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NEW YORK — Michael Kors may have attained multimillionaire status, but Wednesday night at 92Y the designer was more eager to dish about how a kid from Long Island wound up with a global business worth billions.
Whether clueing the crowd into how he changed his name from Karl Anderson Jr. after his mother remarried or how, at the age of 11, he opened The Iron Butterfly Boutique in the basement of his family’s house, the designer didn’t sugarcoat any of the nitty-gritty. And the audience laughed as if his 90-minute Q&A with Fern Mallis was a stand-up act. In his 31st year in business, Kors had plenty of material — including setting up a Madame Paulette-type laundry service at camp, dropping out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, meeting Yves Saint Laurent when he was 20, interviewing Elizabeth Taylor in her purple crystal-adorned living room and why an ideal day calls for dinner at home with his husband Lance LePere, “Mad Men” and the couple’s two cats.
This story first appeared in the June 8, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At the helm of a company that employs nearly 3,000 people, Kors shared many tales (embarrassing as some may have been) to give listeners a better handle on how he built his company. Asked about the likelihood of him ever heading up the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the 52-year-old designer said, “Because I have so much free time.”
Busy as he is, Kors will be back as a “Project Runway” judge for the show’s 10th season — “We’re filming in Times Square of all places.” Regardless of where one might find him, he wants his clothes to speak for themselves. Kors said, “Hopefully, with whatever I do, when people put it on, they feel great. That’s what it’s all about.”
Here are some of the highlights.
Deciding on His Bar Mitzvah’s Decor
Every decade has its good points and its bad points. The Seventies — the good point was Halston. The bad point was mustard and chocolate as an entire color scheme down to the invitations, the yarmulkes, the matches. It was a pretty insane moment. It was in June and I wanted to do a summer, casual party. I really wanted a lobster bake but that didn’t go over too well. My mother’s family came in evening gowns, my father’s family came in madras shorts, and it was the height of the hippie era so we had men in caftans and women in furs. I think the party was the signal that the marriage wasn’t working.
Redesigning His Mother’s Wedding Dress
Everything was going smoothly. She brought me to her first fitting for the dress. I was kind of her partner in crime for everything. I sat there and my mom tried the dress on and it was covered with a zillion bows. My grandmother said, “That’s magnificent. What a beautiful dress.” I kind of sat in a corner and was like, “It’s not so great.” My mother said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I think it’s really busy. It’s too much.” My grandmother said, “Oh, he’s five. Don’t listen to him. It’s perfect. It’s Priscilla of Boston. How could you go wrong?” The tailor came in and my mother told him to trim the bows off the bodice. My mom said, “I think he’s got something. Take them all off.” My grandmother was like, “Whoa, there’s been a power shift here.”
Auditioning for Commercials as a Child
My mom was modeling at the same time. We would come into New York City together. My mother would actually put me in a taxi with a slip of paper with the address of where my go-see was and I would go meet my agent. I was five or six. Today that would be on the front page of the Post — “Child Abuser.” I remember one go-see where there was this army of blonde six-year-old boys. I was with my agent. My mom walked in and said, “This is a cattle call.” Like my son is not doing cattle calls, and we quickly turned on our heels and left. I think my family was just honestly happy to see me doing whatever I loved.
Opening The Iron Butterfly Boutique
I don’t know this word except for Martha’s Stewart’s vernacular, but I was pretty crafty. I made fabulous candles, whipstitch leather bags, hammered copper bracelets. A girl up the street knew how to crochet and we made snoods. I think my mother thought I was insane but she said OK. I set the whole thing up in our basement, I invited all the kids from the neighborhood to come over and we sold everything in a week. Oh the rush, the rush, the rush. First of all, I have been a shopper my whole life, the rustle of the tissue [paper], the bag, the whole experience, it was just —ooohhhhh!!! By the age of 12, I had to save every shopping bag and that Bergdorf bag!
The Path Not Taken
I went to acting classes for a while as a teenager, Edward Bergdorf’s Studio on Bank Street. It was a little shocking when you get there and realize, “I can’t sing and I definitely can’t dance.” No, gay men are not all good dancers. As comfortable as I am being in the public eye, I realized I didn’t belong being an actor.
