AN INTERVIEW WITH Michael Kors would be a source of excitement for any dedicated follower of fashion, and I’m no exception. This, after all, is the man who, in spite of spending most of his time in one uniform – black jeans, black T-shirt and black cashmere – dresses some of the world’s most glamorous women and supplies exclusive stores the world over. “I’m a juggler,” he confesses from his 42nd Street office-cumstudio, which has great views of the New York skyline. “My office is kind of the Zen escape from the sometimes chaotic piles of fabric and the endless buttons and zippers. We have large offices, and no matter how big they are, they tend to get very crammed, jammed. And I like to be very edited. So my office stays very edited.”
The Michael Kors business empire now includes womenswear, menswear, accessories, perfume and jewellery. “We do everything except home,” he says. “We have no home, no hosiery and no lingerie.” It’s no wonder that in 2010 The Council of Fashion Designers of America acknowledged Kors with its most prestigious honour, the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by American Vogue‘s Anna Wintour.
Raised in Merrick, Long Island, a suburban town almost 40 kilometres from New York City, Kors, who was an only child, grew up surrounded by a fashionobsessed and dynamic family. “I was one of those kids who loved to go to adult cocktail parties when they were six; for the atmosphere, for the conversation, for all of it. From a very early age I loved going shopping. It was my idea of Valhalla!”
The cross-pollination of different styles and his ability to appeal to so many types of women came from these early seeds. “I grew up around people who loved fashion. It was kind of a topic of conversation at the table. My mom modelled. My grandfather was in the textile business. All of my aunts were quite young and very fashionable. And I had a grandmother who was fashion-obsessed, so it was kind of like Fellini, like Peter Greenaway’s movie 8½ Women, all with a different point of view and different way of looking at fashion.”
Kors toyed with the idea of a theatrical career, taking acting lessons before deciding he couldn’t sing or dance. Instead he left Long Island to study fashion at New York’s renowned Fashion Institute of Technology. It didn’t last long. “It was the late ’70s in New York. You go to Studio 54 at night; you see a lot of very glamorous people on the street everywhere you went and I didn’t finish school. I dropped out. I was 19.
“I went to design for the boutique Lothar’s on 57th Street in New York. I knew nothing; I had no rules. I just made the kind of clothes that I thought were modern and turned me on, and it turned out the clients who shopped at the store responded to them. I designed the clothes, I sold the clothes, I got to see everything first-hand.” The push he needed came when the fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman across the street saw him doing the windows and invited him to contact her about his own line. In 1981, the Michael Kors Collection debuted at Bergdorf’s.
A successful retail expansion followed, with the brand’s first catwalk show in 1984 and his first bridge label Kors Michael Kors in 1990. Then in 1998 he embarked on the role of creative director of legendary French fashion house Céline and took a pivotal phone call from actress and friend Rene Russo. “Interestingly the original Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen was one of the films that I thought so captured a fast, glamorous life. So Rene called me and she said, ‘Can you imagine, I’m making the new version of Thomas Crown?’ And she said, ‘I was speaking to the director and we’d love to talk to you about doing a lot of the wardrobe’.”
Striking in their simplicity and timeless style, the clothes defined a whole new approach to women’s workwear. “A lot of people think sexy means a 20-year-old, and also a lot of people think sexy means you have to be naked. Yet, here was a woman who was very powerful but feminine, successful but vulnerable, and glamorous but not in an obvious way. I think the clothes definitely helped explain the character. If you’re someone who is working, who wants to look powerful, I think that’s what The Thomas Crown Affair told women: you can go to work and you don’t have to look like a man.”
He credits his time at Céline, which involved commuting to Paris about 10 times a year, for opening his eyes to the impact of accessories and, surprisingly, geography. “Marc Jacobs started at Louis Vuitton the same day I started at Céline, when people thought of American fashion as jeans and T-shirts. And I think everyone realised that when people are busy, they want clothes they can move in, live in and travel in. That kind of pragmatism is very American. I had always done business in London, but I certainly hadn’t thought about how humid it is in Singapore. And suddenly I was in Paris and we were thinking about how did all these clothes and these accessories work all around the world?”
The philosophy continues to define his collections. For resort 2013, for instance, Kors took inspiration from a trip to Istanbul. “What I really was intrigued by was this history of opulence. But then you have this city that is filling with fabulous modern architecture. You have this yin and yang between that extravagance and this modernist architecture. So we played with a lot of very opulent textiles and a lot of jewel tones. Resort in particular; they’re clothes that truly have no season. You might be at The Peninsula in Hong Kong for New Year, and the next day you go to Phuket for a few days. Clothes need to be able to go from city to a resort. And a good many of them are able do that – it’s a change in shoes, high heels to flat sandal.”
He speaks warmly of his store in The Peninsula Hong Kong. “For the Hong Kong customer, the truly designer customer,” says Kors, “we find the same pieces that are successful in Paris are successful in LA; they’re successful in Hong Kong because the customer is travelling, and she’s picking up her information, seeing other women who live her life. She wants things that are beautifully made, she really understands beautiful textiles.
“All of our double-faced clothes are hand-finished. Our customers appreciate that kind of quality, but our customers in Hong Kong and Asia really appreciate that attention to detail.”
Kors still gets an incredible thrill from seeing his clothes on people in the street. And has he any advice for the red carpet? “The biggest mistake a woman can have at night is to fall into what I call the Cinderella complex, to want to become another person.
“To me, the best way to look at night is kind of a heightened version of how you look during the day. When we’re fitting an evening gown we fit it the same way we would fit clothes you’re wearing on the weekend. Can you sit in it? Can you move in it? How would you get it into a suitcase? So Angelina Jolie can look that glamorous and that sexy in that black gown. The reality is she’s wearing a very glamorous version of a T-shirt.”