October 07, 2002 12:00 PM

He may run a billion-dollar company, but designer Kenneth Cole still manages to have dinner with his family nearly every evening. He works at home on Fridays so he can drive his daughters to school and turns down industry invitations in favor of board games with Emily, 14, Amanda, 11, and Catie, 8. (“He’s very good at Boggle,” says wife Maria, 40.) Says Cole: “Given a choice, I’d much prefer to see my kids grow up.”

Luckily for him, he hasn’t had to make that choice. Despite flouting nearly every rule in the CEO handbook—including, with his politically provocative ads, the one that says conscience and commerce don’t mix—he has turned Kenneth Cole Productions from an edgy footwear company into a fashion conglomerate poised to rival Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. “It wasn’t too long ago that Ralph Lauren was known as ‘the tie guy,’ ” says retail analyst David Wolfe of New York City’s the Doneger Group, “and the possibilities for Cole seem as great.”

Already Cole, 48, oversees three brands: Kenneth Cole New York (sleek $60 to $795 sportswear and accessories), Reaction Kenneth Cole (trendy $35 to $395 pieces) and Unlisted ($25 to $80 shoes and bags). There are also sunglasses, watches and 18 other product categories to which he licenses his name, and as of last month there is a line of scents for men and women. Says Maria: “I don’t think he or I dreamed the business would grow quite as large.”

Cole’s marketing approach, which relies on cleverly worded social statements like “Stir the Air” (his new fragrance’s tag line), has helped fuel the growth—and, at times, sparked controversy. “Appalling” was how the New York Post‘s John Podhoretz described Cole’s post-9/11 ad that read, “On September 12, 14,000 people still contracted HIV.” But the criticism doesn’t faze Cole, who writes much of the copy himself and sits on the board of AIDS research group amfAR. “There’s this sense that fashion is irrelevant,” he says, “but we’ve worked to make our brand something bigger.” Says Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation: “Only brands that grab the heart, mind and soul of the consumer can be successful, and he’s doing that.”

To find the latest hot-button topic, Cole only has to turn to his issues-oriented family. Maria, whom he met at a 1986 party, is the daughter of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and runs HELP USA, a homeless services, not-for-profit agency. His brother-in-law, former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, 44, made a failed bid for New York governor this fall and is married to Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 43, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. The two couples live minutes apart in Westchester County, N.Y., and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. “Ken is the first one up in the morning, getting us all to go have doughnuts,” Kerry Cuomo says. “He wants to live every moment with gusto.”

Raised on Long Island by Gladys, a homemaker, and Charles Cole, the creator of Candie’s shoes (he died in 1992), Cole started his company in 1982 by getting a permit to park a trailer outside a Manhattan shoe convention, claiming he was making a movie, The Birth of a Shoe Company. He sold his entire line of 40,000 pairs within three days.

Cole has spent the years since expanding beyond footwear. “I’m driven to go places I have never been,” he says. Just as long as his family is there with him. In 1994, after Mario Cuomo lost his reelection bid, Cole’s daughter Amanda asked, “‘Is Grandpa still going to be governor?'” Cole recalls. “I said, ‘No.’ Then she said, ‘Is he still going to be my grandpa?’ It was a grounding moment, reminding us what was really important.”

Galina Espinoza

Diane Clehane in New York City

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