My mom started asking when I was seven. She said, “Now, you know you can tell me anything.” I’m sitting in my room sketching endlessly all day long. I kind of knew by the time I was 10 or 11 that certainly I was different but I grew up in a family where different was applauded.
Growing Up in a Fashion-Obsessed Family
My grandmother was this strange dichotomy. She grew up at a time when women really weren’t going to college but she went to NYU. She wanted to be a lawyer but her parents said no to law school. She wound up being a high school principal but one whose proudest thing to say was, “I never repeat an outfit.” She would stop on her way home from work, run into Loehmann’s back room and scan the racks for the remnants of a Bill Blass label.
Working at Lothar’s on West 57th Street
Tie-dye jeans for $200. That was a lot. It was The Gap for the Guinnesses. Think about this. Everyone else had the part-time college job and I’m taking Jackie O’s boots off. It was the first time I realized affluent people could be thrifty. I think she had some old hose on. [Rudolf] Nureyev would leave the curtain open in the dressing room purposely. It was an incredible education. Celebrities were certainly exciting but I also got to see how the affluent dressed.
Suiting Up for Studio 54
When I was young, I was truly an insane fashion freak. I went to Studio 54 the first time instead of going to my senior prom. I wrapped a girlfriend of mine in hot pink gauze, a strapless pareo, a harem pant and put a flower behind the ear. I was wearing a piece of raw silk jersey wrapped into a diaper pant, a Panama hat, a burlap jacket and I took three luggage straps wrapped them around my waist and my thigh. We got to the door of Studio 54 and they were like, “These kids are fabulous.” They didn’t realize that we were going to get in a car and drive back to Long Island when we left.
Meeting Vera Wang at Lothar’s
She started trying on clothes and putting all these things together, and I thought, Oh my god, this is so exciting. And then she said, “Do you want to go with me to the Met to the Costume Institute?” I thought, What? Sure, I’d love to go. I think I was 20. Vera wore a Michael Kors for Lothar’s charmeuse slip with a leather down vest, a mohair sweater tied around her waist. We were definitely doing creative black tie and in we went. It was the year of the Saint Laurent exhibit and I got to meet him. I almost levitated. Then the party was in December and it started snowing outside while we were in The Temple of Dendur. Suddenly, the room got very quiet and we wondered why. Then we found out John Lennon had been killed. It was just a roller coaster from Saint Laurent to Lennon.
Interviewing with Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio at Anne Klein
I feverishly put together a book. It was a little crazy. It was the Seventies. It was Christopher Street women. Everything was leather for a summer collection. Donna asked me where I went to school. I said, “I went to FIT. I dropped out and I’m selling clothes on 57th Street.” She said, “You’re really talented but don’t you want to go back to school?” I told her I was ready to roll. She said, “Don’t you want to go back to school?” I looked at her and said, “You dropped out.” and she was like, “OK, touché.” They wanted me to work in the licensing area but I wanted to work on the collection, so it wasn’t meant to be.
Lining Up Trunk Shows
I didn’t know what a trunk show even was but I kept reading that people like Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta had them so I asked Dawn [Mello] for one. She was thrilled. The reality was I knew a lot of New York women from Lothar’s so I called them. And at 21 years of age, we sold everything and everyone at Bergdorf’s was blown away. When I started out, there wasn’t that glare of the spotlight there is today. You could learn your craft and slowly grow. I waited three years to have my own fashion show. It was all about making the clothes not only fit beautifully, but the quality had to be great. You had to ship them on time. I had a pragmatic side.
On Using Well-Known Models
Even before I had a show, we had Iman doing our Women’s Wear Daily photo shoot. I have always thought whatever I do, the best thing that I do is to frame a person so it’s the woman or the man who brings it to life. From Day One, we had great girls. I remember the first show that we did was in a gallery downtown and I didn’t like the art on the wall. I tried to tell the gallery owner that they had to take down the art and they said no. I said, “Well, can I have white walls instead of green walls?” So we took all the art down and painted the whole place white not realizing that people would then be asphyxiated sitting at the show. My WWD review read, “In a gallery reeking of fresh paint…”
Declaring Bankruptcy in 1993
The strange thing was everything was going gangbusters in 1993. Then the next thing I knew the company we licensed Kors to went bankrupt and of course I didn’t realize, they go bankrupt and you’re in on the game. We never stopped showing, we never stopped shipping. I realized at that point more than ever what people appreciated was me being true to myself and doing what you do well. At first, you feel like you are on ground that is moving. You think, “Maybe I have to change my direction or make more incredible evening clothes.” But then I realized, “No. Stay true to yourself.”
