Five Questions for Kenneth Cole

The designer sounds off on Boston, social media, and the future of fashion.

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Designer Kenneth Cole speaks at Harvard University (Photo by Thomas Dai).

This is a big year for Kenneth Cole. For starters, 2013 marks the brand’s 30th anniversary, and the company is celebrating with the release of “This Is A Kenneth Cole Production,” a limited-edition book (proceeds go towards amFAR and the Foundation for AIDS Research). The designer, who recently brought his signature collection back to the runway after a hiatus, was at Harvard University Wednesday night for a panel discussion moderated by Amy Levin of collegefashionista.com. Talking largely about his experiences starting out in the industry, Cole, whose daughter is a sophomore at Harvard, also touched on the need to stay socially engaged and relevant today. To wit, attendees were encouraged to ask him questions both in the flesh and via a live Twitter feed.

Before the event, we sat down with the designer to chat about his anniversary, Boston style, and the future of fashion:

So what’s your take on Boston style (or lack thereof)?

“I think Boston is a very contemporary city, but also traditional in a way. There’s this traditional spine that you see reflected in how people dress and talk, but a contemporary outlook as well, which I think you see in the city’s progressive social mindset.”

Thirty years is a long time to work in fashion—how do you think the industry has changed in that time? Where do you see fashion going?

“The very definition of the market has changed. People consume differently and on their own terms. Individuals now have the ability to basically curate their own brand, and what’s more, they can now, through social media, also curate what audience they share that brand with, what to reveal and what to conceal. So I think it’s really shifting to this idea of self-branding, and people define this brand by that which they emotionally connect to, as well as what they encounter through social media.”

Your company was participating in various philanthropic ventures before it seemed in to do so. Do you think that fashion designers today should be more socially engaged?

“Today, there’s a lot of pressure to be relevant. You can define yourself in two ways, your content or your context. We like to try to do both. By that I mean that we are interested in not just the product, but also the broader issues. It’s not just what’s on our customers’ bodies, but also what’s on their minds… not what they stand in, but also what they stand for.”

Can you tell us a bit about this new book? 

“The book… it sort of forces you to reflect, and I think in this business it’s treacherous to look back, and it’s almost a little indulgent to spend too much time thinking about from where you’ve come… because, to the degree that we’ve become engaged with thinking about where we’ve come… it’s going to encumber our ability to go forward…. so the book is mostly a pictorial reflection of those thirty years; it tells you what was going on in the world and how we addressed it through social issues and also through fashion.”

Any advice for current college kids with fashionable aspirations?

“Like I said, I think that the industry is very different today. You first have to ask yourself: What is fashion? What is a market? Besides that, there are really no rules anymore, you can script your own as you go along… I think if I had one piece of advice, it would be to not let what you do become who you are, because things are always going to change.”

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