Getting Candid With Michael Kors

At 92Y in New York on Wednesday, the designer dished with Fern Mallis about how a kid from Long Island wound up with a global business worth billions.

Suiting Up for Studio 54
When I was young, I was truly an insane fashion freak. I went to Studio 54 the first time instead of going to my senior prom. I wrapped a girlfriend of mine in hot pink gauze, a strapless pareo, a harem pant and put a flower behind the ear. I was wearing a piece of raw silk jersey wrapped into a diaper pant, a Panama hat, a burlap jacket and I took three luggage straps wrapped them around my waist and my thigh. We got to the door of Studio 54 and they were like, “These kids are fabulous.” They didn’t realize that we were going to get in a car and drive back to Long Island when we left.

Meeting Vera Wang at Lothar’s

She started trying on clothes and putting all these things together, and I thought, Oh my god, this is so exciting. And then she said, “Do you want to go with me to the Met to the Costume Institute?” I thought, What? Sure, I’d love to go. I think I was 20. Vera wore a Michael Kors for Lothar’s charmeuse slip with a leather down vest, a mohair sweater tied around her waist. We were definitely doing creative black tie and in we went. It was the year of the Saint Laurent exhibit and I got to meet him. I almost levitated. Then the party was in December and it started snowing outside while we were in The Temple of Dendur. Suddenly, the room got very quiet and we wondered why. Then we found out John Lennon had been killed. It was just a roller coaster from Saint Laurent to Lennon.

Interviewing with Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio at Anne Klein
I feverishly put together a book. It was a little crazy. It was the Seventies. It was Christopher Street women. Everything was leather for a summer collection. Donna asked me where I went to school. I said, “I went to FIT. I dropped out and I’m selling clothes on 57th Street.” She said, “You’re really talented but don’t you want to go back to school?” I told her I was ready to roll. She said, “Don’t you want to go back to school?” I looked at her and said, “You dropped out.” and she was like, “OK, touché.” They wanted me to work in the licensing area but I wanted to work on the collection, so it wasn’t meant to be.

Lining Up Trunk Shows

I didn’t know what a trunk show even was but I kept reading that people like Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta had them so I asked Dawn [Mello] for one. She was thrilled. The reality was I knew a lot of New York women from Lothar’s so I called them. And at 21 years of age, we sold everything and everyone at Bergdorf’s was blown away. When I started out, there wasn’t that glare of the spotlight there is today. You could learn your craft and slowly grow. I waited three years to have my own fashion show. It was all about making the clothes not only fit beautifully, but the quality had to be great. You had to ship them on time. I had a pragmatic side.

On Using Well-Known Models

Even before I had a show, we had Iman doing our Women’s Wear Daily photo shoot. I have always thought whatever I do, the best thing that I do is to frame a person so it’s the woman or the man who brings it to life. From Day One, we had great girls. I remember the first show that we did was in a gallery downtown and I didn’t like the art on the wall. I tried to tell the gallery owner that they had to take down the art and they said no. I said, “Well, can I have white walls instead of green walls?” So we took all the art down and painted the whole place white not realizing that people would then be asphyxiated sitting at the show. My WWD review read, “In a gallery reeking of fresh paint...”

Declaring Bankruptcy in 1993

The strange thing was everything was going gangbusters in 1993. Then the next thing I knew the company we licensed Kors to went bankrupt and of course I didn’t realize, they go bankrupt and you’re in on the game. We never stopped showing, we never stopped shipping. I realized at that point more than ever what people appreciated was me being true to myself and doing what you do well. At first, you feel like you are on ground that is moving. You think, “Maybe I have to change my direction or make more incredible evening clothes.” But then I realized, “No. Stay true to yourself.”

Designing for Celine

Let’s be honest: I always wanted to do what I do, but the last thing you ever thought growing up in Merrick, Long Island, was that you were not only going to have a fashion show in New York but you were going to have a second fashion show in Paris at the Louvre and you were going to be showing to, in my mind, a bunch of very grand women all dressed and polished. Here, I was in jeans and sneakers, all casual. It was an interesting time because Marc [Jacobs] got Louis Vuitton and Narciso [Rodriguez] got to Cerruti. A lot of people in Paris thought it was the invasion of the Americans. What I realized was as soon as I got there the world was changing and the fact was the world was global. It didn’t matter where you lived. Life was fast. Sportswear and clothes that you could actually live in made sense.

Becoming Celine’s Creative Director and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Buying a 33 Percent Stake in the Michael Kors Business
The Concorde made it doable but I was still fried — off the plane and onto a meeting. Certainly with a behemoth company like LVMH, suddenly people said, “Wait a minute. Michael Kors isn’t just an American brand. It’s global.” For the first time, I got to see the power of accessories, how you might be having a bad day, your hair doesn’t look great or you had too much to drink last night, but a handbag works no matter what. That’s the reality. I really got to see that and if I stayed in New York I would not have gotten the chance to see that.

Spending Three Hours Total with Bernard Arnault (including the two Celine shows the LVMH titan attended)
Now I know for myself when you’re doing a zillion things, you have to be a juggler. I was probably so busy I didn’t even think about it.

The Celebrity Factor
If I do my job right, when you get dressed in something I’ve designed, it helps to boost your confidence. A lot of people say, “Well, if I was a celebrity, I would always be confident.” But let’s be honest: If you’ve got the cameras on you, it’s worse. For some reason, I’ve seen women at vulnerable moments go for Michael Kors. Jennifer Lopez, two days after she broke up with Ben Affleck, hit the red carpet in Michael Kors. Jennifer Garner has her first child, 10 days later she’s presenting at the Academy Awards, Michael Kors. I think it’s a confidence boost perhaps. Debra Messing told me after the first time we dressed her for “Will & Grace,” “I loved how I look and the plus was I could actually move in this thing.”

Having Derek Lam, Lazaro Hernandez and Peter Som Help Out in the Design Studio
Unless you want to make one dress and spend 11 years doing it like Charles James — he spent 12 years making a dress — in order to do such great work, you need an amazing team. To see all the new talent that comes up, that’s what keeps fashion fresh and alive.

The Modus Operandi for Men’s Wear

Considering that I did one of the worst things in my design career — hopefully for me — we made bodysuits for men. I thought why not take your wide-leg briefs, attach them to your shirt and they will stay tucked in. I thought it was very smart. Now, of course, snaps on the male anatomy are not a good thing. But I learned as a men’s designer it can’t be just about me. I might love a camel coat but not every guy loves a camel coat. There’s this rule that I have when I design men’s clothes — I wouldn’t wear it all and I couldn’t wear it all but I have to want to wear it all.

His Wedding Day Last Year

We’re probably the only people who got married on the beach, jumped in a Jeep, went to East Hampton, had pizza at Sam’s and went to see “The Help.”

Having the Biggest IPO for a U.S. Fashion Company

It beat my bar mitzvah. Although as I was just about to ring the bell [at the New York Stock Exchange], I looked down and saw my mother say, “Straighten your tie.” I love what I do. I certainly never planned on Paris or ringing that bell. If you keep your eye on the ball, you do what you do and you do it well.

The Takeaway

I truly believe that my legacy will be that you can have it all. You can be glamorous and sexy and feel comfortable in your own skin.


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