Have you noticed that everyone’s 35 now?” chuckles designer Michael Kors. His keen eye is focused on the breakfast crowd at the Polo Lounge, mostly L.A. ladies picking at their fruit. He smiles as he observes their lithe figures, tight jeans, T-shirts, high heels and long hair.
“It’s interesting what I’ve seen in my 30 years in the fashion business,” he muses. “Moms look 35, and so do their teenage daughters. I dress three generations of females now — all in similar looks. When I started out, women dressed differently at different stages of their lives. There were rules about what to wear at what time of day and what season. There was no such thing as sequins for day or white in the winter!”
Almost as if on cue, a woman of about 40 sails by in a black sequin sweater and white miniskirt. Kors, 51, more than most designers, has been exceptionally canny in profiting from this stylish convergence.
As Kors sees it, the ends of the spectrum are finally colliding. His uptown New York social crowd doesn’t dress very differently from his Hollywood customers, who include everyone from loyalists such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Debra Messing to Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman, who wore the designer twice during this awards season. “New York socials used to be minimalists, and Hollywood was garish. Now socials are more glam and the actresses more chic. That’s because everyone’s traveling,” he says.
A few weeks ago, Zeta-Jones and Messing, along with Anjelica Huston, Angie Harmon and Bette Midler, turned out to sit in the front row of Kors’ 30th anniversary show for fall 2011. It was a celebration not only of his new collection (full-length duster coats, Hepburn-esque trousers, sharp-cut blazers and the obligatory fur, all in shades of gray or camel), but also of the enormous success he’s had in expanding his brand into two lower-priced lines and winning high-rated TV fame on Project Runway. One of the last New York designers to fully own their own company (with two partners), Kors has done it his way — never working for another designer — and never ever wavering from his luxe American sportswear aesthetic. Whether you call it tasteful glamour or star-quality elegance, it’s working. As a private company owned by three partners, there are no real monetary estimates of its worth to be found — but some analysts claim Kors’ accessory business is up nearly 200 percent in the last few years.
“I wore him in my 20s and I wear him now,” says pal Sharon Stone. Perhaps no one exemplifies the Kors look more than his be-all-and-end-all celebrity “get,” Michelle Obama. The first lady, the ultimate in upscale sporty, has now worn Kors at least 33 times.
The designer is also regarded as being one of the nicest inhabitants of Seventh Avenue, even if some Runway contestants would disagree. (“She looks like a pole dancer in Dubai,” he memorably said of one contestant’s model’s outfit.) After his emotional anniversary show, Midler, a Kors stalwart, whipped out a ukulele and serenaded him as a huge birthday cake was wheeled backstage.
“He’s a classic, an American icon of fashion,” says longtime muse Huston. “He’s chic and contemporary, he has integrity, he’s the best of American fashion. That’s why he’s been around such a long time — he makes clothes that fit beautifully even if you’re not size 4, and they go effortlessly from day to night.” To wit, one of his biggest clients for kaftans and tunics is his idol, Elizabeth Taylor.
From his accent and his modern, black-and-white-themed apartment in the West Village to his mostly black wardrobe, Kors is the ultimate New Yorker. “But Europeans always think I’m from L.A.! That’s because I have blond hair, blue eyes and a tan — but it’s also because the clothes are laid-back,” he chuckles.
Kors knew he wanted to be a designer from an early age. “When I was 5, my mom remarried. And when I saw her wedding gown, I told her to snip the bows off — and she knew I was right,” recalls Kors, who visited the West Coast frequently growing up. After he enrolled in design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, his mom, Joan — still one of his major muses — moved out to Hollywood, where his grandparents were living.
“I was totally bitten by ’70s L.A.,” Kors says of his visits to see his family. “Ali MacGraw, Judith Krantz novels, Jacqueline Bisset, that whole Malibu-mama vibe. My clothes have always been informed by memories of L.A. when I was young. Pastel Lincoln Continentals and chiffon! The good life! There were two extremes then: Fred Hayman bugle-beaded gowns or hippie chick. There was nothing in middle.”
