The Birth of a Shoe Company

Kenneth Cole is a fashion giant.  The company is publicly traded and is worth over $200 million.  They have over 100 stores and a robust e-commerce business, selling everything from men’s dress shirts to women’s handbags, and, of course, shoes. The footwear business is how Kenneth Cole — the company — got its start, after all, if you do not count the fake movie Kenneth Cole — the person — pretended to shoot.

Yes, a fake movie.

In 1982, the New York-based Mr. Cole had an idea and some shoe leather, and not a ton of funding. He was able to produce about 40,000 pairs of shoes but found it incredibly difficult to sell them, as renting a Manhattan commercial space was way too pricey for his meager budget (and, we assume, trying to sell 40,000 pairs of expensive footwear would be difficult in areas with cheaper rents). But when he learned that Market Week was coming to the New York Hilton — a monstrous hotel with nearly 2,000 rooms in Midtown Manhattan — Mr. Cole decided to do as roughly a thousand other companies and exhibitors were doing: he went to rent a suite. Unfortunately, that too turned out to be too expensive given Mr. Cole’s limited budget.

So he borrowed a truck.  One with a forty-foot trailer, to be specific — one which could act as a roadside storefront and exhibit hall, replete with models and of course, those 40,000 shoes ready for sale. Mr. Cole then went to the mayor’s office to get a permit to park the truck near the Hilton during Market Week — and was rebuffed.

It turns out that at the time (and less so, but still somewhat true today), the city greatly restricted the availability of the permit Mr. Cole required.  The permits were only granted to two types of companies: utility companies, so that they could perform maintenance and build out their infrastructure; and production studios, so that they could film television shows and movies.  So Mr. Cole decided to do just that — shoot a movie. He filed for a permit to shoot “The Birth of a Shoe Company,” and outfitted his trailer with a director, cameramen (although not all of them had film), and “actresses” who played the “roles” of models, displaying the shoes.

And yes, the shoes were indeed for sale. Kenneth Cole sold all 40,000 pairs of shoes over two and a half days, establishing itself as a force in the fashion of footwear, and giving the company a much needed cash infusion as it expanded toward greater heights.

To this day, the company’s full name is “Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.,” — the name used to secure the truck permit — as a homage to its peculiar beginnings as a sham movie studio.

Bonus fact: TOMS Shoes has a different backstory — one of philanthropy. Its founder, Blake Mycoskie, was on vacation in Argentina when he noticed that many of the children, especially those in poorer villages, lacked adequate footwear. Mycoskie founded TOMS in order to help alleviate the problem, with the company donating one pair of shoes for every one they sold. This buy one, donate one deal is still in effect today, five years after the company’s founding.

From the ArchivesDr. Scholl’s Path to the Presidency: how a can of foot powder became the mayor of a small Ecuadorian town.

Related: Not really related, but potentially interesting: “Will Work for Shoes: The Business Behind Red Carpet Product Placement” by Susan J. Ashbrook. Only one review, but five stars.

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