Kenneth Cole is a master wrangler. At any given time, you'll find him goading friends, business partners, politicians, and celebrities into giving time or treasure to his pet cause: eradicating AIDS from planet Earth. In five years as chairman of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, he has doubled the nonprofit's size — throwing fundraisers like the one at Cannes last May that pulled in $4.5 million in a single night — while keeping his day job as chairman and chief creative officer of Kenneth Cole Productions.
Still, Cole's toughest challenge may yet be before him: to convince the American people that the hard work of ending the disease has just begun. Although infection rates plummeted in the '90s, they're once again on an upswing. But only 6 percent of Americans think AIDS is our most urgent health problem. "We as a country are very good at responding to acute, short-term crises," Cole, dressed in black jeans, a white shirt, a vest and tie, says from his seat in a D.C.-bound charter jet. "When the crisis becomes chronic, we tend to withdraw." Cole's attention darts from tweaking his AIDS stump speech for the congressional audience he'll address that morning to reading the fashion trades to typing on his BlackBerry, one of the three phones he has on him at all times. "Every day of every month of every year, 14,000 people around the world contract HIV and 3000 die of AIDS. So it's hard to sustain the emotional connectedness." And the retroviral paradox hasn't helped matters: The more Americans see HIV-positive people leading full, long lives, the more they believe the crisis is subsiding. "People have gone back to inappropriate lifestyle practices that make them vulnerable," he says.
But Cole won't abide failure. Finding a cure for AIDS is a self-imposed mandate that has him taking regular trips to Thailand, Cambodia, and China to create a network of info-sharing research centers. "There are many in the AIDS community who have said we won't find a cure in the foreseeable future," says Cole, 55. "Well, you certainly won't find it if you're not looking." To that end, Kenneth Cole stores now offer a Wellie boot under his Awearness label, with 100 percent of profits going to the hunt for a cure. Cole wrote the ad copy himself: "Save a hide ... wear a rubber (boot)." Even as his company has grown to 900 employees and nine-figure revenues, he remains both its social conscience and pun writer. "Now that people have realized they don't need to be running out for questionably necessary goods, the things that do feel necessary are the feel-good products," he says. "That they also look good is like a free gift with purchase. Oh, that's good. I should use that."
AIDS BY THE NUMBERS:
33 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS.
Every 9.5 minutes, an American becomes infected.
56,000 Americans are diagnosed annually.
African-American women are 15 times more likely than white women to contract HIV.
Between '04 and '09, the percentage of Americans who say they've heard or read a lot about AIDS within the last year has dropped from 34 percent to 14 percent.
To help support AIDS research, visit amfar.org.