By  on November 2, 2010

Perhaps even more than his knack for one-liners and double-faced cashmere, Michael Kors prides himself on knowing his audience.

And a roomful of retailers was no exception Monday when Kors, the honorary chairman and principal designer of Michael Kors Inc., closed the afternoon’s program at the WWD CEO Apparel and Retail Summit. He opened with a short video that took the audience from his very brief acting career as an adorable towhead in a Lucky Charms commercial to dressing First Lady Michelle Obama, and offered much in the way of Kors’ pithy brand of humor (“You can fake black. You can’t fake camel”). But the speech that followed was tailor-made for business-minded store owners.

“I truly grew up in department stores,” said Kors. “Shopping was my after-school sport.…I believe this love that I have for the store experience also shows in my work. I treat my retail customers and partners like personal friends, and being connected to your customers is essential to sustaining and growing a business. If you can’t think about and visualize what they want next, what they’ll need next, guess what? You’ve lost the game.”

He continued, “I believe in the balance between consistency and change. I believe that repetition equals reputation. I believe that to have the love for your customer and understand who she is and what she wants to wear is essential. I meet my customers from all over. I’ve been able to talk to them and ask them how they live and what they think their needs are.”

He injected his speech with numerous personal anecdotes, including one about a trunk show at Neiman Marcus in Dallas years ago. “A very fashionable, great-looking woman came up and said, ‘All I do is carpool. But I don’t want to run around all day in sweats. And guess what? I’m not wearing a ballgown to a soccer game,’ ” he said. “We started talking, and her needs were what I ended up calling Carpool Couture.”

As in politics, fashion is local. Kors’ prime example: Florida, where he practically has an honorary Ph.D. in anthropology. “Retailers think, ‘Florida. It’s hot. They want color,’ ” said the designer. “Well, if you travel to Florida in the month of December, it’s 65 degrees, and anyone who lives there is wearing a leather jacket and a cashmere sweater. The only people wearing white linen pants in Florida in December are the Northerners visiting their family or vacationing who are pretending it’s summer.”

Kors even broke down the local subcultures. “In Palm Beach, they’re all about color and looking polished. And god forbid you’re caught in head-to-toe black. Travel 45 minutes south to Boca Raton, where it’s all about the little black dress and a pop of red. Go another 45 minutes south and you’re in Bal Harbour, and it’s all about urban hot leather. Things get sexier and — guess what — the black gets paired with white. Then you have Naples on the west coast, where the majority of people are vacationing from the Midwest. For them it’s a balance of glamour and practicality. Maybe in Naples it’s a beaded pant with a sweater as opposed to a ballgown in Palm Beach.”

As Kors expands his own store network, he was asked if there were any product categories he would like to enter. He stressed a brand has to be authentic or else consumers can sense a fake — which is why he won’t be doing hosiery anytime soon, “since I’m still being blamed for putting women in bare legs and basically killing the hosiery business.” Having said that, Kors added he is interested in the whole travel market — not hotel suites, but more like airport lounges, airplanes and the clothes that go with the experience.

As he recalled his career, the designer was asked if there was any one takeaway he remembers from the seven-and-a-half years he designed Celine in Paris. The main one, he said, was that the world is a big place — and “being international is more than selling Harvey Nichols in London and Isetan in Tokyo. That’s what I took away from LVMH University.”

The audience was also of course interested in Kors’ experience with “Project Runway,” and how it has impacted his business. “The one thing that’s happened with ‘Runway’ is we truly never thought we’d have 12-year-old clients,” said Kors. “I thought we had a young customer when she was 20. Suddenly, you see girls coming in the store with their mother, but the reality is they are looking for that piece of Michael Kors, and the piece of the dream.”

One caveat, though: Kors said 12-year-olds today “are wearing sheath dresses and slingbacks.”

Speaking of “Project Runway,” Kors’ job there is to advise young designers. So what is his off-camera, reality-based advice for those new on the scene?

“Unfortunately, it’s easy to get noticed for anything today — bad, good or in-between. And I think everyone’s in a huge rush. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Slow down, start small and then expand.”

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