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Updated: November 19, 2013 18:30 IST

A designer with a heart

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Kenneth Cole
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Kenneth Cole

Meet Kenneth Cole who is renowned for his charity work as much as he is for his designs

American designer Kenneth Cole straddles two different realms with ease. He is the face and the brains behind the brand that has shoes, clothes, bags, watches and accessories under its umbrella. This “Aspiring Humanitarian” and “Frustrated Activist” — as quoted in his Twitter profile — is renowned for his charity work as much as he is for his designs.

And as the chairman of amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), he was in Mumbai for its inaugural fundraiser in India on Sunday. The event was a reflection of the designer himself of sorts, offering a cocktail of fashion and charity, with the likes of Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani and Rohit Bal taking part in The Gold Fashion Show, which was a part of the fundraiser. During his time in India, he launched Kenneth Cole’s new store in Delhi.

In a chat prior to the amFAR fundraiser in Mumbai, Kenneth Cole talks of his work for AIDS awareness, Indian fashion and riding an autorickshaw, besides sharing a video of it!

You are here at a time when you couldn’t have missed the Sachin fever. How much of it did you catch?

I was a little overwhelmed (by all the excitement). I had heard of him, but you can experience his enormous impact only by being here. Everybody is so inspired by this man who has earned his way into every Indian’s heart by being an extraordinary athlete and competitor. But what appears to have really resonated with people is the humanity behind that, which is very unique and unparalleled, to my knowledge. Deservingly, he is a role model for an entire generation to come. I just hope somehow his message can be interpreted in different parts of the globe as well. I hope his story is told.

You belong to the realm of fashion and yet are actively involved in charity work. How did that happen?

I believe that, as a business person, my goal is not just to talk of what is on my mind, because it is what is on your mind which influences what is on your body. And also influences all your life choices in many ways, and in the process, this is where I’ve come. I’ve been doing pretty much what I do now for most of my 30 years.

In the 1980s, I wanted to connect with people in a meaningful way. Somehow I found my way into the HIV AIDS (issue) because nobody was willing to speak of that yet then, because of the impact of the stigma, which is devastating. Arguably, the stigma continues to kill more people than the virus itself. So, I did a campaign in the 1980s, which spoke of the fact that no one was speaking of it. And it changed me, changed the brand, and changed the company. And I’ve had the privilege to continue to play an important role in the great work that amFAR has done. I was a board member in 1987 and became a chairman in 2005. In the last eight or nine years, amFAR has made great progress. And a lot of that credit goes to the extraordinary dedication and devotion of two very powerful women — Dr. Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor — who came together to form amFAR.

I’ve actually executive-produced a film with HBO, which is coming out at the end of this year in the U.S. called The Battle of amFAR. It talks of these two women. It humanises and discusses, shows, in very layman terms, the impact that research has made in containing this virus.

We can make the elimination of HIV a legacy of this generation. Nobody would have thought even before a few years that this would have been possible.

Why do you call yourself a “frustrated activist” on Twitter?

We always aim high and we are all very ambitious when we want to make a difference. I find often that only by aiming high can you really make an impact. When I go to bed at night, I always know that there is that much still left undone. And I know a lot of people like myself. And every day we deal with what we have to do and put off what we want to do. And when you see anybody today with HIV it’s hard to put your head on the pillow because you know this doesn’t have to be. But it is. Sometimes I find energy in that frustration.

What are your business plans in India?

Right now, we are totally focused on how we position the business and the brand so that it could be relevant; making sure that it is out there to the degree it should be, no more than it should be. And to assess the degree in which the markets grows — a lot of people in India do not know how fast that’s going to happen and how fast it should happen — then hopefully we’ll be there as it does.

What is your take on the Indian fashion industry?

Indian fashion industry, from my understanding, has enormous potential. I think that there is, and probably there will always be, a market for the traditional Indian style/design. But as Indians kind of experiment with elements of global fashion or western influence, it makes what happens in India that much more relevant (in a global scenario) and that is part of what I have been seeing.

As a designer, what do you take from India?

I am in the process of accumulating all my inspiration of the past few days, as we speak. I love the uniqueness and the distinctive proud culture that is so visually compelling, and in so many ways, inspiring. It speaks to not just how one looks but speaks to one’s energy and inner beauty, which I think is so uplifting and elevating.

A lot of the craftsmanship that is unique to Indian design is inspiring too. And a lot of it is not easy to execute — the bead work, embroidery, hand applications… they are so beautiful; very rich in design and execution.

What is the most “Indian experience” you’ve had so far?

Just recently, I drove an autorickshaw in Delhi. I jokingly said to the people I met in Delhi that I would like to sit in one and so I got to sit in one and the drive was very nice. They then let me sit in the driver’s seat, and the driver was running after me. Then, I visited a Sikh temple and had the prasad they offered. I also cooked in their open kitchen which serves free meals to thousands of people every day!

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