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Kenneth Cole’s Awearness Initiative Reveals the Philanthropy Behind the Fashion

When you think of Kenneth Cole, timeless fashion, trendsetting shoes and stylish accessories likely leap to mind.  Their commitment to the environment and their eco-tote likely do not top your list.  But behind the well designed exterior lies a philanthropic soul, intent on sparking social change — and helping others do it, too.

Their recent launch of Awearness supports that mission, showcasing 25 years worth of philanthropy, and creating a place for consumers and businesses to get involved in championing the causes that are important to them.  From a blog to a book to a volunteer link up program, Kenneth Cole shows us it’s possible to look as good as you feel. 

Right down to its name, Awearness is the embodiment of Feelgood Style.

Being the slightly bold journalist that I am, I sought out an interview with this fashion icon to learn more about Awearness and uncover any other hidden gems lurking behind the finely stitched fabric of Kenneth Cole.  It started with some light stalking of their Twitter account, a couple of emails and a few [dozen] phone calls before I finally connected with Robert Genovese, Vice President of Marketing & Media at the West 50th Street headquarters in New York City.  Robert was gracious, responsive, and genuinely eager to share the details of the Awearness program, and happily indulged me in the laundry list of questions that I am thrilled to share with you now.

Awearness was developed as a vehicle to highlight the charitable endeavors of the Kenneth Cole company over the past 25 years.  Can you tell us a little more about the effort and why you decided to develop Awearness?

First, you have to go back 25 years… no other fashion designer would dare build their brand on a foundation of raising awareness of various social issues. Kenneth stands for something; he was — and is — a pioneer. Personally, I think that Kenneth has been so busy with the various causes that it wasn’t until recently with the anniversary that he took a step back and said, “We need to be more efficient and effective with our resources,” so Awearness was born to focus the charitable endeavors of our company under one empowering initiative.

There is also a companion book that details the charitable initiatives of social entrepreneurs, companies and philanthropists around the world as a blueprint for those who want to spark social change through their business.  Is this part of a larger scale strategy/commitment to corporate social responsiblity? 

Yes, corporate as well as personal responsibility, but also as a source of motivation. He writes in the book ‘My hope is that, in sharing a handful of these personal journeys, we might help challenge and further galvanize the next wave of social entrepreneurs.’ Hopefully, this book will serve as another extension for stirring up inspiration for social change.

Do you hope to help pave the way for a mindset shift toward greater/more widespread corporate consciousness through the high profile Kenneth Cole brand?

We are an American success story with unbelievable growth in a relatively short period of time. Certainly, we can be viewed as the prototype that you can do well by doing good.

I was blown away by the number of activities you’ve developed as part of this effort, especially the Awearness Alliance which connects consumers with volunteer activities to help make a tangible difference in the world.  How has the response been so far? 

Keep in mind that this is all relatively new so we are building the base carefully and methodically. It was obvious to us when we set out to develop Awearness that we should leverage our most defining characteristic — our voice . So, it is fitting that the first platform to come out of Awearness is the Awearness blog. Initial response has been positive from our community as well as the industry. Techno//Marketer gave us 4 out of 5 stars based on Voice, Design and Content. Google recently accepted us as a credible news source. Traffic is building each day.

The blog illustrated fairly quickly that our base wants to talk the talk but they also wanted to walk the walk –- they want to get involved, so we partnered with Volunteer Match to create the Kenneth Cole Volunteer Match site. From three drop down menus, you select the area of interest, your zip code and how far you are willing to travel, and dozens of opportunities are generated. The future potential of this initiative is very exciting.

Our YouTube page showcases several Awearness-inspired videos that we have produced in-house, and along with our partners at Good Magazine.

The Awearness Alliance allows our community to stay up to date on all things Awearness from events to products to special offers.

What are the types of causes/charities that you are linking consumers with?  What is Kenneth Cole’s affiliation with those causes?

Historically, our brand has a long history with AIDS awareness and education. Kenneth is currently the chairman of amFar and the cause is near and dear to his heart, Additionally, homeless efforts have been the focus of many of our initiatives and we have a strong relationship with HELP USA. These are two core affiliations; however, ultimately, the message is really is to choose your passions whether it be ‘animal rights’ or ‘children and youth’ and take action.

What other ways can consumers get involved if they don’t have the time to devote to volunteer efforts?

One of the strengths of the Kenneth Cole Volunteer Match site is that there are also virtual opportunities — ways to get involved without leaving your home. We also regularly support various charity initiatives at our retail stores and these events can be found on our website. Also, the sale of Awearness products result in the donation to our ongoing Awearness fund.

What cause-related marketing has Kenneth Cole engaged in over the years?  What impact have those efforts made?

The majority of our campaigns contain social commentary and we have addressed many issues. Issues have ranged from HIV to gun control to a woman’s right to choose. The impact, hopefully, is to get consumers to think a bit differently than they did before and interacting with them to positively influence the world around them. As Kenneth says, ‘Today is not a dress rehearsal.’

Can you tell us more about the eco tote and any other eco-focused efforts?

The eco tote was developed to assist in cutting down our use of plastic bags, it is 100% natural unbleached cotton and is machine washable.  We are also actively seeking ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

Are there plans to continue the activities under Awearness in the future?  How do you plan to evolve this effort for maximum impact? 

Absolutely. There are many plans… for example: our Community Outreach team is working with the various Kenneth Cole communities where they can make our stores available to host fundraising events to raise money, awareness and recruitment for eligible, local service-based organizations. Ultimately, a big part of the evolution will be listening to our network and learning what would serve them best.

“To be aware is more important than what you wear.” – Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole is a shining example of a social entrepreneur, putting as painstaking an effort into doing good as he does in his clothes, giving all new meaning to the old saying, “You reap what you sew.”

Written by Gennefer Gross

Gennefer Gross is a food and style-obsessed television comedy writer in Los Angeles. She is currently co-founder of Blox Toppling Productions, an independent production company she runs with her husband and writing partner, David Gross. When she’s not covering the fashion beat, she can be found sharing mouthwatering morsels on her blog Tasty Beautiful or on a quest for the world's best burger.

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