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WWDStyle issue 03/09/2011

He’s the most irrepressible man in the business. After 30 years, that in itself is an accomplishment. But then, Michael Kors loves fashion and style as much now as years ago when, as a star-struck Fashion Institute of Technology student, the sight of Calvin Klein at Studio 54 made him “long for my own banquette there” (a goal he never achieved). Or even earlier, when desire for a Cartier tank watch led his 16-year-old self to hunker down for serious savings (mission eventually accomplished). Today, what gets Kors’ heart racing is the sight of women wearing his clothes. “I love the models, but I really love seeing the clothes on the norms,” as he calls his dedicated clientele, when not referring to them as “opinionated broads.”

Kors, too, is opinionated, in a manner that swings invariably toward the sunny side of a proposal, so much so that, in this highly competitive, difficult business, he inspires genuine, near-universal affection. But then, how can you not have a soft spot for a guy, who, on a walk-through of his new, exquisitely appointed 7,000-square-foot store on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, boasts that he also has a shop on Staten Island?

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD chatted with Kors on the eve of his divine 30th anniversary dinner at the official residence of Charles Rivkin, U.S. Ambassador to France, where cocktails were taken in grand, gilded rooms under the watchful gaze of a giant, young George Washington, and where the shrimp cocktail was served with sauce imported from Manhattan.

WWD: The store is beautiful. So chic, but friendly.
Michael Kors:
Why do people think that chic means you have no sense of humor? I think it’s the oddest thing. And I think it’s the same thing in a space. Either you walk into most retail stores and it’s so quirky that you can’t see the product. Or you go the other way around and it’s like a Zen temple, and it has no sense of humor and it also has no sense of comfort. Here, people hang out. At the end of the day, if I think the best clothes are the frame for the woman, the best store is the frame for the clothes.

WWD: It’s been quite awhile since you left Celine. Do you miss working in Paris?
I don’t miss doing two shows. Do I miss spending more time here? I love spending time here. Paris truly is the crossroads of fashion. Fashion is still the national sport of France. In New York, when the shows are going on, you’re never going to hear a cabdriver say, “Oh, Michael Kors’ show just let out. They’re all going to Proenza.” In Paris, everyone knows everything. You can get into a dissertation with a waiter, who will say, “The Rykiel anniversary was fabulous.” It’s just part of life here. So, of course, for a designer, to be in a place where people love fashion that much and they’re not shocked by it or depressed by it, that I miss. But doing two shows every season, I do not miss.

WWD: You’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Michael Kors with a dinner at Ambassador Rivkin’s residence, and in New York, you chose a party at The Carlyle. You’re so good at being you. You didn’t want to go to the Top of The Standard.
I think the greatest thing about being around for more than a nanosecond is really knowing yourself, knowing what makes you tick as a person, as a designer. I always joke, when I started having fashion shows in the Eighties, we all put our name up on the back wall.

WWD: That was the branding.
That was the branding, and now, very few people do it. And, quite honestly, you shouldn’t have to put the name up. You should get the vibe of [the designer], which doesn’t mean it has to be the same show every time. Same thing with a store: You should walk in and get the flavor and attitude of the designer. No matter how big we are, to me, it’s still personal.…To cut through the noise, you have to be honest. When we decided to have this dinner in Paris, I said, “I was kind of the American in Paris while I was here.” I was eating a cheeseburger at Joe Allen but totally enraptured in Paris. And what could be more personal and more along the lines of that combination than to have dinner at the ambassador’s residence?

WWD: All about authenticity.
If you’re authentic, people do trust you. You have to be authentic, but at the same time surprise them, throw them a curveball. And you know, the customers throw us a curveball, too. My customer’s not someone who usually loves long, but this spring, she bought it. “She will never, ever” — yes she will. So you always have to, within your framework of what’s authentic, still try new things.

WWD: You’ve seen a lot in 30 years. What are the biggest changes and what’s the same?
Number one, when I started, truly what we thought was global was selling one department store in London and maybe having a Japanese licensee. And what we thought was variation was designing clothes for a specific American city. Like how women in Chicago love gray. We need lots of color for Dallas! There were all these specifics, even within America, of how she dressed and what was appropriate. And also, what was appropriate for an age group. “That’s for clients in their 20s,” and “No one will go sleeveless if they’re over 35.” Even fabrics, the rules were so strict. Everyone was like, “You can’t have wool for spring. No way. Sandals? In the fall? Are you nuts?” And day for night, night for day? Nonexistent. My first Women’s Wear Daily show cover was “Day for Night,” and it was a gray flannel trouser with a gold lamé bathrobe, and a black cashmere robe thrown over it.

