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Michael Kors Unplugged at Arts Club

Over the past 27 years, Michael Kors has weathered the pratfalls that go along with building a $500 million business, and he's not afraid to laugh about them.

Over the past 27 years, Michael Kors has weathered the pratfalls that go along with building a $500 million business, and he’s not afraid to laugh about them.

This story first appeared in the June 24, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Frank as ever, Kors regaled guests at a Fashion Workshop luncheon at the National Arts Club last week, by giving them a little insight to his “crazy history” and telling them how he “got into this racket.” The Five Towns native described coming to New York in the late Seventies and how seeing fashion director Ellin Saltzman and stylist Carrie Donovan in person wound up being more exciting than seeing Julia Roberts and George Clooney. These days he is more ramped up about a different kind of celebrity connection. “Jessica Simpson and Barbara Walters own the same [Michael Kors] dress. To me, that’s the greatest fact in the world that I am doing my job well,” he said.

The audience was rapt listening to his tales of working as a salesperson at Lothar’s, where he helped shoppers like Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Onassis shop, even pulling off the latter’s boots. Kors also described trekking his first collection to Vogue to show Vera Wang, during her fashion editor days. He also addressed fashion’s everchanging ways.

Kors recalled how after starting his business he waited two years before holding a fashion show to be sure he could make and ship his collections right on schedule. “Of course today when you’re 27, you win a lifetime achievement award and if you don’t, you are ticked off,” he said,

The designer joked about some of his own early missteps. “I made some regrettable clothes, like the bodysuit for men — I have one. Snaps on the crotch for men? I don’t think so.”

All too familiar with how all these seasons, namely resort and cruise, no longer consist of a swimsuit and a pair of pants women take to the Caribbean, Kors said he is thankful for one aspect. “The smartest thing is that they are not runway shows because then designers get to concentrate on the clothes women live in and wear every day,” he said.

But things could be worse. “I remember when we did summer, or Indian summer. What was that?” he said.

During a special shopping event with Citigroup staffers at his Madison Avenue store last week, Kors said he found himself simplifying things for them. When they were presented with a preview of resort, they were confused about what season they were looking at and said so. The designer said he told them, “You know what, clothes. You’re just looking at clothes.”

In fact, the designer said his Madison Avenue store has been an “amazing experiment,” allowing Kors to dabble in children’s wear and eveningwear, among other things. In total, the designer has 30 lifestyle stores, including two in Las Vegas. Kors described being in Sin City for the second store’s opening. “While everyone else was gambling, my idea of fun was watching people shop at midnight.”

The designer said he has told the staff in his stores, “You guys can look casual but you have got to wear something that sets you apart and makes you look amazing. If you’re wearing white jeans and a tank, maybe it’s a fabulous belt. They need to look cool and young and plugged in. Even in the real estate world, if she is in a T-shirt and jeans but she’s carrying a Birkin bag, you trust her.”

Conversely, Kors has given staffers in his stores advice about strangers’ appearances. “I have fully explained to my sales force, ‘Do not look at anyone and profile them because you have no idea. The chic maven still needs flip-flops and the girl in the overalls and tube top may be buying a serious handbag.”

In other words, the right accessories can make an outfit. Kors said he first discovered the wallop they can offer after going to Europe to work on the Celine collection and seeing so many women on the streets adorned with accessories. “Americans have always treated accessories as stepchildren. Suddenly, when I got to Europe, the place was inundated with them. I learned the same dress in Singapore in September is not the same dress in Paris or in the U.S. but the same bag is,” he said.

Looking overseas, Kors recognizes the potential of India and elsewhere in Asia but nothing is imminent. “There is so much unchartered elsewhere. We want to plant more Michael Kors stores in Europe. These Indian women love fashion and glamour. That will happen, but not next.”

In the U.S., “unlike any time before,” fashion has become a mother-daughter activity and TV and the Internet definitely don’t hurt that phenomenon. Kors said he typically does 60 post-show interviews with commentators from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Rio de Janeiro, which is a far cry from his first show in 1983, when CNN’s Elsa Klensch was the only TV reporter.

“Today the world is too quick. There is too much information spit at us in every direction. When I look back at what I was doing 10 years ago, I thought I was busy. And now when I think about what I do in the course of a day…really everything you do has to be better. It’s harder than ever to be a designer, but at the same time the consumer is getting a better quality product,” he said. “Unless you are curious, energetic and have ADD, stay away from being a designer because the customer wants it all.”