What shoes and social activism have in common

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Valentina Stackl

Apperently a whole lot. Kenneth Cole, notable American fashion designer and social activist joined SPH students, staff, and faculty in telling us how. But let’s start at the beginning:

A few students, me and fellow blogger Carrie included, had the opportunity to meet him personally before his big lecture. We received Kenneth Cole  t-shirts with his signature witty slogans, like the one I was wearing which had a crossed out gun and the line “piece out” to promote his anti-gun campaign. We also got a few minutes to chat with him personally, and a personally signed copy of his book Awearness. 
witty t-shirts and signed copies of Kenneth Cole'ss book
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chit-chatting with kenneth cole

Then we went to the main lecture, held at the School of Public Health auditorium. Kenneth talked about his roots, how he was one of the first people to publicly talk about HIV/AIDS in the 80’s, how being creative is how you get people to pay attention, and how sometimes going against traffic is not going in the wrong direction. 
What I found most interesting is how certain topics in public health have become trendy, and actually truly marketable. It’s “cool” to wear Bono’s (red) shirts and support HIV/AIDS, it’s cool to be into what Elton John is into (well maybe less so…) and it’s cool to support a designer (like Kenneth Cole) who is edgy and supports social activism. Hell, he shook Nelson Mandela’s hand, Jon Bon Jovi wrote an essay in his book, so did Matisyahu (for those who don’t know who that is, he’s a devout orthodox jewish reggae star)- this guy is cool- AIDS is cool!
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Kenneth Cole's first AIDS campaign

Now- What I found questionable was if Kenneth Cole supported these causes because he could, because he has power in the market, because people watch what he does, OR because doing it creates a certain image around him, an aura of cool that not only solidifies him as an allegedly socially conscious person BUT increases his market to all those lost souls (or is it soles in his case?) with disposable income who need a cause to talk about during dinner parties. And, that again makes me think about whether that matters or not- should we get the word out about HIV/AIDS and other social and health causes in whatever way possible? There is no doubt that either way- Kenneth Cole is a brilliant business man.
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Dean Warner and Kenneth Cole - Ken x2 in A x 2

So- here’s what I learned. Sometimes you can sell an idea like a pair of very expensive and very cute shoes: you need to sell the image, not the product. If you wear this pair of shoes- you too can be cool. If you donate money to HIV/AIDS research, wow- you’ll really be cool. But is that enough? I don’t mean to be sarcastic, it’s something to think about. I’m not denying Kenneth Cole, and others like him, have made great contributions to the activist minds in all of us, but I still have to learn to wrap my mind around selling an idea like this fall’s hottest fashion accessory. 

 

PS: Thank you Carrie for taking such awesome pictures 🙂

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