Kenneth Cole

Design for a Cure

Kenneth Cole and MTV “Come Together” With a New Red Ribbon to Reenergize the Fight Against AIDS
by Chip Alfred

One of the most recognized symbols on the planet is getting a makeover—courtesy of world-renowned designer Kenneth Cole. To commemorate the discovery of the virus thirty years ago, Cole has created a new rendition of the AIDS ribbon. The new ribbon will launch COME TOGETHER, a multi-faceted partnership between the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, amfAR, and AWEARNESS, the Kenneth Cole Foundation.

The project began with a call from Staying Alive Foundation executive director Georgia Arnold asking Cole “to help reinterpret the AIDS ribbon into the next evolution of the iconic and symbolic message.” Arnold explains, “We really wanted to mark this stage with a project that could inspire young people to get involved.” Using the power of celebrity, Arnold’s goal is to reinvigorate “a new generation of young people to fight the epidemic and protect themselves, as well as reenergize those who are still fighting.” COME TOGETHER includes a star-studded series of public service announcements on MTV, with famous names like Sarah Jessica Parker, Ke$ha, Cheyenne Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Estelle, Rose McGowan and Skylar Gray sporting the new ribbon, discussing its relevance and what it means to them.

The new ribbon actually comprises two ribbons attached with a double loop to represent the coming together of individuals and the re-doubling of efforts in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Cole’s second generation red ribbon will be on sale worldwide from November 4 to December 31, 2011 at Kenneth Cole stores, and select retail and online outlets. One hundred percent of net profits from ribbon sales will benefit AWEARNESS in support of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation and amfAR.

The red ribbon, originally created twenty years ago by the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, has become the international symbol of AIDS awareness. Designers who initiated The Ribbon Project insisted on remaining anonymous and keeping the image copyright-free, so that no profits would be made from its production or use. The redesigned ribbon and virtual versions of the ribbon for social media can be purchased at the COME TOGETHER micro-site,, where you can learn about HIV prevention, view behind-the-scenes footage of the creation of the campaign, and upload your own photos or videos showing off your ribbon.

MTV started the Staying Alive Campaign in 1998 with a television series, which evolved into the world’s largest multimedia campaign focused on HIV prevention and awareness for young people, consisting of documentaries, dramas, public service announcements, events and forums. While in production on a documentary project in Uganda, producers met a dedicated man on a mission—raising HIV awareness in his village. The young man, who had no electricity, produced informational materials at night by candlelight, until he could no longer afford the cost of the candles. That’s when the MTV Staying Alive Foundation kicked into gear. “We realized it was the individual who was doing the work within the square mile of their community, and that if we gave a small bit of funding, they would be able to make a difference with the work they were doing,” says Arnold. The foundation, which has distributed more than $3.7 million in sixty-one nations to youth-led initiatives, funds small grass-roots operations fighting the spread of HIV.

Combining the media power of MTV channels worldwide with the international outreach of the Kenneth Cole brand, Arnold and Cole expect COME TOGETHER to ignite a new wave of HIV/AIDS awareness for the next generation. “I hope this project will connect with young people who will embrace the ribbon,” says Cole. With the crafting and sales of a new ribbon, Cole’s objective is to promote the importance of safe sex and “address this pervasive stigma which today is probably the greatest barrier in our effort to rid this planet of this virus.”

The son of a shoe manufacturer, Cole, fifty-seven, started his billion-dollar fashion empire selling shoes from the back of a tractor trailer. In 1982, he wanted to preview his shoe line at Market Week at the New York Hilton, but lacked the funds to purchase a showroom. He requested permission to park a friend’s truck a few blocks form the hotel to market his footwear collection. After learning the city only issues trailer permits to utility and production companies, Cole changed the name of his company from Kenneth Cole Inc. to Kenneth Cole Productions and began production on a documentary film, The Birth of a Shoe Company. Kenneth Cole Productions now sells men’s and women’s shoes, clothing and accessories around the world, and includes the Kenneth Cole New York and Kenneth Cole Reaction fashion labels.

Cole is chairman of the board of amfAR, which was founded in 1985 and began its first full year of operations in 1986. It is one of the world’s leading nonprofits dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS. In its second year, Cole joined amfAR’s board of directors and initiated one of the first advertising campaigns to address AIDS—even before President Reagan acknowledged there was an epidemic. Since its inception, amfAR has invested nearly $325 million in AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and public policy advocacy, and provided funding to more than 2,000 research teams across the world.

Kenneth Cole is more than the designer and entrepreneur behind the fashion company bearing his name. He’s the company’s creative director in every area from design to advertising. Known for his clever catchphrases and provocative marketing slogans, Cole asserts, “You can subtly suggest one thing and at the same time drive home something else. People pay a little bit further attention and you can connect to them on a more meaningful level.”

