Mega-Designer Michael Kors On Business & Being Fashion Famous

By Anna Murphy
The Times
Fashion designer Michael Kors, circa 2001. Photo / Getty Images

Michael Kors is the former shop assistant who runs a multi-billion-dollar brand, the fashion college dropout who dresses A-listers. Anna Murphy meets him in New York.

I am waiting for Michael Kors in an all-white room backstage before his most recent catwalk show in New York. I hear him before

This time it’s just me standing by to do our interview, and I can hear him talking about one of the models who will be walking later that day. “She moves like she’s got no bones,” he exclaims from the other side of the wall, audibly on the move towards me. “She’s a riot.”

So is Kors. Suddenly he is in the room, dressed in his signature head to toe black, accessorised with his signature suntan. “This one is a little fake,” he laughs. “I have not had time to get to our house in Florida.” Pause. “I have a dermatologist who is constantly screaming at me. It’s a test of wills. But I just like being outside.”

Emily Blunt and Michael Kors attend the 2023 Costume Institute Benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo / Getty Images
Emily Blunt and Michael Kors attend the 2023 Costume Institute Benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo / Getty Images

The cartoon character Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen had his permanent cloud of dust. Kors, 64, has his permanent sunny glow, almost as if he were spotlit. He is usually wearing shades, even when there is no sun to be seen, though not today, when it’s snowing. Sunny is the timbre of his personality too. I cannot underline enough what a breath of fresh air this man is — to mix my meteorological metaphors — in an industry that can feel a tad muggy.

I meet a lot of designers and I can’t think of another who’s as straightforwardly entertaining, as good with the chat. But he is also thoughtful and analytical about clothes. “I think a lot about what I am designing. It’s not like, ‘Let’s make a three-sleeve jacket and see if it works.’ I really am trying to think of solutions.”

What Kors advocates for in fashion is what he calls “the familiar unfamiliar”. It’s “the greatest thing. Because if it’s fully familiar you are bored out of your mind, but then if it’s fully unfamiliar you are on such shaky ground that you are not feeling comfortable.”

This is why his shows stand out. Season after season Kors delivers clothes designed to be worn, not concepts conceived to garner column inches. He is into making women look gorgeous, not edgy, a surprisingly outlier approach in luxury fashion. What’s more, in contrast to most of his peers he shows on models of all sizes, ages and hues, and encourages them to look as if — shock — they are enjoying themselves. “I’d be horribly bored if I dressed an army of everyone looking the same. The same point of view, the same body, the same colouring, the same age. What could be more boring?”

Kors has been in the business for more than four decades — 43 years to be precise. “People say, ‘Are you still excited?’ Well, look how things have changed. These days you see a 17-year-old boy who is more obsessed with clothes than his 17-year-old female counterpart. And he has no rules. Seeing actors, you know, who acknowledge that they love fashion, that they want to look great and enjoy it. That’s wonderful.”

The young Kors had several decades on today’s Timothée Chalamets and Barry Keoghans. When he bunked off his prom night in Long Island in 1977 to go for the first time to Studio 54, for example, then the apogee of Manhattan after-dark cool, “I wore two silk shirts layered open to the waist, one cream, one sort of café au lait, a big wide pair of khaki trousers and enormous Porsche sunglasses.” His best friend — yes, he can remember her outfit in detail too — wore “a fuchsia bandeau and fuchsia harem pants and had a flower behind her ear. We sailed right in.”

We can wind the clock back further than that. At 5, Kors was intervening in the design of his mother’s wedding dress — her second and not her last. “It was meant to be a major moment. My mother put it on and said, ‘It’s perfect.’ My grandmother thought so too. They looked at me and I grimaced. The tailor started snipping off the bows until there weren’t any left.” Only then was Kors happy.

By the time he was 10 he was obsessed with the designer Halston. This was the era when Halston was, as Kors puts it, “the supernova of the American professional”. Kors had grown out of his sweaters, so his mother took him shopping for replacements. He chose two camel ones. “She asked me if I didn’t want the second one in another colour. I said I didn’t.” When they went for lunch with his grandparents, his grandmother couldn’t understand why he was wearing them both at once, the second slung over his shoulders. “‘It’s like Halston,’ I said. And my grandfather said, ‘I think it’s terrific.’”

Kors has always struck me as the personification of confidence, and he puts it down to his childhood. The money may have come and gone (“My mum was married multiple times, right? So sometimes you’re in the chips, sometimes you’re definitely not in the chips”), but the support never wavered. “I have always felt incredibly fortunate. Not many people know what they want to do when they are young. And then to have the support of your family. Everyone applauding and saying what a great idea.”

While other homosexuals of his generation were forced to live a lie, Kors’ mother, Joan — who worked as a model, and who remained his lodestar until her death last year at 84 — started asking him if “there was anything I wanted to tell her when I was 14. She said, ‘You can be whoever you want.’”

