In Conversation With Michael Kors

As Michael Kors opens his largest store in China, his multi-billion-dollar brand shows no signs of slowing down. During a whirlwind trip to Shanghai, Cameron Williamson catches up with the luxury sportswear czar

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“Michael’s ready for you.”

I jump up from my seat in the soaring art deco–inspired Lobby restaurant of the Peninsula Shanghai and rush to the elevator, feeling as though I’ve been summoned to appear before the emperor. Considering I’m about to interview Michael Kors, bona fide fashion royalty and designer and chief creative officer of a global lifestyle brand that has raked in over $900 million this year so far, I might as well be.

On the ride up to the Palace Suite, where Kors is holding court during his first trip to mainland China, I look to my right and see Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto. In a few hours, I’ll spot the actress again, wearing an icy-hued crystal-beaded dress by the designer and posing alongside a pack of other Kors-clad celebrities—Hilary Swank, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Miranda Kerr—at The Michael Kors Jet Set Experience. The event, a runway show and VIP-laden party that takes place in an airplane hangar housing the private jet of the brand’s CEO, will fete the company’s continued expansion into China. (The night before, Kors was joined by his handsome husband, Lance LePere, and Kerr, among other guests, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new 6,000-square-foot flagship—the largest Michael Kors store in China.)

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Left: Sweater, $1,185, and cape, both Michael Kors. Right: Coat, top, skirt, sunglasses and belt, all Michael Kors. (fashion photos throughout: Marie H. Rainville)

Wearing his standard uniform of blazer, T-shirt and jeans, the perennially tan Kors, 55, shakes my hand before leading me to the suite’s enormous windows. Knowing that we only have a half-hour to chat, I launch into my first question as we gaze across the Huangpu River to the expansive skyline of the city’s modern Pudong district.

“At what point did you think, This is going to be huge?”

“Well, I’ve never lacked in confidence,” he replies drolly before we settle into a pair of plush sofas. “When I was 22, I’d read that designers like Bill Blass did trunk shows. So I asked the people at Bergdorf Goodman if I could do one, then rang up my old clients from Lothar’s and invited them to come.” (Lothar’s was an upscale New York City boutique that Kors worked at before and after dropping out of the Fashion Institute of Technology—first as a salesperson and later as designer of the store’s in-house line.) “After a few hours we’d sold out of virtually every garment at Bergdorf’s, and I thought, You know what, I’m on the right track.

Born in the small village of Merrick, Long Island, N.Y., Kors grew up an only child surrounded by fashion-obsessed women, including a boho-loving aunt, a flamboyantly attired grandmother and his sporty-chic mother, a former Revlon model, whose wardrobe he liked to edit. (At five, he suggested she remove some of the bows on the wedding dress she wore to marry her second husband.)

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Cape, heels, skirt and boots, all Michael Kors.

By the time he was in his late teens, Kors was reading Women’s Wear Daily and experimenting with his own ensembles, which he debuted at Studio 54—he’d often change outfits several times in one night. (When I interviewed Kors back in 2005 for a different magazine, he told me he used to leave extra clothes at the club’s coat check.) From a well-received debut runway show for his eponymous line in 1984, where Iman strolled the catwalk, to his stint as lead designer of French fashion house Céline, a post he held from 1997 to 2004, Kors has released a steady string of hits over the past three decades: classic camel coats, luxurious knits, statement watches and structured handbags. (Initially, the designer felt out of place in Paris. “I’m so American. I wear sneakers. I’m casual. I drink Coke out of a can! But I soon realized French women wanted sportswear, too.”)

However, it hasn’t been all triumphs since that first trunk show at Bergdorf’s. During the recession in the early ’90s, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And even Kors admits he’s had a few sartorial misses. “I’m not against a broad shoulder, but in the ’80s, did we really need to do a blouse, a jacket and a coat, all with shoulder pads?” he asks, rolling his eyes. “It was hideous, like we were turning people into crazy monsters.”

When I cheekily remind him about the men’s bodysuits he designed in 1992, he recoils in his seat. “That was a great idea at the time!” he insists. “They were based on the notion that every guy’s shirt becomes untucked by the end of the day. I’d come across a vintage men’s dress shirt from the ’40s that had a tab between the legs, and I thought, Wouldn’t it make sense to attach your shirt to your underwear? Except they were incredibly uncomfortable,” he says, laughing. “I wore them; I was tugging at myself. All. Day. Long.”

