Fashion and Activism Go Hand in Hand for Kenneth Cole and Gabriela Hearst – Vogue.com
In 2017, designers Instagram and Tweet about their social activism almost as much as they do about their red carpet coups, but it wasnât always thus.
When Kenneth Cole released his 1985 AIDS awareness campaign, lensed by Annie Leibowitz and starring Christie Brinkley and Paulina Porizkova, among other top models of the era, it was nothing short of radical. Remember, President Reagan didnât even utter the word âAIDSâ until 1987. The advertisement transformed Cole, he has said, âas an individual and as a brand.â Two years later he joined the board of amfAR, an organization that has invested over $450 million to fight AIDS through innovative research (heâs now Chair), and he has continued to combine fashion and philanthropy in the decades since. On June 5 at its annual awards ceremony, the CFDA is recognizing him with the first-ever Swarovski Award for Positive Change.
Gabriela Hearst, who may share the Hammerstein Ballroom stage with Cole next Monday nightâsheâs one of five nominees for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talentâhas blended activism and advocacy into her eponymous label since its founding in 2015. A recently launched sweater project will raise funds for Planned Parenthood ($50,000 is she sells all 100 sweaters); she co-chairs the annual Save the Children Illumination Gala; and last month she provided Chelsea Manning, the transgender woman and former Army Intelligence analyst convicted of a 2010 leak, with clothes upon her release from prison following Obamaâs commuting of her sentence.
Vogue brought Cole and Hearst together at Coleâs 11th Avenue offices to talk fashion and activism. The former was fresh off a plane from Cannes, where amfAR holds its biggest gala of the year, and the latter was on her way to a photo shoot in Brooklyn for her Resort collection. They discussed the importance of taking a strategic approach to service, the challenges of combatting the cynics (theyâre out there!); and the not insignificant personal rewards of doing good. Highlights of their conversation are included here.
Kenneth Cole: I continually remind all of us here that nobody in the world needs what we sell. If we stop selling it, nobodyâs going to go barefoot for 15, 20 years. If every shoe store in America stops selling shoes, no oneâs going to go barefoot for 15, 20 years. No one needs shoes, for the most part. We have shoes, our problem is what to do with them.
Iâve always been a bit obsessed with trying to find meaning in what we do, and amfAR, this pursuit, has been part of it for me. Everybody here feels better about what weâre doing because itâs part of something thatâs bigger than we are. Itâs not always easy to find that. It needs to be organic and real. Often people ask me about getting involved in service and philanthropy, and my first advice is: Make sure itâs real and itâs transparent. People are very smart today. In the past the fact that you did philanthropy was in and of itself important. Today, itâs not that you do it as much as the impact that it makes.
Gabriela Hearst: One of the things that resonates to me is that youâre so successful because itâs personal to you. For me, just starting, I donât have a board of directors. Iâm a free agent. Right now, I feel an obligation to illuminate subjects that are under are attack. [The question is] how to approach it in a strategic way. I care for so many things.
KC: So, what do you care about most?
GH: Womenâs health, the environment, immigration because Iâm an immigrant, education. Itâs across the board. Iâm from South America, and Iâm an American citizen now, and in the 40 years Iâve been alive I havenât felt so many things I hold dear to be under threat.
KC: So, if you had to pick one message, one realm what would it be?
GH: The two fields Iâve done the most with are Save the Children, because my husbandâs been involved with them for a long time, and Iâve done projects [for them] where Iâve collaborated with other brands, creating shoes actually. And I also did a knit merino sweater for Planned Parenthood, which weâre collecting funds for.
KC: If you were to ask me, I would say: Pick one. Our platform is only so high and we have limited resources we can bring to any message. To the degree itâs not focused, the chance of it resonating is diminished. My first AIDS campaign was in 1985. There was this dark cloud, everybody was socially inspiredâwe hadnât seen social consciousness like that since the â60sâbut most people were talking about hunger in Africa. Nobody was talking about this really ominous circumstance here in the U.S. because of this fear of stigma. I did a campaign called For the Future of Our Children, because that was the common denominator. We love all children, so the campaign was meant to support AIDS research for the future of our children. I stayed focused on that single message, although I have spoken about other issues over the years. And this industry has encouraged it, supported it, promoted it.