By then he had set up a shop in his basement selling to “the neighbourhood girls. I was a bit of a hippy. I loved leather, craft, copper jewellery.” He is wearing a twisted leather bracelet around his wrist today, which he found in his mother’s jewellery box, with a stonking gold Rolex. “These two things together sum me up,” he says with a laugh. It’s his mixing of the luxurious with the laid-back that is part of his success as a designer, I think, during an era in which even the ultra-wealthy want to channel a certain nonchalance.

Michael Kors walks the runway during his spring 2020 show. Photo / Getty Images
Michael Kors walks the runway during his spring 2020 show. Photo / Getty Images

After school he signed up to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan but dropped out after nine months — the one point, he says, at which his familial support system wobbled. Instead he started working at Lothar’s, a flashy celebrity magnet of a boutique. “The other young people who were on the sales floor would get intimidated. They would always be like, ‘Michael, Cher’s in the store. You go, you go!’”

Yes, Kors has had a ringside seat on the celebrity circuit for a long time. He recalls Barbra Streisand coming into Lothar’s. “She was wearing a hat. She was sort of in disguise.” After she had gone he noticed she had left something behind. “So I ran into the street screaming, ‘Miss Streisand! Miss Streisand!’ Then I realised I had blown her cover and realised, ‘Wow, look what she has to put up with every day.’”

In America he is properly famous himself these days thanks to a 10-season stint on Project Runway, during which he nipped and tucked his lines better than any of the contestants did their clothes. (“Barefoot Appalachian Barbie”, “Rigatoni Mad Max”; these were the kind of summations of outfits that he effortlessly threw out.) He insists to me, however, that he is “only fashion famous. I would never want to be Hollywood famous. Fashion famous is great. Good table at a restaurant. The right seats at the theatre. Hollywood famous? What a tough way to live life.”

And thus speaks the ultimate extrovert, I say. “Everyone thinks I am the life of the party. But I am an only child. I was reading The New York Times when I was 6. I love being out and about, but I can also sit for hours on end on my own.”

How did he survive his party years, when others — not least Halston — didn’t? “I think it’s because I have such a strong sense of responsibility. That’s when I was working at Lothar’s. Studio 54 was six blocks away. They used to shoot these plastic snowflakes out of cannons all over the dancefloor. I remember going to have tea in the morning, and maybe a roll, then going straight to the store and washing my hair in the sink to get out the plastic snow. I was always at the store when it opened.”

Kors seems to have remained largely untouched by the pressures of heading a fashion label too, in contrast to the handful of designer travails in the public sphere (John Galliano, the late Alexander McQueen) and the many more that may be unknown outside the industry but are an open secret within.

“I think I am fortunate that it was a slow build for me,” he says. “It was like an athlete learning to do a long-distance run. If it’s all thrown at you when you are too young … You also have to separate yourself, to extricate yourself from the fashion circus. You have to spend time with friends and family who have nothing to do with it. Go to places that have nothing to do with it.”

That said, his husband, Lance LePere, not only works in fashion but works for him, as creative director of Kors’ women’s design. “The two of us will banter back and forth,” he says. But you are his boss! “I never think of that. We are collaborative.”

Michael Kors in his studio in New York, 1990. Photo / Getty Images
Michael Kors in his studio in New York, 1990. Photo / Getty Images

Just one of the fashion shibboleths Kors has disproved is that a brand can’t offer both the expensive and the middle market without the latter cannibalising the former. Yet the fact that you can buy a cross-body bag for £345 from Michael Michael Kors, his diffusion line, doesn’t seem to take the wind out of the sails of his catwalk collection, from which similar will set you back nearly three times that. Any past bumps in the financial road, such as when he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1993, seem long gone. “We felt flush from success. There was this explosion of growth. We started spending money. There were ad campaigns, bigger shows. But you know that old adage, ‘Don’t count your chickens …’ "

Is he first and foremost a designer or a businessman? He pauses. “I am creatively pragmatic. When you open your own business with no money, no interest from anyone else, you’ve got to hustle. You’ve got to make it work.” And make it work he most definitely has, with bells on. Revenues last year were US$3.88 billion. A report last month by Women’s Wear Daily that Kors was plotting an exit was immediately rebutted by Capri Holdings, the brand’s parent company.

Kors is a major donor to charities such as God’s Love We Deliver, which provides 7,200 free meals a day to New Yorkers with “life-altering illnesses”. “Going into their kitchens and mincing celery really means something to me.” So he is a dab hand at celery? “No. When I first did it they told me it was all wrong. I do like decorating the cakes, but I am also not very good with the icing bag.”

A lifelong Democrat, Kors once said that his career highlight was when Michelle Obama wore a dress of his for her first official White House portrait. I am told in advance not to ask how he feels at the possibility of another fan of the label, Melania Trump, wearing it in the White House once again.

When Melania picked a Kors number for her husband’s first joint address to Congress in 2017, the brand issued a statement saying she “has been a longtime client at our New York boutique. She has a keen understanding of what works best for her and her lifestyle”. In other words, she picks it out and, more importantly, pays for it herself. Nothing to do with us.

Our time is up and Kors is off to meet some of his biggest-spending clients before the show starts. “I love meeting my clients,” he says. Except, perhaps, for one.

This article originally appeared in The Times.

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