Sopabox: Kenneth Cole Gets The Last Word

Designer Kenneth Cole may be as famous for his philanthropy as he is for his fashion. Never one to shy away from a hot topic, Kenneth has been a passionately loud activist in the name of marriage equality, disaster relief and a host of other issues. But for nearly 30 years, it’s been HIV and AIDS that have occupied much of his thought and effort. So before the premiere of The Battle Of amfAR, a documentary he produced, Kenneth explains why we all should be talking about AIDS more than ever.


It was in the mid-’80s when, as a businessperson, I set out to figure out what was the relevant issue of the moment. What was on people’s minds? There was a pervasive consciousness at the time where people weren’t talking a lot about AIDS because of the impact of the stigma. And if you were presumed to be at risk, that was not socially acceptable. Ronald Reagan didn’t even mention the word “AIDS” until 1987, when 40,000 people had already died. So I did a campaign in ’85 with Annie Leibovitz and very beautiful models and beautiful children, and we did this campaign that basically spoke about the fact that nobody was speaking about AIDS. In some profound way that touched me and it became apparent that I was able to have a voice in this global crisis. I was afforded an opportunity to play whatever little role to add an important perspective to a dialogue that was not in any way adequate. So I did that at the end of ’85, the campaign actually ran in ’86 and I was asked to join the board of amfAR in ’87.

AmfAR had just recently been founded at the time by these two extraordinary, dynamic women: a Swiss scientist named Mathilde Krim and a Hollywood legend and icon, Elizabeth Taylor. The two of them came together and formed an organization with an agenda focused on AIDS research. That was highlighted by the ability of Elizabeth Taylor to captivate people’s attention and inspire individuals everywhere to be aware and bring resources to care and hopefully become engaged. So I joined the board in ’87, and over the years it has become very much a part of my life.  

Over this period of time, of course, a lot has changed in the world of AIDS. A couple of years ago we lost one of our founding chairs, Elizabeth Taylor, and it became apparent that at one point—though hopefully not for many years—we could lose our other founding chair, Dr. Krim. She is such an inspiring, articulate individual whose life example is so compelling. I’m also on the board of Sundance and realized I had resources to potentially tell amfAR’s story while we still had Dr. Krim to help us tell it. We also accessed these incredibly rich archives that were available to us through Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s estate. There’s a great story to tell, one that I feel needs to be told for a whole lot of reasons.

It became apparent in the last couple of years that there’s a sense of complacency because so much progress has been made in the world of HIV—much of it, truthfully, by amfAR. There have been four individuals in the recent past who have been clinically cured of AIDS, and amfAR played a role in all four. There are drugs that are keeping people alive today that have roots in amfAR funding in some point in their inception. So we’ve made huge progress and people can, with access to the right resources and assuming they are not reckless, protect themselves from contracting the virus. Whether they are gay or straight, male or female, pregnant women, unborn child—everybody today can and should have the ability to protect themselves assuming they have the access.

But they don’t. And I think a lot of it has been fueled by a couple of films that have been put out there and stories that have been written that give this false sense of complacency that AIDS is no longer a crisis. That it’s just a manageable, chronic condition. And that it’s not something that we need to be concerned about. But there’s nothing further from the truth!

There are so many people we know who have contracted the virus over the last 20-plus years who seem to be living relatively healthy lives, but people just need to be reminded that they can’t just take that for granted. There was a film last year, How To Survive A Plague, which was a great film made by a great filmmaker, but I think it didn’t help tell our story. In fact, if anything I think it set us back. I think it’s a wonderful story about the power of civil disobedience, but in some ways it makes people feel that we’ve come through the toughest part. Again, I think it’s a great film, and I think it told an important story but I think it kinda set us back here, which is why I felt it was even more important that we get this message out there.

So I felt that if we got this story told quickly, hopefully the film could somehow pay respects and tribute to Dr. Krim and Elizabeth Taylor and tell an important story that I felt should be told, particularly to an entire generation that didn’t live through this crisis as so many others did. Hopefully people can understand in more actionable terms. The goal is also to make science and research not so intimidating and make it easy for people to understand the importance of research and the value of what’s been learned. Hopefully we can connect and inspire people at a critical time.  


The Battle Of amfAR can be seen on HBO. For more information on Kenneth Cole, visit 

Art by Dave Arkle

Art by Dave Arkle