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This Jan. 29, 2013 photo shows designer Kenneth Cole in his office during an interview in New York. Cole returns to New York Fashion Week Thursday, Feb. 6, after a seven-year hiatus, seemingly putting his hand on everything before the runway lights go up: the clothes, the shoes, the handbags, the hashtags. He bought his company back from investors last year, and it's once again privately owned with Cole fully in charge.
NEW YORK—The buck—probably nubuck, in this case—again stops with Kenneth Cole.

Cole returns to New York Fashion Week on Thursday after a seven-year hiatus, seemingly putting his hand on everything before the runway lights go up: the clothes, the shoes, the handbags, the hashtags.

He bought his company back from investors last year, and it's once again privately owned with Cole fully in charge. He's energized, something he says he wasn't necessarily feeling when he pulled the plug on the catwalk. And there were times he wasn't so jazzed about much else at the office, either.

Cole, who comes off as a warm, thoughtful and passionate person in a recent interview, says he grew tired of a grind that was alternately about investors and editors—and getting their seal of approval—although, for the most part, they weren't his core customers.

Cole, 58, started Kenneth Cole Productions 30 years ago in a trailer outside an industry shoe show in Manhattan. He wasn't officially part of the event, so he got a film production permit—as if he were going to make a movie or a TV show—and showed the buyers going in and out his shoes instead.

The brand targeted a youthful, urban consumer and everyone else who fantasized about that life. Shoes grew into other accessories, several clothing collections and labels, and then went public, with its first offering in 1994. Over time, Cole started spending more time worrying about costs than coolness. "It all started feeling irrelevant," he acknowledges.

Cole even had a fumble with a tweet two years ago that he himself—a master of socially aware, punny advertisements—had written. It made light of the Egypt political uprisings.

It was time to get back on message, he says. "We're taking the brand to places it hasn't been in many years."

He adds: "I have felt different at every meeting I've been at since the day we went private. We're now looking at the future, not just tomorrow."

Few people can stir a call to action like Cole, whether it's to shop at his stores or donate to AIDS charities, says Kevin Frost, chief executive of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Cole has been on the organization's board for 27 years, and chairman since 2004. He is to be honored Wednesday night at the amfAR gala that is expected to draw celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Harry Belafonte and fellow honorees Janet Jackson and Heidi Klum.

"We've seen tremendous support in the fashion industry, and that's had a tremendous effect on our messaging," says Frost. "It all coalesced when Kenneth became chairman of the board. ... He had an intuitive sense of how to elevate our message, and it's been an amazing ride for us."

Cole, who is married to Maria Cuomo-Cole, the sister of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and TV journalist Chris Cuomo, speaks with pride about the progress in AIDS research without ever taking credit. It's the part of this interview that he takes his strongest stance and adopts a louder voice.

Otherwise, he seems relaxed, neither tired nor daunted by the week that lies ahead of him, with fashion week, the amfAR gala and market week for retailers all coming at the same time.

"Rest is overrated. I rested last Wednesday," he says.

Cole is capable of connecting with consumers—and he did it long before social media, largely through the ads and buzz-generating events. (He is personally active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. His new fascination is with Snapchat, where photos are shared and then disappear.)

He says he believes the modern business model for fashion companies isn't to worry so much about exact products. Other than quality, companies shouldn't get bogged down in delivery dates and magazine picks, he says. Shoppers aren't looking to match the exact handbag or sweater they see on the catwalk or on a cover, Cole says, they are buying a dream. 

"What people are consuming is what things represent. It's people defining themselves through what they wear."

On this day, he has two jackets in his office—which boasts old-fashioned shoemaking stations. One is a slim, stylish blazer, the other a ski jacket that makes more sense on a chilly afternoon.

He goes jacketless, however, to his meeting with his men's shoe team. With his shirt sleeves rolled up and two smartphones (one an iPhone, the other a Blackberry) hanging from the pockets of his jeans, he asks about the textured treatments to the leather and the placement of the shelves in the showroom.

Cole's top-level corner space on the building where his offices are located on the far west side of Manhattan provides a view of the Hudson River. But one gets the sense that he spends a lot of time in the elevator, starting many days in the new digital photo studio in the basement and then moving upstairs to sample production rooms and then the showrooms, which are divided by brand, gender and vibe. An electric guitar and skateboard hang on the walls of the more casual Reaction room. There are more books for the Collection customer.

"We are trying to speak to the consumer by their lifestyle. We are trying to match product to their lifestyle, and that's what brings it to life now," Cole says. "Doing it this way forces you to know those people that we're trying to sell to. We all have to know this guy and we all have to like this guy."

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Online:

http://www.kennethcole.com/home/index.jsp

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Samantha Critchell tweets fashion at (at)AP—Fashion and can be reached at (at)Sam—Critchell.