NEW YORK — Michael Kors may have attained multimillionaire status, but Wednesday night at 92Y the designer was more eager to dish about how a kid from Long Island wound up with a global business worth billions.
Whether clueing the crowd into how he changed his name from Karl Anderson Jr. after his mother remarried or how, at the age of 11, he opened The Iron Butterfly Boutique in the basement of his family’s house, the designer didn’t sugarcoat any of the nitty-gritty. And the audience laughed as if his 90-minute Q&A with Fern Mallis was a stand-up act. In his 31st year in business, Kors had plenty of material — including setting up a Madame Paulette-type laundry service at camp, dropping out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, meeting Yves Saint Laurent when he was 20, interviewing Elizabeth Taylor in her purple crystal-adorned living room and why an ideal day calls for dinner at home with his husband Lance LePere, “Mad Men” and the couple’s two cats.
At the helm of a company that employs nearly 3,000 people, Kors shared many tales (embarrassing as some may have been) to give listeners a better handle on how he built his company. Asked about the likelihood of him ever heading up the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the 52-year-old designer said, “Because I have so much free time.”
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Busy as he is, Kors will be back as a “Project Runway” judge for the show’s 10th season — “We’re filming in Times Square of all places.” Regardless of where one might find him, he wants his clothes to speak for themselves. Kors said, “Hopefully, with whatever I do, when people put it on, they feel great. That’s what it’s all about.”
Here are some of the highlights.
Deciding on His Bar Mitzvah’s Decor
Every decade has its good points and its bad points. The Seventies — the good point was Halston. The bad point was mustard and chocolate as an entire color scheme down to the invitations, the yarmulkes, the matches. It was a pretty insane moment. It was in June and I wanted to do a summer, casual party. I really wanted a lobster bake but that didn’t go over too well. My mother’s family came in evening gowns, my father’s family came in madras shorts, and it was the height of the hippie era so we had men in caftans and women in furs. I think the party was the signal that the marriage wasn’t working.
Redesigning His Mother’s Wedding Dress
Everything was going smoothly. She brought me to her first fitting for the dress. I was kind of her partner in crime for everything. I sat there and my mom tried the dress on and it was covered with a zillion bows. My grandmother said, “That’s magnificent. What a beautiful dress.” I kind of sat in a corner and was like, “It’s not so great.” My mother said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I think it’s really busy. It’s too much.” My grandmother said, “Oh, he’s five. Don’t listen to him. It’s perfect. It’s Priscilla of Boston. How could you go wrong?” The tailor came in and my mother told him to trim the bows off the bodice. My mom said, “I think he’s got something. Take them all off.” My grandmother was like, “Whoa, there’s been a power shift here.”
Auditioning for Commercials as a Child
My mom was modeling at the same time. We would come into New York City together. My mother would actually put me in a taxi with a slip of paper with the address of where my go-see was and I would go meet my agent. I was five or six. Today that would be on the front page of the Post — “Child Abuser.” I remember one go-see where there was this army of blonde six-year-old boys. I was with my agent. My mom walked in and said, “This is a cattle call.” Like my son is not doing cattle calls, and we quickly turned on our heels and left. I think my family was just honestly happy to see me doing whatever I loved.
Opening The Iron Butterfly Boutique
I don’t know this word except for Martha’s Stewart’s vernacular, but I was pretty crafty. I made fabulous candles, whipstitch leather bags, hammered copper bracelets. A girl up the street knew how to crochet and we made snoods. I think my mother thought I was insane but she said OK. I set the whole thing up in our basement, I invited all the kids from the neighborhood to come over and we sold everything in a week. Oh the rush, the rush, the rush. First of all, I have been a shopper my whole life, the rustle of the tissue [paper], the bag, the whole experience, it was just —ooohhhhh!!! By the age of 12, I had to save every shopping bag and that Bergdorf bag!
The Path Not Taken
I went to acting classes for a while as a teenager, Edward Bergdorf’s Studio on Bank Street. It was a little shocking when you get there and realize, “I can’t sing and I definitely can’t dance.” No, gay men are not all good dancers. As comfortable as I am being in the public eye, I realized I didn’t belong being an actor.
My mom started asking when I was seven. She said, “Now, you know you can tell me anything.” I’m sitting in my room sketching endlessly all day long. I kind of knew by the time I was 10 or 11 that certainly I was different but I grew up in a family where different was applauded.
Growing Up in a Fashion-Obsessed Family
My grandmother was this strange dichotomy. She grew up at a time when women really weren’t going to college but she went to NYU. She wanted to be a lawyer but her parents said no to law school. She wound up being a high school principal but one whose proudest thing to say was, “I never repeat an outfit.” She would stop on her way home from work, run into Loehmann’s back room and scan the racks for the remnants of a Bill Blass label.
Working at Lothar’s on West 57th Street
Tie-dye jeans for $200. That was a lot. It was The Gap for the Guinnesses. Think about this. Everyone else had the part-time college job and I’m taking Jackie O’s boots off. It was the first time I realized affluent people could be thrifty. I think she had some old hose on. [Rudolf] Nureyev would leave the curtain open in the dressing room purposely. It was an incredible education. Celebrities were certainly exciting but I also got to see how the affluent dressed.