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Fashion and Activism Are a Perfect Pair for Kenneth Cole and Gabriela Hearst

In 2017, designers tweet and Instagram about their social activism almost as much as they do about their red carpet coups, but it wasn’t always thus.

When Kenneth Cole released his 1985 AIDS awareness campaign, lensed by Annie Leibovitz and starring Christie Brinkley and Paulina Porizkova, among other to

p models of the era, it was nothing short of radical. Remember, President Reagan didn’t even utter the word “AIDS” until 1987. The advertisement transformed Cole, he has said, “as an individual and as a brand.” Two years later he joined the board of amfAR, an organization that has invested over $450 million to fight AIDS through innovative research (he’s now board chairman), and he has continued to combine fashion and philanthropy in the decades since. At its annual awards ceremony on June 5, 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 night—she’s one of five nominees for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent—has 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 if 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 U.S. Army intelligence analyst convicted of a 2010 leak, with clothes upon her release from prison following Obama’s commuting of her sentence.

Vogue brought Cole and Hearst together at Cole’s 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 combating the cynics (they’re 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, nobody’s going to go barefoot for 15, 20 years. If every shoe store in America stops selling shoes, no one’s 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.

I’ve 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 we’re doing because it’s part of something that’s bigger than we are. It’s 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 it’s real and it’s transparent. People are very smart today. In the past, the fact that you did philanthropy was in and of itself important. Today, it’s not that you do it as much as the impact that it makes.

Gabriela Hearst: One of the things that resonates with me is that you’re so successful because it’s personal to you. For me, just starting, I don’t have a board of directors. I’m a free agent. Right now I feel an obligation to illuminate subjects that are under 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: Women’s health, the environment, immigration because I’m an immigrant, education. It’s across the board. I’m from South America, and I’m an American citizen now, and in the 40 years I’ve been alive I haven’t felt so many things I hold dear to be under threat.

KC: If you had to pick one message, one realm, what would it be?

GH: The two fields I’ve done the most with are Save the Children, because my husband’s been involved with them for a long time, and I’ve done projects [for them] where I’ve collaborated with other brands—creating shoes, actually. And I also did a knit merino sweater for Planned Parenthood, which we’re 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 it’s not focused, the chance of it resonating is diminished. My first AIDS campaign was in 1985. There was this dark cloud, everybody was socially inspired—we hadn’t seen social consciousness like that since the ’60s—but 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: In the fashion industry there’s a lot of creative people—in that sense they’re empathic people. They feel attached to other human beings and others’ suffering. And sometimes when you’re working so much with illusion, you need that connection.

KC: 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 there’s a famine [in Africa]. There are 20 million people consuming 400 calories today to the point of starvation, and we’re not talking about it because we have a news cycle that’s 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; it’s partly blamed on climate change. So, I guess children and climate . . . 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. It’s 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 shouldn’t do it because it’s good for your business, but at the end of the day it will be.

GH: It’s 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 I’m co-chairing their gala, so I have to call and solicit money, which is a humbling experience. But it’s something that motivates me, when I feel like I’m 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 they’re a global organization, so they have actual power and they’re effective. Thomas Murphy, on their board, said they “do God’s work.” That stuck with me; they’re there to protect children. In catastrophes, children are the most vulnerable. Supporting them, bringing awareness to what they do, is important.

KC: Largely what you’re able to do for them is fundraising, right? Can I give you my opinion?

GH: Please!

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 don’t feel I’ve asked them for money. I tell them: “You 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 you’ve made an impact.” It’s a nuance, but it’s easy to ask for it if you know you’re helping them sleep better at night. But you have to feel it.

GH: I definitely feel it. I’m Latin, I cannot do anything if I don’t 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 don’t die from it now, but there’s a rise in younger people and senior citizens getting infected.

KC: Yes—new populations are getting infected, and people don’t really know about it. There’s also the building of resistance to the generic drugs, which can be a real problem. We’re 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: It’s all cure-focused, and it’s [find a] cure by 2020, which is a little ambitious—most of amfAR don’t feel it’s realistic—but my thinking is we’re going to be a lot closer if we tried. And if we come up a little short, no one’s going to blame us.

GH: Did you ever encounter any negative aspects for being so outspoken? Is there a con to what you’re 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, they’re not political issues, and if they’re perceived to be political, that’s unfortunate. But it’s by no means the intention. Sometimes you get push back and people challenge your intentions, which is why we don’t get involved with stuff unless we get involved with it [properly], and we bring our resources to it, not just our advertising dollars.

GH: What do you suggest to young designers who don’t 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—it’s just engagement. It’s 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 they’re 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. She’s 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!

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