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Our Chat With Kenneth Cole: He Loves SF, Twitter, Glide Church

Shoppers happily traded the waning days of summer for a Kenneth Cole-d front in the Nordstrom shoe department on Saturday.
Shoppers happily traded the waning days of summer for a Kenneth Cole-d front in the Nordstrom shoe department on Saturday.

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Everyone approaches the big 3-0 differently. When Kenneth Cole (the brand) turned 30 this year, Kenneth Cole (the man) embraced the landmark with a flashy online ad archive, a documentary about AmFAR, and This is a Kenneth Cole Production, a book celebrating three decades in the fashion industry. It may seem like an unusual approach to a birthday, but that's what we've come to expect from the man known as much for moxie as his designs.

Cole breezed through San Francisco this weekend for a book-signing at Nordstrom in Westfield Centre, and sat down to chat with us about social media, social responsibility, and why San Francisco will always be close to his heart.

What lessons have you learned over the past 30 years in fashion?
"You have to commit yourself to an extraordinary degree, no matter what you do. Thirty years after doing this, I believe I've earned only the right to be considered. Everyday, I believe I have to earn the right to be chosen, which is what's so great about the fashion business."

What impact do you think your brand has made in the world?
"How do you go home at the end of the day, look in the mirror, and say, "I spent 60 hours, I spent all this time. Did it change the world? Did it really affect anybody's life?" It's a question I ask myself a lot; especially in the earlier years. In one sense, I make the argument that our wardrobe choices—maybe they're borderline frivolous and questionably significant—but on the other hand, I make the argument that they're absolutely significant and meaningful in the sense that most people you encounter on a given day don't get to know anymore about you than how you choose to present yourself. You have full control over the statement you're going to make and the audience you're going to make it to. To be a part of that is powerful. People are not necessarily drawn to brands specifically except to the degree that they enhance their own."

What's your social media network of choice?
"I love the ability to talk about social issues, which is hard to do visually on Instagram and Pinterest. And I love to engage and provoke people—thoughtfully and hopefully meaningfully—which is what Twitter allows you do to. So that's the platform I personally gravitate to. In an effort to be relatively cautious... it's the one platform on which I've distinguished the man from the brand. [On my personal account] I try to talk about more compelling social issues. I try to engage people on the same subjects I have for 30 years: human rights, HIV, homelessness, the issue of being against war and in support of troops. Twitter allows me that platform. It's not just a monologue, it's a dialogue.

How do you feel about San Francisco?
"I love San Francisco. My first store—in 1985—was in New York on Columbus Avenue. My second one, a year later, was on Union Street in San Francisco. I love the culture of New York, and I think what has drawn me and inspired me emotionally and socially and culturally draws me also to San Francisco... I love the spirit, the energy, the culture. I love the open, more progressive way people embrace community and think about social issues. And also fashion."

You're also the chairman of the Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), can you talk a bit about your commitment to AIDS research and awareness?
"I did my first AIDS awareness campaign in 1985—two years before the president of the United States even mentioned the word publicly—and I've committed much of myself to that process and the need to find a cure for HIV/AIDS. No community probably felt the impact of AIDS more than this one.

What are your favorite places in the Bay Area?
"Last night we went to Kokkari, which was an interesting experience. Somebody asked me that question the other day, 'Is there a favorite place in San Francisco?' and the place that came to mind first and foremost was the Glide Church. I love how this institution connects so spiritually and personally with typically disenfranchised communities and brings everyone together in a very meaningful and substantive way.

On to the famous Racked lightning round!
Beach or mountains?
"What time of year? Both. I can't be in just one or the other. I kind of need access to both."

Dogs or cats?
"Dogs."

We were going to ask Twitter or Instagram, but you already said that you prefer Twitter. So Instagram or Pinterest.
"I personally do Instagram. But I have an interest in Pinterest."

Madonna or Gaga?
"I'm still probably in the Madonna camp."

And a New York-specific question: Uptown or downtown?
"I grew up uptown, I've experienced downtown, and I've chosen to live uptown."

For those of you interested in learning more about Kenneth Cole—the man and the brand — This is a Kenneth Cole Production is available now. The HBO documentary that Cole produced, The Battle of AmFAR, will premiere on December 2.
· Kenneth Cole [Official Site]
· AmFAR [Official Site]