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NEW YORK — Longtime friends Michael Kors and Aerin Lauder sat down with Alina Cho Thursday night to talk about easy American style, Charles James and authentic brand building.
This story first appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
About 75 guests listened in at the Friends of The Costume Institute event, which was held at Lauder’s Upper East Side townhouse. The Aerin Lauder brand, along with Condé Nast, will sponsor the upcoming Charles James exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Asked how he and Lauder first connected, Kors recalled spotting a photograph of her wearing one of his camel double-faced T-shirt dresses in The New York Times Magazine years ago and using it for one of his mood boards. “I said, ‘OK, this girl is inspiring for me and I have a feeling our paths are definitely going to cross.’”
Lauder described meeting Kors for the first time at Seventh on Sale in Washington, where Princess Diana was among the guests. “I just absolutely fell in love with Michael immediately. I think it was a cocktail party, dinner and then shopping,” she said.
“And we like to shop, we like a cocktail; we like camel.” Kors said.
On a more serious note, Kors described how the pace of everyday life has affected American designers’ place in the ever-shifting global marketplace. “The borders of the world of fashion have fallen. If New Yorkers were the first people who lived a very fast life, well, now life is fast today even if you live in Pocatello, Idaho. You could live in a small town in South Africa and everyone is plugged in. Everyone is traveling even if they’re not physically traveling. They’re on the Internet. They know what’s happening. They live a fast life,” he said. “The idea that American fashion is only sporty or English fashion is quirky, or French fashion is elegant and the Japanese are avant-garde — all that’s flown out the window and we’re all kind of living a similar life. But we invented style for a quick life.”
Noting how he typically does 40 global interviews at his runway shows, Kors said, “It certainly helps to be able to express yourself, express what the collection is about, be able to talk to people. In today’s world, there is a camera everywhere. For a designer who doesn’t have business skills or people skills, well, you’d better latch on to a partner who does.”
The designer continued, “What do you need to survive in the fashion world? You need it all. You need ideas, creativity, empathy, drama, drive, endurance, sense of humor, personality — looks don’t hurt — I mean, it’s all part of the fashion world. And you want to have endurance to last a long time. Aerin grew up in a legacy business, and I know that’s how she thinks also.”
Kors and Lauder also spoke of their interest in James. After Cho showed the crowd the elegant pastel-color Cecil Beaton photo that The Costume Institute is using to promote the May opening, Lauder said she has kept that photograph in her dressing room since her parents gave it to her for a birthday. “It was a beautiful moment in time, and that’s very much the inspiration for the show,” she said. “It was really a very interesting moment in time because it was American couture, fashion and feminine.”
Cho reminded the audience that even though James dressed luminaries like Millicent Rogers, Austine Hearst, Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley and Elsa Peretti, he died alone and penniless at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978. He was also known to turn down clients for being too fat and speak his mind, she said. The latter was something Kors experienced firsthand, during his Fashion Institute of Technology days in the late Seventies. “I had a friend who was interning, basically trying to organize Charles James’ life, while he was living this squalid life at the Chelsea Hotel. My friend said, ‘He’s done all this work for Halston and he keeps screaming that Halston didn’t pay him. And that’s why he is doing so terribly financially,’” Kors said. “I thought, ‘Wow, he worked for Halston so he has to be making patterns for Halston.’
“As soon as we walked in, the place was in shambles. He had this anger about him that’s so sad when someone so creative has not been acknowledged for his worth. He had all his clippings and they were yellowed. He kept saying, ‘No one realizes the Seventies wouldn’t have happened without me,’” Kors said. “I think a lot of the clothes you saw in the Seventies were soft versions of his clothes, so he was right. But he wasn’t well; he had no money, and the anger was something that I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of anger. I was 18 years old and the world was fresh as my oyster. And here he was looking at things the other way.”
Fast-forward to Kors’ current billionaire status and the designer said he is still the same person. “The worst thing you can do in life is to say, ‘Well, I’m here,’ because then guess what — you’ve lost your curiosity and you’re not ready to keep experimenting and trying new things. So I looked at the paper that day and said, ‘That’s great,’ and I went to a fitting.”