In 2005, Cole pushed the envelope with a multimedia campaign for World AIDS Day that stirred up its share of controversy. There were two T-shirts designed for the project, one imprinted with the words, “WE ALL HAVE AIDS,” and another with “I HAVE AIDS.” Cole’s vision was to bring everyone together under one banner wearing the T-shirts to demonstrate “if anyone is infected we are all affected.” The “WE ALL HAVE AIDS” T-shirt appeared on the red carpet and was embraced by numerous high-profile celebrities. There was resistance to the “I HAVE AIDS” T-shirt, however, which never went into production. Despite reaching a billion people with this campaign, Cole admits he had reservations about wearing the “I HAVE AIDS” T-shirt himself, concerned it would fuel speculation about him that could adversely affect his family and business associates. It was yet another glaring reminder that stigma exists—even for a man so devoted to eradicating it.

A few years later, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kenneth Cole Productions, Cole founded AWEARNESS, an umbrella organization that encourages and promotes meaningful change and raises awareness about important social issues. Coinciding with the launch of AWEARNESS, Cole published AWEARNESS: Inspiring Stories About How to Make a Difference. The book features eighty-six essays from famous and lesser-known individuals helping to build a better world. The contributors list reads like a Who’s Who of motivational leaders, running the gamut from Magic Johnson to Jane Fonda to the late Elizabeth Edwards.

The essay collection, edited and introduced by Cole, gives us more insight into what makes Kenneth Cole tick. Addressing “what we stand in” affords him the creative outlet and resources to focus on “what we stand for,” he writes. A man whose livelihood is primarily based on appearance, Cole discovered a way to influence people on a deeper level. “I realized early on in my journey that…if I could address not only what people looked like on the outside but who they were on the inside, my efforts might in fact become that much more rewarding.”

Addressing the issue of people who have no place to live is another endemic crisis Cole is passionate about. He’s a board member of the nation’s largest provider of housing, employment, and services to the homeless, HELP USA, which is chaired by Cole’s wife, Maria Cuomo Cole. In 2011, Cole launched “STICK YOUR NECK OUT…for others,” an AWEARNESS project that funded housing for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. According to a 2007 report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless, people who are HIV-positive are three times more likely to be homeless than the general population.

In his book, Cole and the contributing writers delve into these and other critical issues affecting all of us—civil liberties, education, the environment, and criminal justice, among others. Although the issues are different, a number of essayists share the same outlook on two basic premises: Even one individual has the power to make an impact, and it isn’t just about raising large sums of money. “It’s most often ordinary resources that have initiated and/or inspired some of the most extraordinary change,” Cole points out. Elton John echoes that sentiment in his segment, “Everyone can make a difference. Write a check. No amount is too small.” John, whose foundation has raised more than $150 million for HIV/AIDS programs, still says he must do more. “Until the day I die I’ll continue getting out there and raising money for people with AIDS.”

After taking over as chairman of amfAR, Cole underlined the fact that AIDS isn’t just an American problem and moved the organization in a global

MTV Staying Alive’s Georgia Arnold. Photo Courtesy MTV

direction. The name amfAR remained because of its widespread recognition, but the American Foundation for AIDS Research evolved into the Foundation for AIDS Research. At amfAR Cole was inspired by the commitment and dedication of co-founder Elizabeth Taylor. “She was an extraordinary woman who had the courage and conviction very early on to speak up when others hadn’t and say things that others wouldn’t,” he recalls. “Dame Taylor was a very charismatic and focused individual who had a very clear sense of social justice and appropriateness.” In 2011, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation, amfAR is honoring the legacy of Elizabeth Taylor with “Making AIDS History,” a campaign to reinvigorate resources and research programs focused on finding a cure.

According to Cole, the key to conquering AIDS is through research, and he believes we may find a cure “sooner than anybody thought we would.” He’s encouraged by recent breakthroughs and optimistic we could be closer than ever to changing the course of the pandemic. However, both Cole and Arnold agree research isn’t all that’s needed to win this war. Candid conversations about HIV/AIDS are crucial. “We have to be able to talk about sex more openly,” Arnold declares. “At MTV our obstacle is finding a way of making our audience feel AIDS is still out there and that it has an effect on their lives.” She stresses the reality that HIV/AIDS is going further and further down the list of priorities. “Being HIV-positive may not be a death sentence, but it’s a sentence you may not want to live with.”

Kenneth Cole says if he had a magic wand and was granted one wish, “I would love to see a world where we’ve come so far in technological advances that there aren’t these public health crises.” In the meantime, the tireless activist and trend-setter will continue making footwear while making a profound difference in our lives. “It’s great to be known for your shoes, but it’s even better to be recognized for your soul.”

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Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.