PHILADELPHIA — On the eve of Michael Kors Holdings Ltd.’s estimated $1.18 billion secondary offering, Kors chairman and chief executive officer John Idol spent the night in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, giving the keynote speech at the sixth annual Penn Fashion Week — a week-long event featuring panel discussions by industry leaders, runway shows and lectures.

This story first appeared in the March 29, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

One night earlier, exiting Jimmy Choo ceo Joshua Schulman held the podium at the opening night celebration.

A night with Idol had the campus abuzz, as the line of students clamoring for a ticket to the lecture wound sinuously around the Baker Retailing Center. Three hundred Wharton students made it into the presentation, dubbed “Fashion Startup to Global Luxury Brand.”

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“We’re really eager to hear about the business side of fashion, not just the creative side, and that’s something that Mr. Idol can uniquely give us insight into,” said Daniel Ortiz, a Wharton marketing sophomore who helped organize fashion week.

Idol returned the accolades and said, “To be a keynote speaker at Wharton is probably the biggest honor in my professional career. To be invited to speak at the best business school in the world is a pretty amazing achievement and I’m honored.”

After starting off his presentation by lightheartedly professing, “Maybe I’ll even convince you to forget about finance and the Wall Street world and get you to enter the fashion industry,” Idol delved into the success of Michael Kors. He outlined a time line of the company’s rise in the market, noting how after he and partners Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll bought Kors in 2003, they turned it from a bankrupt company into one that recently completed the largest retail initial public offering in U.S. history with a $1.2 billion value. “We set out to build a billion-dollar business — and did it,” said Idol. “Others can say that they want to build the same. Not many actually get there.”

Idol credited the brand’s success to its three-pronged combination of brand strategy (“We’re all about jet-set luxury”), retail strategy (“I had people whispering ‘John Idol’s a whore, he’s ruining this brand’”) and marketing campaigns (“a beautiful girl’s always equipped with a beautiful guy”). He also credited Kors’ ability to mix high-end luxury items with accessible everyday pieces in one location without losing credence with either demographic as a differentiator from his competitors — of which Coach was mentioned numerous times.

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, one student asked if having a brand so closely identified with a single person is an asset or liability, Idol chuckled, retorting, “Have you seen Michael? He’s a real human being, he’s a personality. He’s an asset.” Another student questioned whether Idol was growing the company too quickly, to which the ceo replied, “You sound like a true investor.”

Idol ended the lecture with one piece of advice to budding future ceos: “Stay focused and keep that entrepreneurial spirit. If you don’t wake up every day determined to make a difference, you won’t be successful.”

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