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2011 September 14

Michael's Moment

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(NEW YORK) Over the last three decades, Michael Kors has become an industry unto himself—but in the last five years, his empire has turned into a blockbuster American success story. That’s thanks in no small part to MICHAEL Michael Kors, his item-driven line, which has brought the designer’s glam take on classic sportswear to the chic masses since 2004. The Daily popped by Kors’ office for the scoop on his shiny new Rockefeller Center digs, life as a newlywed, and much more.  BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

How’s married life?
Married life is treating me just as  well as before I was legally married. Lance [LePère] and I were fully committed to one another for a very long time. People keep asking when we’re going on a honeymoon, and, well, we take a lot of fabulous vacations all the time! I’d like to see the Defense of Marriage Act repealed, so our marriage is recognized generally. We’re not there yet. Interestingly, I never thought I’d get married.

Why not?
I knew I was gay from the time I was 10, probably. I didn’t grow up harboring any fantasies that I was going to walk down the aisle in a white suit alongside another man in a white suit. It’s a nice surprise, so to speak, that it’s a possibility.

Has marriage affected your vitamin D levels?
I’m naturally glowing. Well, we got married in the sun on the beach, so maybe that’s it!

Now, onto business: What’s the story behind all the growth of your MICHAEL Michael Kors line?
Whether it’s a keychain or a sable coat, everything has to have the same taste level, with the same amount of sophistication. MICHAEL Michael Kors is more item-oriented: that customer tends to buy one piece and wear it her own way, while the collection customer quite often buys, and wears, more of a head-to-toe look.

How does your approach differ between the two?

You can have a little bit more fun when it’s a little bit more disposable. We have such a broad range of people that wear the clothes, and MICHAEL Michael Kors broadens it even further. Teenagers and their mothers both wear the clothes!

Do you have distinct design processes for each?
No. If there’s a way I can give people a more accessible version of something from the collection, I will—because with the collections, I’ve already moved on to the next season. There is the possibility of doing a similar version, but it’s never the same thing.

How have you done so well in recent years as the industry has weathered a treacherous economy?
The lightbulb went off for me back in ’08, when things got very, very difficult in the economy and industry. I was doing an event in Toronto, and women were shopping very methodically—they were really thinking about what they were buying. The president of Holt Renfrew at the time told me that my line was selling really well because shoppers really trust me.

Where does that trust level originate from?
We’re not about the thing you buy once and never wear again. We’re not the handbag that stays in its dust bag and is never carried because it’s too heavy. We’re the things that you live in and grab for. When I go vintage shopping, I never see vintage Michael Kors. I think it’s because people hold onto—and really wear—our line. I’m pragmatic enough to understand that people want longevity, but there’s still a dream built in when you buy something. That combo has served us well. What do people wear? Sportswear. The simple truth of it is that American designers come from a heritage where we invented the idea of comfort, versatility, and movement.

What are the nuts and bolts of whipping up such universally wearable wares?
Well, to start, it’s about texture—you need to want to touch something, and be intrigued by it. There’s also a connection that needs to happen. If a look reminds you of Kate Moss at Glastonbury, that’s a good thing. If something makes you think of Ryan O’Neal kissing Ali MacGraw in Love Story? Great! The best things we buy and wear service our lives and hopefully flatter us in some way. They also transport us a little.

What’s the secret to your success?
The worst thing any creative person can do is think, ‘This is the best I can do.’ If I had that attitude, after over 30 years of designing, I’d be so bored I would probably become a Rockette. That’s what’s so interesting about it! There are the people you meet, the places you travel, and you get older and more experienced, and think about your body of work. You start realizing that there are certain touchstones that are very ‘Michael Kors.’ Then you can start using your own name as adjective! 

When was your “a-ha!” moment?
I think my success was solidified about halfway through my career, in the late nineties. It was a big “a-ha” moment for American fashion in general.Global wasn’t really something that was thought about before then. There were no runway shows on the Internet, no Project Runway—there wasn’t any sense of fashion as pop culture. Different collections were made for each country, and people were pretty happy with that. Now, the second the show is over, the images are online, and someone in Jakarta wants the same shoe as someone in Toronto. The late nineties was the beginning of the barriers crumbling.

What made the late nineties a pivotal point for American designers in Paris?
I went to Céline, Marc [Jacobs] went to Vuitton, Narciso [Rodriguez] went to Loewe. Before that, certainly no one thought American designers would ever show in Paris at these august houses. America was the land of T-shirts and jeans—we had virtually no couture tradition. When I started to spend time in Europe, I realized that all the tenets of American fashion do have a global reach. Women in Paris aren’t walking down the street with a poodle, wearing hats and suits. They wear sportswear! Suddenly, there were people in Paris wearing New Balance sneakers and drinking Coke out of the can. All the cross-pollinating has made fashion more interesting.

What did you get out of your stint at Céline?
Up until that point, everything was always about what’s practical. It was pragmatic, pragmatic, pragmatic! In Paris, the women are like, “I want foie gras and a glass of wine for lunch and I don’t care!” She’s not talking about how much weight was gained or lost. The French woman is wearing her white coat, even on a rainy day. There’s a sense of indulgence. Meanwhile, the New Yorker is a having a salad and complaining about how she can’t lose five pounds. I’ve always liked a blend of the two—looking casual and glamorous at the same time.

Were you ever approached by Hermès or any other brands?
Oh gosh, a million people before Céline approached me about doing things, but I never thought about designing anything I’d present anywhere other than New York. This is where I want to show! As a sportswear house with a luxury quality, Céline was more organic. There was also intrigue: “Wait a second: We can do Paris and New York? Let’s see what that’s like!”

You’re the king of polished American sportswear, but in your wildest fashion fantasies, would you ever consider helming, say, Dior?
It wouldn’t cross my mind. The most successful designers know themselves and understand what they’re good at. While I might have wild appreciation for that which is not my particular milieu, the last thing I’d do is be in a situation where ball gowns were part of the vocabulary.

How do you keep doing your best?
I haven’t forgotten how people feel when they buy something new. I also like living in the real world. Many designers don't! At the end of the day, I enjoy making things that people will actually wear. As much fun as a fashion show is—and it is!—the most exciting thing for me is seeing someone walking down the street and carrying one of our bags. The show is the cherry on the cake!


What’s the deal with your new Rockefeller Center outpost?
I grew up on Long Island, so the only cultural thing that happens out there is the shopping. But I had family that lived in Manhattan, and we were in the city all the time. Between the architecture, Christmas, and Saks across the street, everything about Rockefeller Center is iconic to me. I went every year when I was growing up, and to now open a store is truly a dream come true. It’s our largest lifestyle store in the world! We got to do things in the store space-wise that we didn’t get to do anywhere else. It has the combination of space and light—and in New York, that’s the combination of luxury. People keep their handbags in their ovens, and their shoes on a shelf in the bathroom! The lack of light and space in this city can drive everyone a little nuts; that’s why we all want to go to the beach! The new store is light, bright, and energetic. It’s very Michael Kors. I’m allowed to say that, I guess!

Your stores dapple this city. What’s your fave location?
The one on lower Fifth Avenue gets a lot of local people; the Bleecker street location is like a little jewelbox, and it’s tightly edited. Prince Street is a mob scene, and it’s always packed—it’s handbag central. And now with Rockefeller Center, it’s like this quintessential Midtown New York experience. The store on 61st Street and Madison is the Upper East Sider’s go-to. Then, if you head to Southampton, we’ll have a $1,500 sweater next to a bikini, next to a jelly, next to a totebag.

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