Making AIDS History

Read the story of how Kenneth Cole used his personal and business resources to raise awareness of HIV and AIDs.
Making Aids History
Excerpt by Lisa Birnbach from “This is a Kenneth Cole Production”. Buy a copy here.

In the early 1980s, David Brugnoli was the visual design person for KCP. He helped design the showroom as well as the trailer’s interior. He interpreted Kenneth Cole’s irreverent aesthetic.

Those were the days of the stigmatized and not yet understood “gay virus.” Cole cared about the disease that was already the scourge of the decade, eliminating eventually millions of men, many in creative fields, and some with whom he worked. One of them was Brugnoli, who whenever Kenneth asked him if he had gotten tested, said no. In fact, there was no perceived benefit for him to do so at that time. In the 1980s, if you tested positive for HIV or AIDs—with no assurance of confidentially—you could lose your job, your medical insurance, and alienate your friends and family. And, for what? There was no treatment yet available. Kenneth hadn’t seen him for a while when David showed up at the office with a visible Kaposi’s sarcoma, a symptom of the AIDS virus, on his face. It was too late. At that time, “he was the first person I knew who died of AIDS.”

By 1985, like many, Kenneth was surprised that few were talking about this potentially devastating virus. Homophobia was prevalent. Those who required blood transfusions were marginalized, and intravenous drug users were beneath reproach. Stealthily, the virus seemed to be gaining ground. In the United States, President Ronald Reagan cast a willfully blind eye to the epidemic as numbers were rising precipitously. A lot of his support came from the right wing of the Republican Party, especially from the incipient “religious right,” many of who believed “the inflicted were getting what they deserved.”

(Reagan finally addressed the AIDS crisis in 1987 at an amfAR event.)

Making Aids History

On April 23, 1984, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 4,177 reported cases in America and 1,807 deaths. (1) And these 1,807 fatalities were not just sexually promiscuous gay men; many were to a lesser degree heterosexuals, transfusion recipients, intravenous drug users, non-drug-users, women, and children.

Desiring to do something meaningful, Kenneth wanted to speak about the fact that few were speaking about this virus that stood to be the worst pandemic of all time. He planned an advertisement that would bring attention to HIV/AIDS on Main Street. Once again, he relied on his charm and a little nerve to get it done. Kenneth managed to enlist some of the supermodels of the day (Paulina Porizkova, Christie Brinkley, Kelly Emberg, Beverly Johnson, and others) in a public service ad, shot by Annie Liebovitz. (Working with Liebovitz helped draw the high caliber of models the campaign needed.) Here were beautiful women, each holding onto a child. The women and the children were from diverse backgrounds. The models wore black; the children wore white. The copy said, “For the future of our children... Support the American Foundation for AIDS Research. We do.” And in small type on the lower right corner was printed, “Sponsor: Kenneth Cole.” No one in the photograph wore shoes. The sponsor did not want to use this advertisement to showcase his products. The ad turned out to be a game-changer.

1986 seems both long ago and just yesterday, but again, even talking about HIV/AIDS was not yet common or easy. Considering that “For the future of our children” looked like a fashion ad, an expensive one with a gaggle of supermodels, it didn’t look controversial, though its message was important. There was really no such thing as public service ads at that time; now a well-established convention in magazine publishing. Nevertheless, Hearst, Conde Nast, and all the major publishers were happy to run the ad. (In some cases, Kenneth agreed to buy a full-page ad if the magazine would donate a page.) All told, it ran in twenty-three magazines between March and December, 1986.

Making Aids History

When Kenneth offered the ad to Interview magazine, founded by Andy Warhol, he alone refused to run it. Warhol said that if he did this “favor” for this cause, he’d be besieged by other non-profits (“like the ASPCA,” he specified) who would likely also want free space in his publication. Ironically, Interview was the only magazine that turned Kenneth down–worth noting: the only magazine that was run by a believed to be member of the at-risk community for the disease.

In this first public service initiative, as in all the rest, Kenneth was always sensitive not to be perceived to be exploiting the crisis and he was always thoughtful about how he spoke of it. (Needless to say, he has never profited financially from any AIDS-oriented messaging.)

While doing good was invigorating and fulfilling to Cole, he did—after all—have a business to run and nurture: his “day job.” If anything though, these first excursions into socially meaningful advertising confirmed he was on the right track.

Making Aids History

In 1985, amfAR was created by scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim and actress Elizabeth Taylor as the merger of their two organizations—the AIDS Medical Foundation and the National AIDS Research Foundation. Taylor became a fervent AIDS activist after her dear friend, actor Rock Hudson, died of the disease. Inspired by Dr. Krim’s profound commitment to understanding and finding a cure for this pernicious virus, Kenneth joined amfAR’s board in 1987 and initiated its public awareness campaigns. When you talk with the KCP art directors and copywriters today, they do not differentiate between work that is for the Kenneth Cole brands and work that is for amfAR. Both are directed and creatively overseen by Kenneth himself. They are intertwined, and that’s how the company’s employees like it. In fact, most want to work on the social messages (which are often part of what brought them to the company in the first place).

Kevin Frost, amfAR’s CEO is but another colleague of Kenneth’s who marvels at the man’s energy. “I don’t know what his life is like at the Kenneth Cole company, but I know he’s passionate about it. He’s passionate about Maria and his three daughters, but if I want to reach him, he always takes my call. If I text or email him, I hear right back from him. It still strikes me as extraordinary how he can make time for me when he’s running a billion-dollar company.” Frost continues, “He never misses a beat with amfAR. I never feel less than we’re his highest priority.”

Making Aids History

In 2002, Kenneth became Vice Chairman of amfAR. Two years later, as Dr. Krim was thinking of stepping down from the chairmanship, she said she would only consider it if Kenneth would take the position. Kenneth, having always looked up to Dr. Krim as his mentor, had a hard time saying no.

Frost describes him initially as a “reluctant chairman, if you will, because of his day job. Dr. Krim wanted a chairman with stature and credibility, and the commitment that they shared.” In separate conversations, both Kenneth and Kevin said that Kenneth thought he would be a “transitional” chairman. Frost adds, “He thought—foolishly—that he’d do it for a couple of years. Fast forward nine years. It’s remarkable how he’s grown this organization, and as it has grown, our responsibilities have grown, as has the draw on Kenneth’s time. We’ve gone international and so has Kenneth.”

Kenneth and I talked about his becoming amfAR’s chairman. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he told Dr. Krim and the board. “I knew I’d want to change things dramatically. I’d want to change the name, as amfAR is an international organization and we really do work all around the world. Being the ‘American’ Foundation for AIDs Research was no longer appropriate. One of our best initiatives is ‘TREAT Asia,’ for example, which was created and run by Kevin. I also wanted us to be once again the preeminent voice for HIV/AIDs. We had been, but just a few months before we had this meeting there had been cover stories in both TIME and Newsweek about twenty years of AIDS and neither one mentioned amfAR once! I also expressed my desire to replace our existing board with a more mission-driven and compliance-focused group who were also committed to fundraising. In order to join the board, I required new members to make a financial commitment, which I believed would enhance its prestige. We found a new group of great trustees. One of the first decisions we made was to make Kevin—a passionate AIDS activist at heart—the president and CEO.

“Within 6–12 months, we had a whole new organization and a new name. We were still amfAR, but we were now ‘The Foundation for AIDS Research.’” (“America” had been removed from the organization’s full name.) Additionally, we formed a program board composed of prior trustees that were truly committed to finding a cure, which were overseen by Alan Rosenfield–a highly-respected public health official and friend.”