Michelle Obama and Gwyneth Paltrow love his glamorous, sexy clothes, but Michael Kors is just as happy dressing Middle America. On the eve of his brand's 40th anniversary, he tells Jane McFarland how he went from bankruptcy to billion‑dollar businessman.
For a brief moment Michael Kors seems just like the rest of us. During lockdown he binge watched Netflix's Unorthodox, succumbed to reality television (American Idol became a weekly fix) and despaired over the endless amounts of laundry. "And I don't have children," says the 61-year-old designer with a laugh over the phone from his home in Greenwich Village, New York. "All I could think about was what it must be like to take care of a household with kids running around."
It's most likely a fleeting visit to the real world, for the regular MK universe — temporarily on hiatus — is altogether more fabulous, and includes trips to Capri, attending Broadway shows with Anna Wintour and being the go-to designer for the world's female power players, from Michelle to Oprah. Not only does he dress Hollywood's elite — JLo, Gwyneth, Blake et al — he also considers them friends. His personal wealth is eye-watering and he has a suitably glitzy lifestyle to match. And after a 10-season stint as a judge on the Emmy-nominated American television series Project Runway, his witty one-liners and larger-than-life personality are much loved. In short, he puts the theatrics into fashion.
Yet his eponymous brand is remarkably ubiquitous. Since launching his label in 1981, Kors has built his business on conquering both ends of the market, from mass accessibility — in a 2019 survey Michael Kors was named the leading handbag brand among teens in the US; with many of his styles costing less than US$300 (about $430), they are gateway bags for most Middle America millennials — to high end. Simply put, there is something for everyone. For some brands this is the antithesis of luxury. For Kors it's what fashion is about. "Unfortunately, fashion is often about exclusion. It's all about, 'No, you aren't allowed to play. No, you aren't allowed to sit at this table.' You're not thin enough, you're not young enough, you're not white enough, you're not rich enough — the list goes on. Which is preposterous," he exclaims. "Fashion, for it to work, can't be in a bubble."
Kors, who has more than 1,000 stores worldwide, is well versed in what his women (and men) need — he has been perfecting the art of client schmoozing for years. During lockdown, in lieu of hosting his trunk shows or luncheons here, there and everywhere, he has been holding court on Zoom instead, "connecting" with his customers from London to Los Angeles. "I did my first Zoom call with clients back in April. Everyone said, 'But where am I going?' or 'I don't know how to get dressed for this new life without a regular office life or a social calendar.' Well, I said, we now have to find the joy in getting dressed for the everyday, whether it's going to the farmers' market or sitting outside with your partner or spouse."
For Kors that means swaddling blankets, double-faced camel capes and plenty of trophy jumpers, from quilted cashmere to Aran knits. Plus a good pair of riding boots (with remarkable foresight he didn't design a single stiletto for his Michael Kors Collection show back in February). "Rather than sitting in the house in a tracksuit and moping, we have to brush ourselves off and grace the day. I don't know if life will return in exactly the same way, but life will return. You don't want to have a shock to the system," he says matter-of-factly.
He's perfectly happy selling loungewear and trainers, provided there is still an "element of glamour or indulgence", he notes. "We've got to find a way to be chic and comfortable." I find a handful of hoodies on the Michael Kors website and there's one style — black, cashmere and emblazoned with a metallic gold Studio 54 logo on the back (yours for £890/$1,700) — that reminds me of one of his most notorious anecdotes: how, in 1977, he skipped his high-school prom for the first of many nights at Studio 54.
Kors's pre-fashion life is full of similarly improbable tales: born in Merrick, Long Island, he not only changed his name (from Karl Anderson) when his mother, a former model, married Bill Kors, but also redesigned her wedding dress at the age of five. As an only child he spent his weekends shopping with her in Saks, in what he refers to as his Holly Golightly moments. "I honestly felt that if I was in a shop nothing bad could happen," he says without an ounce of irony. He enrolled as a fashion student in Manhattan (but dropped out after seven months) and worked as a sales assistant in Lothar's — an outpost of the famous St Tropez boutique — where he served Diana Ross and Goldie Hawn. Wearing his own designs, he piqued the interest of Dawn Mello, then the renowned fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, who offered him some space in the department store to showcase his creations.
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In the years since he has lived out the industry's excesses and austerity, and highs and lows. "I've been on every rollercoaster ride," he says. In 1993 he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and from 1997 to 2004, was at the helm of Celine, where his commercial approach and smiley enthusiasm were at odds with the artistic enfants terribles of French fashion.
He loves America and it loves him back: his performative period on Project Runway, where he dished out crushing critiques to aspiring designers, only cemented his class-defying fanbase. And having high-profile customers hasn't hurt. "You are only as good as the women you dress," he confirms. He recalls a pinch-me moment in 2009: "I came out of a theatre interval in London and turned on my phone to a zillion emails and texts, congratulating me on Mrs Obama. Then I saw the picture of her official first lady portrait. It wasn't just that she was wearing my brand, it was that she looked so different to any other first lady we have seen in history. Her outfit was black, it was jersey and it was bare — it was so modern. An incredible moment for me." He flits between stories of Gloria Steinem (a client since the 1980s) to dressing Zendaya, and recalls last year's Met Ball, where he escorted Gigi Hadid, Tiffany Haddish and Bette Midler. "It was … extreme fun. They all just said, let's go for it. So we did."
The sexagenarian designer is busier than ever, with no sign of cashing out. Behind the camp, high-gloss veneer he is one of the shrewdest businessmen in the fashion industry. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the brand, which earned just over $4 billion in sales across men's and women's ready-to-wear, accessories, fragrance and eyewear last year. He took his company — formerly Michael Kors Holdings — public in 2011 (his mother accompanied him to the New York Stock Exchange), launching the biggest public offering in American fashion history. The renamed Capri Holdings acquired Jimmy Choo in 2017, before adding Versace to its portfolio in 2018 for a little more than $2 billion, pitting the company against Europe's fashion conglomerates, including LVMH and Kering.
This year marks his eighth running the Watch Hunger Stop campaign, established to secure much-needed school meals for children around the world in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme. ("We've delivered 20 million free meals this year," he says proudly.) His latest project? Imploring first-time voters in the US to register. Ever the salesman, Kors recruited Bella Hadid to wear his "Your Voice Matters" and "Vote" merchandise, while donating 100 per cent of the profits to the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, the premier legal organisation in America fighting for racial justice. He doesn't air his personal political leanings, but, with the weary tone of someone who has seen it all before, will say: "Whether young people on my team or my husband's nieces and nephews who are new to the political arena due to their age, we do have to remember that patience is not a virtue within the internet age. We constantly have to remind young people [that] change takes time. Unfortunately problems did not happen overnight and solutions will not happen overnight."
Right now he's happy to press pause. He and his husband, Lance Le Pere, whom he married in 2011, are both theatre fanatics (Kors started drama lessons at the age of 13 before dropping out after 18 months: "I realised there were incredibly talented people around me and I would end up the terrible waiter") and have part-produced several productions on Broadway, as well as funding the restoration of several theatres. As local restaurants in his neighbourhood are preparing to offer alfresco dining — "We just have to think how the Scandinavians do it. In winter life goes on. Everyone will be eating outside wearing cashmere" — he's learning to love what's on his doorstep. For the most part he's reflecting on what comes next. "Sadly I think empathy has always been in short supply. Maybe people are now more empathetic towards businesses, neighbours they may never have met or people in other countries. Maybe it'll encourage people to be more human and appreciative." Proof, perhaps, that we aren't all that different.
Written by: Jane McFarland
© The Times of London