MICHAEL KORS’ sophisticated style has defined American fashion today – and for 30 years
When he was just 5 years old, Michael Kors helped his mother design her wedding dress. At 14, he knew he’d one day have his own fashion label. And by 23, he was well on his way, having been discovered dressing mannequins in a trendy storefront by none other than Dawn Mello herself, the legendary fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, who couldn’t believe he’d come up with the designs. Mello urged him to start his own line, and in 1981 he sold his first collection of double-faced cashmere separates to the tony department store.
Ever since, Kors has been redefining jet-set luxury, dressing women with tastes as diverse as LiL’ Kim and Sigourney Weaver in everything from sporty cashmere peacoats to glittering sequined gowns. Although his career has had its ups and downs – a trip to bankruptcy court in 1993, changes in business partners, and a seven-year stint designing Celine in the 1990s Kors hit his stride in 2003 when the powerful investor team of Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll bought a majority stake in his company with the intention of developing it into an iconic global “affordable luxury” brand. Last fall he topped off his 30-year career with one of the fashion industry’s most successful initial public offerings. Here the quintessential American designer talks to Watch!’s Kate Betts about the places and faces that inspire him.
KATE BETTS: You are always inspired by your travels. Which destination has inspired you recently, and what did you see there that you loved?
MICHAEL KORS: We recently traveled to Istanbul and loved the mix of classic Ottoman opulence and modern architecture. The blend of two extremes was the starting point for my holiday resort collection.
BETTS: Which American style icons inspire you most?
KORS: For the fall collection I’d been thinking about the glamour of Old Hollywood- the Carole Lombard, Clark Gable time period. Everyone was always turned out in this elegant but cozy mix-a soigne silk slip dress under a blanket coat or, for men, a tailored tweed suit with a chunky knit sweater. But always at the top of my list, I’d have to say, are the two Hepburns: Katharine and Audrey. They continue to be hallmarks of timeless American style for me, not only because of their highly individual approaches to dressing but because of their unique personalities.
BETTS: Who are the new generation of American style icons?
KORS: Women who are finding ways to make their wardrobes work for them- whether that’s Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow or the first lady. They’re busy; they’re juggling a million things. So they turn to the pieces in their closets that they can have a bit of fun with, but that they also don’t have to think twice about.
BETTS: Fashion is changing so quickly now. What advice would you give to a young woman who is trying to keep up with trends?
KORS: She should take the same approach she takes to guys: There’s great fling material, and then there’s great husband material! Apply that to your wardrobe and it means invest in the key pieces you’ll want to spend time with season after season, the pieces that will help define your style. Don’t invest major money in the trendy pieces that will feel old by this time next year. Like dating that guy just for fun-it’s not to say you shouldn’t do it, just don’t sink a lot into it!
BETTS: You are the quintessential New Yorker, but if you didn’t live here, where would you live?
KORS: I’d live in Big Sur, Calif., but only if I could have Philip Johnson’s Glass House moved there! Talk about rugged elegance! The most perfect balance of nature and shelter.
BETTS: I remember traveling to a specialty store personal appearance with you once years ago. You were so great with the customers and this ability to speak directly to the customer as you do is a real gift. Will that change now in the age of e-commerce?
KORS: It was possible to do lots of trunk shows and meet customers face to face regularly when my business was in the U.S. and maybe a few European cities. But now there are Michael Kors stores around the world-the Middle East, Asia, Europe, North and South Americas. It would be impossible to communicate on any regular level with my customers on that scale, but technology now makes it possible, which is fabulous! We can have an ongoing dialogue with them, no matter where they are in the world, 24/7.
BETTS: Have Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest changed your shopping habits at all?
KORS: My personal habits? No. I’m still all about my Michael Kors aviator sunglasses and cashmere and a good pair of jeans!
BETTS: You have dressed Michelle Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver and many other famous women. Who is the woman you haven’t dressed yet whom you still dream of dressing?
KORS: I would love to see the Duchess of Cambridge in Michael Kors. She is at once elegant and modern.
BETTS: Last year you celebrated 30 years in business. What has been the most exciting moment for you in fashion?
KORS: I’d have to say receiving my Lifetime Achievement award from the [Council of Fashion Designers of America]. There’s nothing like being honored by your peers-especially when it’s as competitive a bunch as we designers!
BETTS: What has been the most difficult moment for you in your career and what have you learned from that experience?
KORS: In the early ’90s when the economy was at its worst, my company went through a difficult financial moment. I learned to always stay focused, not second-guess myself and always keep my eye on the customer.