WWD: What year?
Probably ’84. At the time, you would say to a customer, “You could wear this during the day or at night.” And they would say, “You should wear something metallic during the day?” Now, I joke that we have women who work for me who wear cocktail dresses to the office. I have 70-year-old clients who wear bare clothes. And the democratization is so different. It used to be, if you had great taste, you were rich. Or you were a student. Now we have customers in their early 20s starting out in the workforce, and they’ve got a great eye and a great taste, and we make product for them that is sophisticated and attainable. The rules have just diminished. The age thing has changed certainly. I think the word “appropriate” has flown out the window. It’s very personal what appropriate means.

WWD: A lot of changes.
All of that has changed tremendously. Also, when we see something that’s successful, it’s as successful in New Orleans as it is in Paris, as it is in New York, as it is in Toronto, as it is in Asia. It doesn’t matter. She gets her information. I joke that it’s like the Internet has turned into the fashion TomTom. She’s sending smoke signals out: pleated skirt; Michael Kors; long; pull-on; got to have it. And somehow every woman knows. What hasn’t changed, well, I think women are more paranoid than ever about their bodies, aging. It’s gotten more extreme. So what hasn’t changed, it doesn’t matter how divine something is, if she puts it on and she looks in the mirror, particularly a three-way mirror, and she thinks it makes her look bigger or shorter or older, that has not changed at all.

WWD: How has the opening up of what we used to call the emerging markets impacted your perspective?
For anyone in the fashion business, nothing’s more thrilling than people who are thrilled by fashion. For instance, I was a fashion-crazed teenager, and a lot of times you think that’s only the province of youth. But what it is, is the province of newness. You’re excited by something new, and in the emerging market, you have the curiosity and the excitement level that you might not have in an established market. And quite honestly, in today’s world, the taste level and the sophistication speed up really quickly so that suddenly you can say, “Wait a second. Ten years ago, she was wearing drab clothes that had no sex appeal, no glamour, and suddenly she understands all of that.” Or go the other way around. For example, you could look at Russia and say, “Fifteen years ago, the Russian consumer only wanted it glamorous and over the top.” Now, we sell a lot of laid-back and sporty clothes.

WWD: Your first design experience was, famously, for Lothar’s, when you were at FIT. What were your career expectations at the time?
Listen, I’m competitive, I’m definitely tenacious, so I don’t get into any game unless I think I can win the game. And when I decide on something, I’m in it for the long haul. So I certainly thought about a long career in fashion. Did I ever think that I would be sitting in Paris opening a store, a Michael Kors store, in Paris? Quite frankly, back when I started — I’m trying to think — what designer had their own stores back then?

WWD: Saint Laurent, certainly.
Saint Laurent and Courrèges, yes. They were the only two freestanding designer stores, and certainly as an American designer, you were like, “Well, maybe I’ll have a corner in a department store, and that will be great.” Also, I never thought, quite frankly, I’d be considered the establishment because I’m so casual. My idea of a design meeting is to throw a box of pizza on the floor and tell everyone to sit down, and let’s look at some swatches on the floor. You know, when somebody calls me Mr. Kors, I look over my shoulder and say, “My father’s not here.” And I think in today’s world, you’re iconic. I see it in Hollywood, too, it’s everywhere. When I think iconic, Kirk Douglas, that’s iconic. So when I actually read something that says, “iconic American designer…”

WWD: But you are now.
I still think I’m a kid. I’m still in flip-flops. And still, what I think is the most exciting thing when you keep going, I love when we consistently find not only new places to do business, but new women and new ages and new types, because they surprise me, and I like the surprise.

WWD: Starting out, did you have any idea how hard this business would be?
What’s funny, what I think is shocking now, I learn a lot of things from doing “Project Runway,” because now I actually sit and watch fashion shows. I remember my first few shows, you know they were small shows, I had no money, it wasn’t like today, where you can have your first show and you’re heralded overnight. I remember thinking I would be. I remember thinking there would be reams of pages [of press coverage] and all of this, and people cheering. I thought it would be like “Mahogany,” and I was Diana Ross, and they’d be throwing flowers. Now I look back and I watch those first shows, and I’m actually very grateful for all that time to learn without such a glare on me. I’m grateful. Thank god, quite frankly. I would not want to be 21 today, starting. No way.

