NEW YORK — The days of the double-duty fashion designer for hire may be numbered.
As Michael Kors prepared to present his 13th and final collection for Celine, after which he will leave the company and sever his last tie to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the designer said his experience in Paris has left him with several misgivings about installing star designers at marquee brands — and he believes the phenomenon has run its course.
“I feel like Carrie Bradshaw,” Kors said, referring to the “Sex and the City” character who left Paris in the series’ final episode. “I’m not sorry to leave Paris at all. I’ve done a great job, but it’s time to move on and do my own thing.”
Kors left little doubt that he was disillusioned by his dealings with the LVMH brass and their perception of Celine within its portfolio of brands. Although he said he benefited in many ways from the six-and-a-half-year association — and from LVMH’s investment in his signature company in New York — Kors likened his overall treatment at the hands of his employers to that of a well-behaved child living in a family of brats.
“Was I mistreated?” Kors said in an interview. “No. Was I neglected? Yes.
“I never felt as though there was a strategy at LVMH as far as pitting the designers against each other or the brands against each other,” Kors said. “It’s just that I never felt anyone was watching the smaller companies at all, but everybody was spending their time on the two first-born children — Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. In a way, if you’re a nice kid, no one pays attention to you. If you’re a bad kid, you get spoiled.”
As the designer discussed his decision to leave Celine, there was little emotional variance from his normally even-keeled temperament, which is also true of his behavior during his tenure at the house. Kors revived a dusty brand; he brought back its reputation for quality and luxury and introduced it to celebrity, establishing a place for Celine among the hierarchy of labels that could live a second life. But did anyone at LVMH notice? Looking back, Kors wondered if maybe that was because he never complained — not when LVMH installed a revolving door in the position of chief executive officer of Celine, through which turned Nan Legeai, Bernard Divisia, Yves Carcelle, Thierry Andretta and, finally, Jean-Marc Loubier, nor when LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault attended only two of Kors’ fashion shows for Celine. In his six-and-a-half years of working for LVMH, Kors estimated he spent a total of three hours in Arnault’s company, including the two shows and two “how do you dos” when he ran into Arnault at the Dior store in Paris.
“I’ve never been to a meal with him,” Kors said. “At the time, I didn’t realize that his not being there meant that Celine was not as important. It became apparent to me that Celine was not going to become the priority at LVMH, so why am I going to keep trying to make that happen?”
Several designers and business executives who have operated within the LVMH star system have described a constant battle for Arnault’s attention, as virtually any initiative related to their brands required his personal endorsement. Such hysterics have never been part of the Kors style, which champions understatement in design. Not that the designer doesn’t have his own brand of theatricality.
“I left for Paris with this image of ‘Funny Face’ in my head, and it was as if Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and I were all going together,” said Kors.
“When I first went to Celine, I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would design for a French house and be able to show in Paris,” he said. “The opportunity was so intriguing. At the time, people were talking about resuscitating all kinds of names and houses — I got calls from some of the craziest companies in New York. But everyone was talking about globalization as well, and I wanted to see global firsthand.”
Of the LVMH properties, Celine arguably had the lowest profile. Kors knew little about the label, which by the time he arrived in 1997 had grown into an international luxury goods brand with estimated sales of $165 million through its Paris stores, DFS counters throughout Asia and a handful of leased departments at Saks Fifth Avenue. By then, Celine was known primarily for its accessories (especially its fancy scarves) and classic French clothes — minidresses, lightweight tweed pantsuits and spare leather suits — but had nothing iconic. When Kors arrived in Paris, with only a few months to produce his first collection, there was not much direction, nor, when he looked down the Avenue Montaigne, were there any of the sophisticated madams marching their poodles he expected to see along the boulevard.
“No one told me what to do, or what not to do,” Kors said. So he did his best to modernize the image of the label, introducing his signature brand of ultra-tony sportswear, which at the time he described as “a luxe cross between Miss Hathaway and ‘Belle de Jour’” — chunky turtlenecks, slouchy gray pants and a $20,000 crocodile jacket. “That first show out was seat-of-your-pants luck,” Kors said. “It was also challenging to me from the beginning, as Celine had never been known as a ready-to-wear label. My challenge was to turn Celine into a ready-to-wear business, where we’re really selling clothes and not just T-shirts.”
Legeai, one of the few American executives running a French brand, had recruited Kors and was supportive of changing Celine’s strategy, but she left within a few months for personal reasons. Her departure set off a chain of successors, who never seemed to agree on what Celine’s mission should be: whether to propagate its image as an accessories house or develop Kors’ ready-to-wear into a real wholesale business.
“I’ve had to be incredibly flexible,” Kors said. “It was a different time when I got there, when I didn’t understand what Celine was about, like that it was predominantly an Asian business and that they had never wholesaled a collection before. I didn’t know what DFS in Asia looked like. They told me I had 40 Celine doors in Tokyo and it wasn’t for a while that I realized that meant 40 counters. But it has been the greatest learning experience, especially from the point of being able to see the world. I never would have known what was going on in Singapore, or that the European client is a different client than that in America. I learned what it was like to work with a bigger company and how that works, and that let me know what’s in store for me as I build my own company into a bigger business.”
Looking back, Kors said he was never made to feel unappreciated by Arnault, but a procession of circumstances led him to ultimately separate himself from the conglomerate. When he joined Celine, LVMH made an investment in his signature business as well, acquiring a one-third stake. That deal not only enabled him to improve the quality and distribution of his own collections and to open a store on Madison Avenue, but also to survive as a designer business during a rough period for independent brands. He couldn’t keep wearing both hats forever, though, and when the right opportunity came along — a deal with Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou in January 2003 — Kors was able to negotiate his exit from LVMH. Although financial details of the deal have never been made public, Stroll and Chou are believed to have paid in the neighborhood of $50 million to LVMH for its stake in Kors.
“Their ownership was a vote of confidence, but the reality was that LVMH was never going to be as aggressive in terms of building Michael Kors as they would with the brands they owned.”
Through their company, Sportswear Holdings Ltd., Stroll and Chou have made a significant investment in Michael Kors in a short period of time, building out a new showroom, launching a better-price collection and putting together a staff of seasoned fashion executives to turn the company into a megabrand, meaning that Kors’ decision to leave LVMH has resulted in the chance to attain everything he’s dreamed of in his career. Marc Jacobs, he pointed out, is in a different boat, having sold the majority of his signature brand to LVMH and thus needing its support to build his signature business while also designing for Louis Vuitton.
“The reality is that it’s a tough position to be in,” Kors said. “Marc is using the public forum in a way that LVMH often has in the past, mentioning the names of several people that they’re interested in to the press and then seeing who comes back. He’s giving them a taste of their own medicine. I think it’s helpful to everyone to clear the air.”
For his two cents, Kors had some advice for LVMH headhunters in terms of locating his own successor, shrugging off the names of possible candidates who have already been mentioned in the press, like Dan and Dean Caten of DSquared and Roland Mouret.
“I think the biggest thing to remember is that you really end up doing a disservice to a brand when you have a designer who cannot devote 24/7 to it,” Kors said. “I don’t know if it needs to be a box-office name. I would pick for them someone who could be the designer, full-time, who lived in Paris or is willing to move there, and that might not be someone who anyone has ever heard of. In retrospect, I don’t know I believe that any designer in the long term can have an enormously successful business of their own and at the same time work for another company. At some point, you have to make a decision because, otherwise, you’re competing with yourself. And it’s tough to compete with yourself.”