Michael Kors made a name for himself designing clothes for celebrities. But he’s made his fortune with clothes that are “ready to wear” by anyone. He shares his secrets with Rita Braver:
Backstage, the models are frantically prepping to walk the runway. But out in the house where the show will start in just minutes, one man is surprisingly serene:
“Over 35 years of putting on fashion shows, and I don’t get nervous,” said Michael Kors. “But I guess I’m kind of like the expectant dad, you know? This thing has been a long time coming and you want to see that gorgeous baby.”
And indeed, even hardened fashion critics agreed, it was gorgeous! Rufus Wainright sang his heart out, A-Listers like Emily Blunt and Sienna Miller studded the first row, and models of the moment (like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid) strutted their stuff.
Fifty-seven-year-old Michael Kors took a victory lap, and why not? It’s been quite a journey.
He showed his first season when he was 21 years old, “and by the time the clothes arrived in the stores, I was 22,” he told Braver. “I knew nothing, I have to tell you. I don’t know what UPS was. I mean, I didn’t know how you actually delivered the clothes to the stores!”
Born on suburban Long Island, he started out as Karl Anderson. But his Mom let him change both his first and last names when she remarried.
And that wasn’t all: at age 5, she brought him to a fitting for her wedding gown.
“And I just sat in the corner making a face,” he recalled. “And my mom said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s just way too busy -- it had a lot of bows.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I think it would look better without the bows.’”
Within a few years of graduating high school, he was working at a Manhattan shop where the owners gave him a chance to design his own creations.
The response to the pieces the boutique started having made based on his designs was “Amazing,” he said. “I mean, it was crazy. We’d put it in the window and you know (snaps his fingers) you immediately knew a woman would come in and say, ‘Oh, can I try it on?’ And you’d say, ‘Wait, I’m on to something here; let’s do more of that.’”
His fledgling line caught the eye of one of fashion’s most powerful prognosticators: Anna Wintour, then at New York Magazine:
“I took the collection and I kind of packed it into these big, messy garment bags, and I jumped on the subway, and I went off to see Anna. And I remember it was her fall issue of New York Magazine, and I was her fashion thing to look forward to.”
Today, as Editor-in-chief of Vogue, Wintour still cares enough for Kors to step out on the red carpet with him at a fundraiser he’s hosting for his favorite charity, God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meals to the sick. And yes, she’s wearing Michael Kors.
Braver asked, “What is about his work that you like? What gets you into a Michael Kors?”
“I think Michael has always understood the modern American woman, that he is trying to make her look the best that she can,” Wintour replied. “He’s less concerned about clothes wearing a woman. He wants the woman to wear the clothes.”
And it doesn’t hurt that some of those women are celebrities: Michelle Obama (in her first official portrait), Viola Davis (at this year’s Golden Globes), and Kate Hudson (on many occasions).
“When a woman puts something on, and her whole body changes and her energy changes and her confidence changes, he feels like he’s succeeded,” Hudson said. “And he really, really lives and breathes it.”
There are a lot of boldface names in the world of Michael Kors, such as the outfit Blake Lively wore while pregnant: “She wore it during the day and threw, like, a grey hoodie over it.”
At his flagship store on Madison Avenue, Kors proudly shows off his couture line: sumptuous fabrics, with prices to match.
“The handwork, all of this, is all done by hand,” Kors said.
“This dress must cost thousands of dollars,” said Braver.
“It does. It does. But you’ll have it forever.” And the stretchy fabric will keep fitting.
But the bulk of his sales -- and most of the almost 800 other Michael Kors stores -- are devoted to his lower-priced lines. He also designs clothes for men. But, Kors says, his clients all have similar aspirations: “They want to look fashionable and current. They want to feel powerful but sexy. They want to feel youthful but not ridiculous.”
It seems hard to imagine, but at one time, Kors almost lost it all. In the early 1990s, the chief backer for his lower-priced line suddenly ran out of money.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work, like, will I still be me? Will I still be Michael Kors? What will I do?’”
“It must have been so scary for you.”
“Scary. And what I learned from it is, you really have to stick to your guts. You know, you’ve got to stay focused.”
He rebuilt the brand, and then in 2004 he got a call that would change his life: “Certainly, reality television and fashion had not merged,” Kors said of “Project Runway.” “And I knew ‘Survivor.’ And I said, ‘Are designers gonna be, you know, eating bugs and killing each other? What are they gonna be doing?’ I thought it was insane!”
The show, which judged the work of aspiring designers, took off, in part, because of now-legendary quips by Kors like, “It’s tablecloth-y to me.”
But after 10 years, Kors left the show to spend more time on his business, and his marriage with Lance LaPere, his one-time intern who is now creative director of the company.
Braver asked LaPere, “Do you ever tell him, ‘I don’t think so, that’s not a good idea’?”
“Oh, yeah. All the time,” he replied. “It’s always a back and forth.”
And these days, with a net worth estimated at $1 billion, life is very bright for Michael Kors:
“I am still so curious about what is next, and what’s new,” he said. “I think when you lose that curiosity, you know, quite frankly, then you need to do something else. But I feel more juice today than I did when I was 21.”
GALLERY: Michael Kors’ red carpet looks
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