Q&A With Michael Kors

On the eve of his 30th anniversary dinner at the ambassador's residence, the designer talks Paris, fashion's fast pace, "Project Runway" and "the norms."

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Elisa Sednaoui and Michael Kors

Photo By Stephane Feugere

Appeared In
Special Issue
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?

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.

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