On a recent spring night, Michael Kors went to his old haunt Studio 54 to see “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a recent Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Lee Radziwill sat across the aisle from him, and as the lights dimmed, Barbra Streisand took her seat. Vanessa Williams, who stars in the show, was decked out in Kors. “I sound like Cindy Adams, but only in New York could this happen,” Kors recalls.
That the designer himself was right at the center of it should come as no surprise. Since launching into fashion almost three decades ago, Kors has become a central character on Seventh Avenue and beyond, and his telegenic turn as a judge on “Project Runway” has made him a national celebrity.
The recipient of this year’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award started his career at Lothar’s, where he designed a collection for the boutique and was discovered while merchandising its windows. “Dawn Mello was at Bergdorf’s at the time and literally tapped on the window and started talking to me,” Kors recalls. “She thought I was the display person, which I was, and she said, ‘Who designs these clothes?’ Six months later, I put together the first collection, gave her a call and said, ‘I am ready to roll.’”
Bergdorf Goodman picked up the collection, and before long, Kors was in business, delivering his goods to Bergdorf’s in his aunt’s Mercedes, and getting to know his customers at trunk shows. “I really knew nothing,” he now admits. “I had no idea how people shipped clothes and didn’t even know there was UPS. My seamstresses from Lothar’s were sewing in my apartment. I rented the sewing machines because it was cheaper than buying them, and I rolled them up Eighth Avenue myself to save on the delivery costs.”
His first runway show, in 1984, set the tone for the entire brand. “I had no money, but I never really thought that was a reason it shouldn’t be less than glamorous,” says Kors. “Iman, Diane Dewitt and every other major girl was in the show. I learned from Lothar’s that it was all about the woman. She made it come to life. Iman in a turtleneck and a pair of trousers is as dramatic as a ballgown.”
More recently, Kors, like no other, has been able to reach a wide range of customers — anyone from a 60-year-old Park Avenue matron to a twentysomething working girl or an 11-year-old mall rat. Today, he brings pieces from all three lines — Collection, Kors Michael Kors and Michael Michael Kors — under one roof in his lifestyle concept stores, which are slated to number 80 in North America before the end of the year. They underscore how his idea of the good life can extend to all tiers in fashion, and happily coexist.
“I still think that, in a fashion world that craves cool, I am very happy for things to look happy,” Kors says. “I am very happy for people to look affluent. When people say, ‘The economy turned — do you think you should look sad?’ I say, ‘No.’ Maybe you don’t want to look ridiculous or over the top, but I’ve always tempered my designs with something more casual and sportier.”
It’s a philosophy of which the rest of the world has taken note. “American designers sometimes feel like the stepchild to Europe, and meanwhile, you travel the world and people are wearing sportswear,” Kors says. “I don’t see a lot of people wearing ballgowns in any city. I couldn’t be happier and more proud to be referred to as all-American and a New Yorker.”