It was May of 2020, and Kenneth Cole, the eponymous clothing designer and longtime Vineyard seasonal resident, was asked a question he’d heard thousands of times before.

He decided to answer honestly.

“How are you, really? is the most asked question, everywhere in the world, every day of the week and in every language. And it’s the one most rarely answered,” Mr. Cole said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “My answer was, I’m living in a professional fog, and I don’t think I’m alone. And I’m trying to make sense of it all every day.”

A New York clothing designer and businessman who had spent the past four decades growing his urban shoe company, Kenneth Cole Productions, into an international fashion house, Mr. Cole had been contacted by NAMI — the National Alliance on Mental Illness — to head an anti-stigma campaign on mental health.

The request didn’t come out of nowhere. Along with shoe and shirt design, Mr. Cole had also spent much of his career championing progressive social causes, including decades of work raising awareness on the HIV/AIDS epidemic that had torn through the fashion industry in the eighties and nineties. He also serves as a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations.

The alliance wanted Mr. Cole to replicate and expand his HIV work by destigmatizing the sweeping mental health crisis, which according to the World Health Organization afflicts one in four people worldwide and has left millions without the necessary resources or support system to address their mental health needs.

It was a big ask for someone who was still designing sleek neoprene slip-ons while running a global fashion empire. But as the Covid pandemic and George Floyd’s killing reverberated across the country, the mental health crisis had hit home for Mr. Cole. His children were passionate about mental health issues, and he quickly saw an opportunity to craft a narrative of empowerment — rather than stigma — regarding mental health in America.

“Mental health is very personal to me,” Mr. Cole said. “It wasn’t my own personal journey, but I saw an opportunity to affect something, like AIDS, that was having a meaningful impact on my industry, and so many people that I knew.”

And if Mr. Cole knew anything, it was branding. This was, in fact, the same shoe designer who had been famously quoted saying “what you stand for” is more important than “what you stand in.”

“I don’t have a qualification in any other way,” Mr. Cole said. “I’m in the branding business.”

The Mental Health Coalition was born. An ambitious nonprofit collective that now includes 31 partner organizations devoted to changing the culture around mental health and providing access to vital resources for those in need, MHC essentially has a three-pronged goal that includes community engagement, creating a nationwide network, and of course, rebranding mental health.

The collaborative was launched with a campaign, inspired by Mr. Cole’s 27-year-old daughter Catie, to have people honestly answer a simple question: How are you, really?

Within days, millions of responses came pouring in on social media — including from Kardashians — jump starting a partnership with Facebook and Instagram to create a storytelling platform for conversations about mental health, as well as a crisis text hotline and an expansive online resource library. Mr. Cole hopes to start a pilot program soon, beginning in Boston and later expanding across the country.

Leading doctors and mental health experts touted the coalition’s work in statements to the Gazette, including Dr. Thomas Insel, M.D. the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and Dr. Christine Yu Moutier, the chief medical officer of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“We’re thrilled at the success of the Mental Health Coalition’s innovative approach to decreasing stigma around youth mental health and elevating the national conversation,” said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, head of the Child Mind Institute, in a statement.

Mr. Cole still has a day job as head of his global clothing brand. He just has to do most of it at night.

“This has arguably taken over,” he said. “But it’s because when you start realizing you are making an impact, and you see the difference that you’re able to make, and you can truly, positively affect people’s lives — it’s a very rewarding and energizing platform.”

The collaborative includes other Coles. Catie helped build the platform, serving as MHC’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, while his older daughter, Amanda, is involved with the initiative as well.

“It’s also a chance for me to work with my family, my kids,” Mr. Cole said. “It makes it that much more special, that much more personal.”

The family started coming to the Vineyard approximately 25 years ago, when Mr. Cole and his wife purchased a house on Lake Tashmoo. An avid angler, Mr. Cole said he spent a significant portion of the winter on the Island for the first time last year, getting to fish his inaugural derby and enjoy the Island without the summer congestion.

“I loved it. I just love the Vineyard, and I love that my kids are loving it,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s part of who we are.”

But staying the winter also showed Mr. Cole that the Vineyard — a remote Island that can quickly shift from serene to isolating depending on the season — faces its own challenges when it comes to mental health and substance use disorders.

“It’s a long, hard, cold winter. And you don’t have a lot of the distractions you have elsewhere, which is actually what many of us love about Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Cole said. “But at the end of the day, it can also be very debilitating.”

A broader goal of MHC, he said, is to normalize mental health — an issue he believes has already changed radically since the coalition was formed one year prior. Just ask Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, both internation sports icons who have publicly discussed their struggles with mental health in recent weeks.

“Everybody’s trying to find their voice,” Mr. Cole said. “I think we’re on the verge of a huge transformation in culture right now. We’re finally getting it.”

Mr. Cole, whose often bold designs belie what is a much quieter, humble demeanor, likes being known for his shoes. But he says it’s better to be known for his soul. The Mental Health Coalition is part of that, helping him get through Covid, he said, and ensuring the world doesn’t return to normal — but something better.

“If I could somehow make this, make a more meaningful impact in people’s lives, other than just their wardrobe choices, I think it’ll make my relationship with everyone more meaningful and substantive,” he said. “And it’s the legacy I prefer to leave."