KORS, OF COURSE
Byline: Holly Haber
Michael Kors was guest of honor here last month, in more ways than one. The designer was hosted by Neiman Marcus at the retailer’s annual Crystal Charity Ball luncheon — which, of course, featured a runway show of his designs for Celine.
Kors also was the man of the hour the night before, when the charity hosted a cocktail party for its underwriters at the home of Michael and Dana French.
That’s not all. His Celine collection has been a stellar number for Neiman’s, which has had to strip inventory from its other stores to satisfy demand here. Chainwide, fall sales of Celine have almost tripled at Neiman’s, partly due to expanded distribution of the line to 15 stores this year.
The designer is no stranger to Texas. He knows the names and personal style of dozens of women in Dallas, to whom he’s been selling since his namesake collection was first picked up by Shelle Bagot at the Gazebo, almost 20 years ago.
At that time, the movie “Giant” constituted Kors’s entire portfolio of Texas imagery. To bone up, he began to visit Dallas regularly, usually appearing about once a year at The Gazebo. He found a market filled with women who had their own distinct sense of style, and often, subtlety was not the emphasis.
“I was totally taken aback by the sophistication and diversity of [Dallas] women,” Kors recalled much later. “Women grew up here with a tradition of loving clothes,” he mused. “They’re not afraid of admitting that they love clothes. In Boston, you practically have to go undercover before you admit that you love to get dressed.”
It was his longtime admirer Bagot, now managing Neiman’s flagship store here, that brought Kors back to Texas as the featured designer for the Crystal Charity Ball luncheon.
This time around, he said, Texas isn’t displaying as much of its notorious “bigger is better” style as in the past. “We’re seeing less differences from country to country and city to city, because everyone is getting information at the same time,” Kors reflected. “They’re traveling, reading and they’re logged on. Women [in different cities] wear the same clothes, they just wear them differently.
“As soon as we show something, they know what it looks like. They’ve turned into retailers. They might call London to get a certain bag. They’re pros; to a certain group of women, it’s like a job. They know the inventory of every store in the country. Stores and designers have to snap to attention. It’s raised the stakes.”
At one trunk show, Kors said, a consumer pulled out a notebook with style numbers and began ordering looks, indicating which models had worn the outfits in the debut runway show. She had done her homework, reviewing the collection on the Vogue.com Web site.
“Americans shop differently,” Kors observed. “We’re quick. In Europe, they still think it’s a leisurely thing. It’s like antiquing. They’re always looking. But America isn’t a culture of calm, relaxed people.”
Kors once watched as an obviously American woman bought chocolates at a Paris candy boutique, where each purchase was elaborately hand-wrapped. “She was standing there tapping her foot,” he said. “I could tell she was about to say, ‘Just give it to me.’ I wanted to say, ‘Take a breath.’ But I didn’t.”
Another modern condition is the conquest of climate, at least at the high fashion designer level, because wealthy women have the luxury of being able to follow the sun, or can stay inside if the local weather doesn’t suit their ensemble.
“Sometimes, the hottest cities sell the heaviest clothes — fur and cashmere — because the affluent never go outside,” Kors said. “Hong Kong was the lesson — it’s so hot and humid, but you see women wearing fur-trimmed suits to lunch. In Chicago, we don’t sell heavy clothing. When it’s cold, she’s out of town.”
The scenario is different with his bridge line, Kors, which is licensed to Onward Kashiyama. “We want to sell fall [to warmer climates], but not bulletproof tweed,” he said.
For spring, Kors plans to stir things up with some playful ideas for Celine and his signature collection.
“It’s all about mixing things — seasons, day/night, oversize and tight,” he said. “I don’t know if people sometimes are more clever than designers. They wear sandals in the fall and boots in the summer. Women wear clothes totally differently — one day they’re dressy and the next, it’s carpool. The customer is really savvy today, which makes it more fun. I’m happy when people get it.”
Asked when he started designing for Celine, he immediately shouted, “Lisa!” to summon his publicist. Reminded it was two years ago for fall of 1998, Kors was bemused. “Fashion years are like dog years.”
But they haven’t been dog days for Celine, which first started wholesaling its apparel to other stores after Kors came on board; before, it sold only through its own boutiques, except for the leather products.
Celine is now on a worldwide expansion mission for its own boutiques, currently counted at 106. The firm is looking for locations in Germany and the United Kingdom.
Fall bestsellers have been gold chain belts and chain-strap shoes, leather items, blouses and cashmere.
“Suits have returned — important, extravagant, dramatic suits. It’s another option, and they haven’t bought one in years,” Kors said.
For all this chatter about fashion, the designer is pretty low-key himself. His usual attire is a black Banana Republic T-shirt, Levi jeans and J.P. Tod loafers. He sometimes tops that off with a jacket made for him on Savile Row.
Said he, “I’m that cross between New York glitz and Puritan ethic.”
And he’s got other aspirations beyond making clothes: “I’d like to produce movies and theater, if I wanted to deal with the red tape,” Kors said. “I like small movies — tell me a story that seems commonplace.”