort remain significant. “Haiti is going through horrendous times. What we were able to accomplish wasn’t easy. It’s hard and, of course, has gotten harder, but we stay committed to these people that we have come to admire and respect. If it was not for this collection, they would not have jobs, which makes it all the more purposeful.”

kenneth Cole
Kenneth Cole, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Amanda Demme

Outside of Haiti, both Cole and Karan have long used their platforms to raise awareness for social causes. Notably, Cole spent decades as a major supporter of amfAR, an effort that gained the respect of fellow shoe dog Steve Madden.

“[I remember early on that] I was trying to survive and he was helping to cure AIDS, so he was pretty badass,” Madden told FN. “He’s an original gangster. He’s made a big mark in the world, and he’s a really good role model for a lot of people.”

The 33rd annual FNAA ceremony will be held at the IAC Building in New York. Sponsors for the event include Klarna, Geox, The Style Room Powered by Zappos, FDRA, Micam Milano and Buchanan’s Scotch Whisky.

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