Retrospective: Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole celebrates 30 monumental years in fashion.

IT WAS A MONUMENTAL DAY for social justice when we arrived at Kenneth Cole's Hell's Kitchen, New York, studio. Hours before, the Supreme Court had ruled that a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (which denied federal benefits for same-sex marriages) was unconstitutional, a victory of sorts for Cole, 59, who has been a pioneer for social issues (and was the first designer to use fashion as a platform) like equal rights, gun control, and HIV and AIDS prevention since starting his business. He took to Twitter @KennethCole: "The Supreme Court decision 'For better or for worse' is one 'To have and to hold.' Congratulations @HRC #SCOTUS."

It's a monumental time for Cole, too, who is celebrating 30 years in fashion—or as he likes to say, "the ninth anniversary of our 21st birthday"—although designing wasn't a career goal of his. (He studied business at Emory University.) Activism wasn't, either, despite marrying into a prominent New York political family when he wed Maria Cuomo in 1987. "There was never a strategically anticipated initiative or agenda that would bring me to any place that resembles where I am," he says. Where he is: at the helm of Kenneth Cole Productions Inc., a lifestyle brand of women's and men's ready-to-wear; accessories; fragrance; eyewear; and, most recently, a line of home goods for Bed, Bath & Beyond. Along the way, he's been both criticized for his controversial advertising (included in This Is a Kenneth Cole Production, out this month from Rizzoli) and lauded as People magazine's Sexiest Businessman of the Year in 1988 and as board chairman of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

From his social consciousness to his democratic fashion, Cole's message has always been one of inclusion. And he will keep putting it out there. "I'm obsessed," he says, "with how to make what I do relevant." —Jessica Minkoff

Photos from left to right: 1. One of many ads promoting equal rights, 2008. "It's been a consistent theme." 2. A look from Fall 2013. 3. VEST $198. 4. A campaign ad from 2011. "We have taken our core messages and reinterpreted them over the years." 5. SHOES $170. 6. PANTS $98. All items, Kenneth Cole New York; (800) KEN-COLE.

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