GH: The fashion industry, thereâs a lot of creative people, in that sense theyâre empathic people. They feel attached to other human beings and othersâ suffering. And sometimes when youâre working so much with illusion, you need that connection.
KC: So, if you were to do one thing, what would it be?
GH: There are things that bother me internationally and things that bother me domestically. Internationally, right now thereâs a famine [in Africa]. Thereâs 20 million people consuming 400 calories today, at the point of starvation, and weâre not talking about it because we have a news cycle thatâs focused 24/7 on another thing. Which is contrary to what happened to you; there was attention being paid to what was going on in Africa, but not to HIV. This famine is huge, itâs partly blamed on climate change. So, I guess children and climateâ¦ They go together in a way.
KC: I would encourage you to figure out what resources you can bring that give you unique capabilities to make a unique impact. Itâs worth taking the time, retrenching, then going back at it with a real plan on how you can leverage what you do. I do believe if you do that, one plus one equals more than two. You shouldnât do it because itâs good for your business, but at the end of the day it will be.
GH: Itâs absolutely true, it makes me feel really good when I use my creativity to make a product that benefits other people. With Save the Children Iâm co-chairing their gala, so I have to call and solicit money, which is a humbling experience. But itâs something that motivates me, when I feel like Iâm doing good things for other people rather than just for myself.
KC: So, tell me why Save the Children is a good thing.
GH: Because I feel that when an emergency happens, they are first on the line. And theyâre a global organization, so they have actual power and theyâre effective. Thomas Murphy, on their board, said they âdo Godâs work.â That stuck with me, theyâre there to protect children. In catastrophes children are the most vulnerable. Supporting them, bringing awareness to what they do is important.
KC: Largely what youâre able to do for them is fundraising, right? Can I give you my opinion?
KC: Asking people for money is a hard thing to do. But helping people do the right thing is not hard. So, I often call people up and suggest ways they can spend their money to make a meaningful impact, and I donât feel Iâve asked them for money. I tell them: âYou can be part of ending AIDS, it could be part of our collective legacy. And you could look back on it one day and know youâve made an impact.â Itâs a nuance, but itâs easy to ask for it if you know youâre helping them sleep better at night. But you have to feel it.
GH: I definitely feel it. Iâm Latin, I cannot do anything if I donât feel it. We did the AIDS Walk with the CFDA, it was amazing to see all the different teams from the different companies wearing their t-shirts. People have it in their perception that AIDS is a done deal, that you donât die from it now, but thereâs a rise in younger people and senior citizens getting infected.
KC: Yes, new populations are getting infected and people donât really know about it. Thereâs also building resistance to the generic drugs, which can be a real problem. Weâre seeing the curve come down. More people are going under treatment than are getting infected, but that will change quickly if the rate of drug resistance keeps going at the rate it is; we could see that go back the other way. But we have a clear strategy: itâs all cure focused, and itâs cure by 2020, which is a little ambitiousâmost of amfAR donât feel itâs realisticâbut my thinking is weâre going to be a lot closer if we tried. And if we come up a little short no oneâs going to blame us.
GH: Did you ever encounter any negative aspects for being so outspoken? Is there a con to what youâre doing?
KC: Sometimes people say, is politics appropriate in the workplace? We were a public company for 20 years. And my answer to that is, nothing I do is political. These are social issues, these are human issues, theyâre not political issues, and if theyâre perceived to be political, thatâs unfortunate, but itâs by no means the intention. Sometimes you get push back and people challenge your intentions. Which is why we donât get involved with stuff unless we get involved with it, and we bring our resources to it, not just our advertising dollars.
GH: What do you suggest for young designers who donât have advertising dollars, not a lot of means, but the intentions of doing good?
KC: A lot of what we do is not advertising dollars, itâs just engagement. Itâs just getting involved. Internally, I do feel we have a responsibility to make [service] available to everybody, let everybody get involved if they want to, not oblige it, not mandate it. I also insist we never take attendance, if anybody here does it they do it because they want to, not because theyâre going to get any points for it. And I do believe they are the biggest beneficiary. The person who serves will almost always reflect back and feel they got more from doing what they did than the people for whom they did it, which is ironic and interesting.
GH: My mom used to always say that. Sheâs a very generous person and did what she could at the local level, and she used to tell me, I do it because it makes me feel good.
KC: I want to meet your mom!