WWD: Do you have any advice?
Be ready to have a show. There’s more to it than just putting on a great show. Can you, in fact, produce the clothes? Do they fit? Can you ship them on time? Are they appropriate for the price? And also, do you answer a question that’s not being answered? Because if you’re not answering a question that’s not being answered, you’ll be a blip on the screen.

WWD: What question did you answer, do you try to continue to answer?
From the very beginning, I was convinced that you could be sexy and sporty at the same time. [Then] everything that was sporty was too sporty, too casual, and everything that was sexy was such a bombshell. I have always been intrigued by a sexy tomboy. That’s my ethos. No matter what, that’s going to be my ethos.

WWD: Talk about the role of celebrity, both the designer as celebrity and how the race to get clothes on celebrities, how it’s changed fashion and if you think it’s all for the good.
I grew up thinking that designers were celebrities because for me, they were. I went to the Perry Ellis trunk show at Bloomingdale’s when I was 17. I remember seeing Calvin at Studio 54, and Halston. That’s what I wanted: my own banquette at Studio 54, just like Calvin.

WWD: Your heart stopped.
Last night we had dinner at Caviar Kaspia and I remembered that not that long ago I saw Saint Laurent walking in with his dog to eat lunch, and I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “Oh, my God, Saint Laurent’s eating lunch!” But I think fashion celebrity used to be only for fashionistas. I was a fashionista. Now, I think that designers have entered the realm of pop culture, not just because of television like “Project Runway”; I think the Internet has certainly done that. I think that because fashion’s more democratic, people actually feel that there’s something in it for them so maybe they should be curious.

WWD: This has been an unusual and sad week in Paris. Do you think that there’s more psychological stress on designers today than ever before?
No question. When we first started coming to Paris to do Celine, even before that, when I wasn’t doing Celine, I was like, “I’m exhausted, I’m so busy.” And then I came to Paris, we didn’t even have pre-fall then, but we always had resort so we were suddenly at six [collections] a year. And I thought, “Oh, my God, this is insane.” I stopped doing Paris, and you can say to yourself, “Oh, a breeze.” Well, suddenly we have pre-fall, and then I started doing Michael, where we ship every month. Then, three shoe collections, two handbag collections, men’s. I mean, I forget what season I’m in sometimes.…I think every designer in today’s world, I don’t care whether you’re a designer who makes clothes that are phantasmagorical or very pragmatic, you have to figure out something that can ground you and bring you back. Whatever it is, if you go to the gym too much or you travel too much, you’ve got to have time to escape.

WWD: Other than writing for television, it’s the only commercial discipline that requires creativity on demand on a regimented schedule.
I always tell everyone the crazy conversation I’ve had forever with actors, if they do two films in a row, and they’ve lived these characters and they’re on the set away from their friends and family, but then they take a year off. What are designers supposed to say? “I’m tired. I’m not doing fall. Wear last year’s clothes, and maybe get some new nail polish.” It’s endless.

WWD: You have had ups and downs over the years, and you have all outward signs of not getting despondent.
When we were in Chapter 11 in the early Nineties, I had been at it for over a decade, which I thought was a really long time. Now I’m like, “I was a neophyte.” But at the time, I kept thinking if something really does happen, will I cease being me? Oh, my God, I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve killed myself, and if this doesn’t work out and we can’t manage to get ourselves out of this situation, will I have any identity as a person? Is all my identity tied up in being Michael Kors?”

I finally realized that if I had to go back to square one, that if I was just honest and authentic, it would work. It’s what works. You have to know yourself. Also, you know what? If you think you’ve made it, you’re done for. The question I hate the most is, “When did you know you’d made it?” If you think, I’ve arrived, and I’m on the throne, guess what? Those people carrying the throne are going to drop it.

WWD: Done for? Not you. Your client range just keeps expanding.
This is the greatest thing. Mary J. [Blige] singing at the dinner. It’s the trifecta, and it’s very Michael Kors because it’s such a weird, eclectic mix. [In celebration of the 30th anniversary,] Bette Midler sang to me backstage after my show, Judy Collins sang to me that night, Mary J. sings to me in Paris. You say, “Wait a minute, what do these three women have in common?” Survivors.


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