Designing for Celine
Let’s be honest: I always wanted to do what I do, but the last thing you ever thought growing up in Merrick, Long Island, was that you were not only going to have a fashion show in New York but you were going to have a second fashion show in Paris at the Louvre and you were going to be showing to, in my mind, a bunch of very grand women all dressed and polished. Here, I was in jeans and sneakers, all casual. It was an interesting time because Marc [Jacobs] got Louis Vuitton and Narciso [Rodriguez] got to Cerruti. A lot of people in Paris thought it was the invasion of the Americans. What I realized was as soon as I got there the world was changing and the fact was the world was global. It didn’t matter where you lived. Life was fast. Sportswear and clothes that you could actually live in made sense.
Becoming Celine’s Creative Director and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Buying a 33 Percent Stake in the Michael Kors Business
The Concorde made it doable but I was still fried — off the plane and onto a meeting. Certainly with a behemoth company like LVMH, suddenly people said, “Wait a minute. Michael Kors isn’t just an American brand. It’s global.” For the first time, I got to see the power of accessories, how you might be having a bad day, your hair doesn’t look great or you had too much to drink last night, but a handbag works no matter what. That’s the reality. I really got to see that and if I stayed in New York I would not have gotten the chance to see that.
Spending Three Hours Total with Bernard Arnault (including the two Celine shows the LVMH titan attended)
Now I know for myself when you’re doing a zillion things, you have to be a juggler. I was probably so busy I didn’t even think about it.
The Celebrity Factor
If I do my job right, when you get dressed in something I’ve designed, it helps to boost your confidence. A lot of people say, “Well, if I was a celebrity, I would always be confident.” But let’s be honest: If you’ve got the cameras on you, it’s worse. For some reason, I’ve seen women at vulnerable moments go for Michael Kors. Jennifer Lopez, two days after she broke up with Ben Affleck, hit the red carpet in Michael Kors. Jennifer Garner has her first child, 10 days later she’s presenting at the Academy Awards, Michael Kors. I think it’s a confidence boost perhaps. Debra Messing told me after the first time we dressed her for “Will & Grace,” “I loved how I look and the plus was I could actually move in this thing.”
Having Derek Lam, Lazaro Hernandez and Peter Som Help Out in the Design Studio
Unless you want to make one dress and spend 11 years doing it like Charles James — he spent 12 years making a dress — in order to do such great work, you need an amazing team. To see all the new talent that comes up, that’s what keeps fashion fresh and alive.
The Modus Operandi for Men’s Wear
Considering that I did one of the worst things in my design career — hopefully for me — we made bodysuits for men. I thought why not take your wide-leg briefs, attach them to your shirt and they will stay tucked in. I thought it was very smart. Now, of course, snaps on the male anatomy are not a good thing. But I learned as a men’s designer it can’t be just about me. I might love a camel coat but not every guy loves a camel coat. There’s this rule that I have when I design men’s clothes — I wouldn’t wear it all and I couldn’t wear it all but I have to want to wear it all.
His Wedding Day Last Year
We’re probably the only people who got married on the beach, jumped in a Jeep, went to East Hampton, had pizza at Sam’s and went to see “The Help.”
Having the Biggest IPO for a U.S. Fashion Company
It beat my bar mitzvah. Although as I was just about to ring the bell [at the New York Stock Exchange], I looked down and saw my mother say, “Straighten your tie.” I love what I do. I certainly never planned on Paris or ringing that bell. If you keep your eye on the ball, you do what you do and you do it well.
I truly believe that my legacy will be that you can have it all. You can be glamorous and sexy and feel comfortable in your own skin.