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NEW YORK — After 23 years in the business, Michael Kors is finally living in the style to which his customer has become accustomed, and it’s a rich lifestyle indeed.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As the designer unveiled his latest project this week — ironically, it is a collection designed to bring the rarified, cashmere-lined world of Michael Kors to the masses — he did so in a new 60,000-square-foot showroom that underscores the not-so-subtle ambitions of Kors to become the next American megabrand. Make way, Donna, Calvin, Tommy and Ralph, for there is a new kingdom of camel-carpeted floors trimmed in walnut-stained wood and suede-panel walls framing a series of vitrines that would rival Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, each ringed in excruciatingly bright halogen halos that herald the introduction of “Michael.”

Since Michael Kors Inc. was sold to Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou one year ago today, the new owners have backed up their promise to build the company from a $100 million designer business into a $1 billion brand with a huge financial investment, culminating with the introduction of the better-priced collection called Michael Michael Kors. Stroll has described the scope of the launch as unprecedented, an assertion that would be difficult to challenge when considering the range of women’s wear, men’s wear, accessories, watches and footwear, all destined to debut in malls around the country at the same moment, roughly on Aug. 1. In the past year, the Kors staff has ballooned from 54 people to more than 160, requiring a move from 550 Seventh Avenue to the new corporate headquarters on the 20th and 21st floors of 11 West 42nd Street.

According to sources, Kors is paying roughly $2 million a year for rent, although the company was able to negotiate a favorable lease with incentives to build out the space, which now incorporates separate showrooms for each collection, as well as glass display cases of accessories, camel-leather chairs and couches, backlit images from the current Michael Kors ad campaign and blown-up Ron Galella photographs of house icons like Jackie Kennedy and Robert Redford.

“This looks the way I always dreamed it would,” the designer said. “In New York, space and light are the ultimate luxuries.”

Kors built his reputation by marketing the business of ultimate luxuries — of 10-ply cashmere turtlenecks, hand-beaded skirts and laser-cut leather jackets priced in the stratosphere — but he has always harbored a dream of making his aesthetic available to a broader base of customers. Thus, he is introducing the notion of “affordable luxury” with Michael by interpreting his signature design touches into less expensive fabrics, such as a cotton-and-silk blend in the place of cashmere, and a viscose, nylon and Lycra combination called “Korstretch,” which his company developed in Hong Kong, instead of the customary Tasmanian stretch wools. The zebra prints and heavy-handed doses of orange are the same.

Describing the collection, priced to fall at the high end of the better zone, Kors said there was no difference in the attitude between Michael and Michael Kors, only in price and the level of a customer’s “indulgence.” Whereas a basic cashmere turtleneck sweater in his signature line retails for more than $500, a ribbed orange turtleneck is included in Michael for only $149.

“It’s car-pool couture,” Kors said. “These are the most luxurious clothes for the customer who is not rich and the most not-grand clothes for the customer who is rich.”

He continued down this middle-of-the-road philosophy, noting he is of the belief that most American consumers are of a 35-year-old mind-set.

“There’s a 55-year-old customer who wants to be hip and a 20-year-old who wants to be sophisticated,” Kors said.

Similarly, he described how Michael could be seen as hip by a conservative customer or fairly conservative to someone who is trendy, which is why Kors believes Michael will appeal to several types of customers — the fanciest soccer mom in town, the hippest girl in the office or even his collection customer who’s looking for less precious clothes in which to knock around.

Michael is merchandised to reflect those lifestyles, rather than fulfilling a set number of jackets, pants or skirts in the traditional better scheme. Leather motocross jackets ($599), twill riding pants ($89), suede trenchcoats ($399), shearling vests ($199) and sleeveless cotton cable turtlenecks ($79) all reflect elements of Kors’ signature sportswear. The least expensive item is a $49 cotton tank, ranging up to the $599 motocross jacket. Additionally, a broad range of accessories and handbags are being developed in-house.

Several designers happen to be in the midst of bringing their taste levels down to the better market in an industry-wide trend that is evocative of the bridge rush of the Nineties, when that market was catapulted by an infusion of designer-looking clothes at more affordable prices. (Michael Kors had its own presence in bridge — the recently discontinued Kors label.)

Now Tommy Hilfiger, the longtime captain of better, is dressing up his offerings with the new H line, Ralph Lauren has relaunched the Lauren collection under his own eye and Calvin Klein’s better line is launching for spring. From Kors’ perspective, their combined efforts could help revitalize the traditional department store business, which has been beaten down by oversaturation of brands that look too much alike over the past decade.

“If I were a department store customer, I would be picketing right now,” Kors said. “People have so underestimated this customer’s taste level for too long. They’re not stupid. They’re smart and they read. We’re not doing this by the set rules of the better market. It’s really more how I think the customer is going to get dressed. The problem of the traditional better market is that everything was so formulaic, but the only thing that stays within the perimeters of better in Michael is the price.”

Interestingly, the company has married its business plan into the design philosophy, limiting the fall launch of Michael to a selective 350 doors — through Federated, May Co., Saks Inc. and Dillard’s chains. That distribution includes only eight cities where the collection will be sold in three stores in the same malls and 60 locations where Michael will be in two stores in the same malls. In the remainder of the locations, Michael will be available at only one point in each mall.

“We’re trying to sell affordable luxury,” said John Idol, chief executive officer of Michael Kors. “You’ve got to have limited distribution to create desire and demand for this product.”

Kors made the unusual stipulation to its accounts that, to carry any aspect of the Michael launch, they would have to buy product from each category, including men’s and women’s wear, accessories and product from its licensees. On average, each store will launch with sportswear departments of 750 square feet per gender, plus another 200 square feet for accessories.

“Our long-term goal is to be larger than that, but not dramatically,” Idol said. “What’s hurt a lot of brands is overdistribution of product. The better opportunity is to build a bigger business in the individual doors. We’d rather grow to 1,500-2,000 square feet in each door, rather than increase the number of doors.”

Compared with the 75 stores that currently carry the signature women’s collection and the 45 that carry Kors’ designer men’s wear, the introduction of Michael stands to bring the Kors look far outside the reaches of his favorite zip code, 10021. As for his ambitions to unseat any of fashion’s sitting heavyweights, the designer is not yet calling for a coronation.

“I don’t want to be the next anything,” Kors said. “I want to be Michael Kors, only bigger.”