His signature design style—luxuriously casual and simply elegant—embodies the past, present, and future of American sportswear.He has perfected a formula for casual elegance that combines simplicity, ease and luxury in a purely American way.
In light of the recent publicity which he has received, it would be easy to consider Michael Kors an overnight success. While it appears that this designer’s star has risen quite suddenly, his success was achieved the old-fashioned way: through years of hard work, perseverance and enthusiasm.
Kors is finally receiving world-wide recognition for what fashion insiders, loyal fans, and Vogue sewers have long appreciated: his ability to design clothes that consistently combine the classic components of great American sportswear—luxury, elegance, ease, and comfort. After 18 years in business, his collections keep getting better and better: the Fall ’99 line, which opened to rave reviews, is selling out in stores across the country. In June, he won the Designer of the Year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And his designs for Celine, the venerable French accessories company, have revived that house creatively and financially—and made Kors something of a celebrity in Paris.
“It’s been quite a year!” says Kors, who clearly relishes his recent success. Known for his boundless energy, wicked sense of humor, and unusual accessibility, he remains unchanged by his heightened profile. He still lives in an apartment in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood he moved to when he was 17. And he continues to love what he does, designing according to the same principles he has followed since he began his fashion career at age 19. “No matter how much fashion changes, what women want is always the same: clothes that not only feel comfortable on, but that allow them to feel comfortable in any situation. They want to know they look good—no matter where they are, what they are doing, or what kind of shape they’re in.”
When asked how he has gained such insight into what women demand of their wardrobes, Kors quickly credits his mother, a former Revlon model, with teaching him everything he knows. As a boy growing up on Long Island, she took him with her on frequent shopping expeditions to many of Manhattan’s finest specialty boutiques. By her own example, she proved that what looks best on a woman are clothes that are simple and understated, designed to flatter her figure and enhance her personal sense of style. By the time he was 10, Kors was designing vests and T-shirts for neighborhood girls and selling them out of a boutique in the basement.
His mother envisioned a show business career for her naturally gregarious son, who during a brief acting stint made appearances in numerous television commercials. But her support for his chosen career has been as strong as her influence on his design sense (she hasn’t missed a single one of his showings in 18 years). Although he attended classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Kors’ design training really began during the hours he spent working at Lothars, then a chic boutique on Manhattan’s famed 57th Street. Kors, who was hired as a salesperson, did everything from window displays to public relations, and his outgoing personality made him a favorite with customers.
Soon he was asked to design and merchandise an exclusive line for the store. “I discovered early on the value of having a store to test your designs in,” he says. “Because you have direct access to customers, you can find out almost immediately what works and what doesn’t.” Kors’ uncanny ability to discern what his customers wanted made the line an instant hit. Two years later, with his own savings and the support of his loyal clientele, Kors launched his own label. A local tailor helped him create his first collection, which he sold to Bergdorf Goodman.
Simplicity, luxury, and comfort—the foundation of his early collections—are still at the core of the clothes he designs today. His influences may vary from season to season—like this Fall’s upscale but unabashedly Western-inspired looks—but Kors’ clothes reflect a feeling of timelessness that is the essential component of investment dressing. If anything, his emphasis on luxury—evident in fabrics that range from cashmere to leather to fur—has grown stronger over the years.
“Right now, luxury sportswear is as much about practicality as it is about indulgence,” says the ever-pragmatic Kors. “Comfort and flexibility are what matter most to a woman today, no matter who she is or how much she can afford to spend on her wardrobe.”
And Kors should know. His customers include working women, society ladies (and in many cases their daughters), as well as celebrities ranging from Sharon Stone to Gwyneth Paltrow, Elizabeth Hurley to Barbara Streisand. And since it is no secret that his clients love him as much as they do his clothes, there is little doubt that his legendary charm has contributed enormously to his success. Kors is not only on a first-name basis with the women who buy his clothes—and who often call him for advice on what to wear for momentous occasions—he is notorious for stepping into the dressing room with clients to help fit a garment or influence a decision. “After so many years of selling retail and doing trunk shows, I can’t imagine doing things any other way. It’s my job to make women look good. Seeing them in the clothes, spending time talking with them about their frustrations and fears, helps me understand and deliver what they want.”
Since his designs were introduced to Vogue sewers in 1992, Kors has done just that. His signature looks are as easy to sew as they are to wear—which is why it may be hard to believe that Kors himself does not sew. “I guess I’ve never really needed to learn,” he says. “I understand fit and construction, which is essential to making sure my clothes look right on. Because they are often so simple, with few details to serve as a distraction, their beauty is often in the fit, the fabric, and the finishing.”
For Kors, a self-described workaholic, the road to stardom has not only been long, it’s also been bumpy. Financial setbacks in the early 1990s forced him to discontinue his lower-priced Kors line for a time, and prevented him from expanding into other areas, such as accessories and perfume. And despite his long-running popularity, he has never achieved the notoriety of other big-name designers.
Now, all of that has changed. The financial support recently provided by Celine’s parent company will allow Kors to expand his own business. His current plans include launching an accessories collection as well as establishing his own boutiques, the first of which will open in Manhattan next year.
It appears that Kors has come full circle from his days designing for Lothars—only this time the store in which he can test his designs will have his name over the door.