After graduating in 1981, Kors went into business by himself, aiming straight for that American sporty-chic middle ground and hitting the target very fast. After making a collection for the New York store Lothar’s, he moved on to major stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue within about a year. But not only New Yorkers got it. “My first season in business,” he recalls, “we sold to a Rodeo Drive store called Lina Lee. Wicker chairs, ceiling fans, so L.A. ’80s! We got a call that a client came in and bought everything. The buyer said, ‘Michael, it’s Peggy Lipton.’ And of course I had been in love with The Mod Squad. I didn’t realize she was married to Quincy Jones. Well, Peggy still wears the clothes, and her daughters Rashida and Kidada wear the clothes.”
His second celebrity client was Huston, whose acting and style he’d always admired. (“Style is innate with her. It’s just there.”) But it was another actress, former model Rene Russo, who put him on the national map. “Rene had always worn the clothes,” he recalls. “Then she called me and said she was making a new version of The Thomas Crown Affair, one of my favorite fashion movies ever! We wound up making a lot of her wardrobe for the film, and when it came out, I had women showing up at trunk shows saying, ‘I want Rene Russo’s entire wardrobe!’ ”
The movie also put Kors on the celebrity map at a time when European designers like Armani and Versace started to descend on Hollywood as a way to maximize branding. But unlike many contemporaries, Kors did not hire an L.A. celebrity wrangler, didn’t go to Oscar parties, never did the hard sell. His daytime staples — camel coats, cashmere sweaters, tweed trousers — sell so steadily, the brand’s sales are not reliant on red carpets. “If I don’t develop an organic relationship with a celebrity, that’s fine,” he says.
“At a certain point, I developed ‘fashion designer/celebrity telepathy!’” he jokes. “We make our samples in Italy, and sometimes the fit model puts something on, and I think, ‘That’s screaming Jennifer Lopez!’ So fine, the show comes; two hours later, we get an e-mail from Jennifer’s stylist Andrea Lieberman saying, ‘Blue dress is screaming Jennifer Lopez.’ We ended up making the dress for her in a cantaloupe for the 2004 Golden Globes.”
In 2000, a year after The Thomas Crown Affair, Kors opened his first collection boutique on Madison Avenue and also launched an eponymous fragrance. At that point, he had been working as creative director for the fashion house Celine since 1997. It was the first time an American sportswear designer had been hired to design a French luxury line, let alone one owned by LVMH. Kors turned Celine around with blockbuster accessories and critically acclaimed ready-to-wear, then departed in 2003 when his contract was up in order to concentrate on his own brand. But the Celine association put him in a whole new luxury bracket: European. “That’s when Michael Kors became a global brand,” Kors says. “Celine opened my eyes to the whole world, to foreign customers, to the Internet.”
Because he is so consistent in his marketable aesthetic, some New York editors had begun to write Kors off as predictable in the early 2000s — right around the time something called Project Runway came along. When PR mastermind and friend Desiree Gruber approached him in 2004 to be a judge on television’s first fashion-design competition, he says, “I initially asked, ‘Do we have to sleep in the jungle?’ ”
“We had no idea what to expect,” Kors admits. “I knew Heidi, I knew Nina, and luckily we all clicked. A few weeks after we went on, I ran into Kidada Jones, who said, ‘Congratulations on Project Runway — it’s great. Everyone I know is watching it. My mom loves the show, and my dad loves the show.’ That’s when I knew it was something different. Next thing I knew, I was being recognized by parents in Singapore and children in Sydney. My boyfriend, Lance [Lance LaPere, who started as an intern at Kors, has been his partner for almost 20 years] has turned into a paparazzo because people always ask him to take their photo with me.”
Says Gruber, who is executive producer of the show: “Right away, Michael made great TV. He’s witty, he’s fast and he doesn’t have a filter. He calls out the elephant in the room no one else will address.”
