To Tackle Sustainability, Kenneth Cole Is Starting With the Gentle Souls Comfort Brand

Kenneth Cole — and the fashion company he founded — are known for using their collective weight to promote conversations about equality and discrimination. And in the past year, the designer’s mission has been amplified by the pandemic, during which he’s taken strong stances on racial justice as well as mental health awareness.

Now the outspoken entrepreneur and his team are joining the sustainable fashion movement, working to address their environmental impact. Specifically, the company is revamping its Gentle Souls comfort line to become fully sustainable.

Roberto Zamarra, who joined Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. in 2013 and was named group president of footwear in 2019, said the new philosophy for the brand is “gentle on your feet, gentle on the planet.”

“What that means is the circularity of it will be sustainable, where all of the components have no harm to the planet,” he explained. “[That includes] our leathers and the sole components, to everything as far as the shipping of the product and where it’s manufactured — every aspect of the product. We’re really digging into the level of damage being done to the Earth.”

While Zamarra said the timeline for achieving full sustainability is still unclear, Gentle Souls is beginning to share some of the fruits of its labors. The brand recently launched the eco-friendly Nyle court sneaker featuring a sole made from the milk of a hevea tree, while the eyelets and laces come from recycled plastic bottle waste. And for fall ’21, Gentle Souls will introduce more shoes featuring chrome-free leather and suede uppers and other eco-conscious components.

Zamarra admitted that changing materials is the easy part. “You just have to be disciplined, making sure your design team uses the appropriate things,” he said, adding that what comes next will be more challenging. “What we have to continue to evolve is the supply chain and reduce waste — such as making sure we use overstock products, upcycled materials. Those are the things that we design into [the line] now.”

The executive recalled that the work on Gentle Souls began pre-COVID, but accelerated significantly this past year.

“When we were all hunkered down and had that minute to live in our households in a state of total shock, my design team started having conversations with Kenneth about where are we and the planet headed. And the idea was, we could be doing more,” Zamarra said. “We’d been toying with the idea of making Gentle Souls 100% sustainable, but realized we have to make a difference as quick as possible because everything interacts with each other. We’ve learned from this pandemic that we all need to live here and live as one. And the natural play was Gentle Souls for us to get started.”

As his team continues to evolve the brand, Zamarra said their learnings could lead to sustainable capsules within the Kenneth Cole namesake lines. “But our focus right now is to get Gentle Souls right.”

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