In 2004, after seven years of designing for both Céline and his eponymous label, Kors returned to NYC full-time, launching Michael Michael Kors. The enormously successful diffusion line, with often-logoed wares that run the gamut from wedges to trenches, propelled his most impressive achievement to date: his company’s New York Stock Exchange debut in December 2011, which received an initial public offering valued at $3.6 billion.

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Sweater, $1,195, Michael Kors.

In keeping with this hot streak, 2014 has been nothing short of spectacular for Kors, with total revenue up 43.4 percent over the same period one year ago and more than 100 new boutiques (adding to the existing 605) set to open in North and Central America, Europe and Asia by the end of 2015.

Spend any amount of time with Kors and he’ll have you in stitches. His quick wit and sassy commentary as a regular judge for 10 seasons of Project Runway garnered him millions of new fans. When I ask him if the popular reality show was the rocket ship that took his company into the stratosphere—something Imran Amed, editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion, had suggested the day before during a Q&A session with Kors—he bristles slightly. “I don’t think it was the rocket ship, but it certainly brought in the next generation of customers,” he says. “I think it was the first time people actually felt like they knew a designer. Rather than just reading about me in an interview or seeing my clothes in a fashion show, I was literally in their living rooms.”

Project Runway exposure aside, according to Kors, the secret to running a successful clothing company is twofold: “One, know your customer, and two, make a difference in how people get dressed.”

Kors undoubtedly knows his customer. Season after season, in both his main and his diffusion lines, he offers a broad range of highly wearable, luxe but laid-back clothes that women—and now even more men, thanks to his company’s bigger push into menswear—can’t get enough of.

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Top, $795, jeans, $700, and coat, all Michael Kors.

Take Leanne Berry, a 45-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep and mother of two in Toronto; she’s been buying Michael Kors loyally for over a decade. “When I throw on one of his pieces, I always know I’m going to look put together,” says Berry, who started out buying the occasional Michael Michael Kors accessory and now heads to the Bloor Street boutique (one of 27 standalone stores in Canada) to fill her closet. Recent purchases include a soft leather tote that doubles as a briefcase and a timepiece from the brand’s Watch Hunger Stop campaign, a partnership with the UN World Food Program (every time a product is sold, 100 children in a hunger-stricken area receive a nutritious meal). The watch is Berry’s 10th (!) by the designer.

“I would wear pretty much anything right off the Michael Kors runway,” seconds Carmen Muzzo, 39, a former news radio reporter, now a stay-at-home mother of three in Toronto. Though she worries the brand might be reaching oversaturation in some markets—particularly with the ubiquity of the diffusion line’s bestselling Selma and Hamilton bags—she can’t resist the beautiful fabrics and incredible tailoring of the main line, and has her eye on several pieces from the designer’s Big Sur–meets–big city fall collection. “His clothing and accessories are simple, classic and modern,” says Larissa Frankevych, a Kors-coveting 25-year-old living in Courtice, Ont. “It’s difficult to combine all of these elements, which is why I love the brand.” It also explains why the company appeals to a broad range of women. “My mother and I have a 25-year age gap, but there is always something for each of us,” says Frankevych. “When was the last time you and your mother both felt age-appropriate wearing items from the same brand?”

Back in Shanghai, with our time almost up, I ask Kors whether there’s a difference in how Canadian women put themselves together. He shakes his head, remarking that these days he doesn’t see huge variation in global style. “You might live in a warmer city like Miami, but you still need boots because there’s too much indoor air conditioning. If you live in a city like Toronto with cold winters, you still need sandals because you’re going on vacation somewhere warm.” Then he hints at what I’m about to see at the Shanghai event later that evening, where images of some of the designer’s favourite cities will be projected on giant screens surrounding the runway. “In today’s world, you’re transporting even if you don’t travel. Just put on something new and suddenly you feel like you could be in Capri. That’s really the best thing about fashion: it’s transformative.”

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Skirt, bag and shoes, all Michael Kors.

Scenes from Shanghai

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The designer and his model muse Karmen Pedaru on the catwalk at The Michael Kors Jet Set Experience
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Backstage touch-ups before the big show
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The billion-dollar man and his celeb BFFs (from left): Karmen Pedaru, Isabeli Fontana, Freida Pinto, Hilary Swank, Miranda Kerr, Camilla Bella and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
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Party­goers share space with a private plane belonging to the company’s CEO
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Miranda Kerr leads the pack in a Kors strapless number

 

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