“Look,” he laughs, “if I think a dress looks like toilet paper, I’m going to say it. Everyone is shocked — then I get e-mails saying: ‘You’re right! It did look like toilet paper!’ ”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Just as his face and wit were being broadcast coast to coast, Kors kicked off lower-priced lines KORS Michael Kors and MICHAEL Michael Kors in 2004 — not, he claims, to capitalize on Project Runway per se but to ride the wave of a trend he’d seen coming. “When I first started,” he says, “and even well into the ’90s, if someone was thought to have great taste, the implication was they were rich. Suddenly, there was this idea of ‘mixing it up’ — wearing vintage with couture, the Sharon Stone Gap T-shirt with a designer skirt. And I thought, ‘You should be able to go to a store and buy a flip-flop and a crocodile handbag.’ To get all the things you need, you have to go from Neiman’s to Nordstrom to the mall. So we started mixed-price accessories stores, and everyone said, ‘No way.’ Designers were afraid of it.”
By late spring this year, there will be 175 mixed-price accessory stores worldwide, where crocodile bags for $3,000 sit next to canvas ones for $100. There are the five designer collection boutiques: New York, Rodeo Drive, Manhasset, Chicago, Palm Beach, Milan and London. And he has just debuted the company’s largest yet, a 7,000-square-foot store on Paris’ Rue St. Honore that combines every one of his lines.
There’s nothing like success to attract even bigger stars. Gwyneth Paltrow, a fan of Kors’ day clothes, just donned his one-sleeve apricot gown onstage at the Oscars. And Portman wore a Kors black halter gown with metal neck detail to this year’s DGA Awards, and a blue satin dress to the AFI Awards. Says Kors of the looks he made for her in consultation with her stylist Kate Young: “It was a challenge to deal with awards season being 5’2” and pregnant. People know I’m the go-to guy for that. We dressed Jen Garner in a gown for the Oscars right after she had her first child — an ivory beaded empire dress.”
You could say Michael Kors’ 30-year career in the fashion business parallels the general path of fashion designers in America: from semi-obscure tradesmen (save for Halston) in the ’70s, to brand names in the ’80s, to celebrity dressers in the ’90s, to becoming megacelebrities themselves in this decade. Not to mention giant global brands. New York’s original top three — Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein — were the first Americans to ride the celebrity/global designer trend, and Kors has taken the same ball and run with it, with one major difference: Kors is a showman. “I played myself on Gossip Girl !” he says with kidlike enthusiasm. “I’ve been glued to it since it came on. I love pop culture, I really do. I think, at heart, I’m actually a 15-year-old girl.”
He pops on his trademark aviators and strides out of the booth into the front room of the Polo Lounge, spotting Ashley Olsen, whom he hugs. Jackie Collins comes over to say hello. A few strangers tell him how much they admire him. Walking out, he laughs. “I had no intention of being recognized on the streets of Singapore. But now that I am — it’s really fun. Why not enjoy it?”
Project Runway’s Brand Impact
Project Runway is not just a show about pretty clothes — it’s also been pretty good for Michael Kors’ bottom line. Known for his uptown New York designer goods, the opinionated judge shrewdly launched two lower-priced lines as the show debuted on Bravo in 2004. Now in its eighth season, the series has garnered respect, even reverence, from fashion insiders, generating ratings ranging from 2.9 million to a whopping 4 million viewers. A lot of that’s credited to Kors’ credibility, mentoring — and snappy one-liners. “Now kids know me, too,” he says. “Teenage girls buy my lower-priced bags and shoes — one shoe with a zipper became the bas mitzvah shoe! I think we’ve sold 40,000 of them!” Adds Project Runway executive producer Desiree Gruber: “If you’re likeable on TV and it comes through, it brings customer loyalty. When Michael does in-stores in malls, his customers turn out in droves.” Jefferies & Co. analyst Randal Konik says, “Kors has become a leading designer like a Marc Jacobs and Project Runway helped people know who he was.” And the Davie-Brown brand-marketing index now ranks Kors at number 13 in the Trendsetter category alongside Oprah and Angelina Jolie. Adds branding expert Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys: “Kors is that fusion of mass and luxe, and Project Runway is the perfect venue for the brand.”