The fashion designer who fits and flatters

The recession has been disastrous for the fashion business. But Michael Kors has weathered the storm – and kept his tan.

Wednesday 25 November 2009 01:00 GMT

In the year that has seen hallowed fashion names such as Christian Lacroix and Yohji Yamamoto filing for bankruptcy, American designer Michael Kors has opened new shops in Chicago, Toronto and London. His flagship in Palm Beach opened its doors a week after the Madoff scam came to light. He also launched his third fragrance last month, dressed Michelle Obama for her official White House portrait, and has filmed his seventh season of reality TV show Project Runway, in which he appears as a judge of young fashion designers hoping to make the big time. If the crunch has hit the luxury goods market where it hurts, Kors certainly hasn't felt it.

"We were at a Los Angeles vintage store that I love," he says, "and I said to the guy who runs it 'I'm a little short-tempered here, you never have anything from Michael Kors.' And he looked at me and he goes, 'people wear your clothes – they hold onto them. I have everyone's mistakes.' "

There isn't room for mistakes in the current financial storm, which has left even some of the most venerable fashion houses crippled in its wake. Sales are down across the sector, with giants LVMH and the Gucci group recently posting falls in revenue, and Yves Saint Laurent reporting a decline of 20 per cent. "What has happened with the economy has re-enforced the things that I always thought," says Kors, drinking an iced tea into which he has tipped two sachets of sweetener. "The idea that something should be unexpected but at the same time timeless; the fact that I think that most clothes should be seasonless. Things have to be versatile."

It's this versatility that has made him one of fashion's most successful entrepreneurs. His clothing line has a near hyperbolic luxe philosophy: Kors famously brought in the no-tights-in-winter trend, which then took off, against all odds, mainly because his customers are simply not the sort to be found shivering at bus stops in the rain. And he simultaneously taps into a more traditionally relaxed sportswear aesthetic. Confusingly, in fashion, sportswear doesn't mean tracksuits and trainers; rather, casual garments made from sporty fabrics, like cotton and jersey, and with a softer line than one sees in tailoring or eveningwear.

Incidentally, it's a look that American designers have always been very good at, and Kors is no different in that respect. Where his idiosyncrasy lies is in the fact that he is able to make even the most relaxed and simple fabric or garment look elegantly pristine and haute. "We have cultivated a very loyal fan base of the brand," says Helen David, womenswear manager at Harrods. "Michael Kors not only fits and flatters; it allows the customer to buy into part of the uptown, luxurious lifestyle."

"I've never exactly had a collection that was about poverty deluxe," Kors admits, emphasising the phrase in a – presumably intentional – echo of the parodic designer Mugatu in the fash-bashing comedy film Zoolander, who take inspiration from tramps and dubs his collection 'derelicte'.

Indeed, Kors is as far away as it is possible to be from the avant-garde set that inspires such fear and ridicule; he designs clothes for the quotidian and purveys a style that is unapologetically bourgeois. Although the aspirational quality of his brand is a different kind to, say, the one which saw most soapstars wearing Burberry check a few years ago, it's fair to say that if you want to look rich you wear Michael Kors.

If anything, one might wonder whether pieces that deliberately make women look like heiresses and socialites are outmoded, even distasteful, given the prevailing pariah status of stockbrokers and hedge-fund wives. Is it appropriate to look rich anymore?

"It is, if you do it without looking obnoxious," says Kors. "If you're wearing something colourful, keep the line simple. If you're wearing something ornamented, keep the shape sleek. Right now, to have over-the-top hair and a beaded dress and an over-the-top shoe and a lot of jewellery all at once, it's too much."

Kors' clothes are minimal in construction; he is a master of the shift dress, the skirt suit and the modern coat. The luxuriousness comes from rich bleeds of colour – fuschia, yellow and lime green are all signature shades – and from the soft cashmere and fine silks that he uses. "It serves us very well," he continues, "that, for a woman who is understated, Michael Kors will be her most glamorous piece, and then, for someone who's kind of trendy, Michael Kors will be her classic piece." Ever the modern craftsman, Kors hasn't hemmed himself in manifesto-wise but has broadened his share of the market; cannily, his is a collection that takes account of age, personal taste, regime and practicality, and endeavours to suit most variables within these categories. "I like to think we're doing sexy middle age!" he hoots. "We have an established a point of view and a multi-generational clientele. We have customers now who are 17, as well as 65-year-olds and 30-year-olds – every age."

While Kors may not be the most directional or visionary of designers, there's simply no way to counter the fact of how successful he is. The fashion crowd can be a sniffy lot, of course, and where there may often be a sense of 'lowest common denominator' or creative dilution about many designers who are overtly commercial, there isn't that with Michael Kors: there is no sense that he has compromised anything, in creative terms, to get to where he is now.

Born in 1959 in New York State, he cites his mother, a former model, and his grandmother as the biggest influences on his designs; in particular the clash of the Swedish Lutheran side of his family, as embodied by his mother's understated style, and the Jewish line, passed on by his rather more glitzy grandma. While studying at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, he began designing and selling his own line at the trendy boutique Lothar's, where it caught the eye of many a fashion journalist browsing on a Saturday afternoon. By the time he was 23, Kors had persuaded Anna Wintour, then at New York magazine, to come and view his collection, which he had laid out on his bed. The label launched officially in 1981 at the prestigious Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue stores – then virtually unheard of for a young designer. In 1997, Kors was named creative director of French house Celine, where he stayed for seven years and whose fortunes he turned round with fast-selling accessories and an acclaimed ready-to-wear line.

Kors' genetic hybridity is obvious in his designs, and works to his great advantage, keeping his collection relevant across the board. At the same time, though, it is representative of a schizophrenia that has taken over his hometown of New York. The city is crippled by Wall Street debt, its inhabitants losing their jobs, some struggling on the poverty line, but it is also home to a new wave of celebrities from TV shows like Gossip Girl (in which Kors had a cameo role last season) and The Hills, both of which document the existence of phenomenally wealthy young Upper East Siders, a district of Manhattan synonymous with Kors' aesthetic.

Actress Blake Lively, who plays Serena in Gossip Girl, is a close friend of Kors' and her screen mother, Kelly Rutherford, can often be seen wearing his clothes in the show.

Kors is defiantly pro-glamour. "You could say 'but I don't understand, we're in a recession'. The economy isn't at its strongest so why are we so attracted?" he asks. "But if you watch films from the Thirties, it's all Katharine Hepburn as a mad-cap socialite, and the world was in its worst-ever economic state. We're intrigued by young, beautiful people. We might have to get up in the morning, but does Serena? No, she doesn't. And that's intriguing."

This sense of escapism and the glamour of how the other half live is also integral to his branding. The new perfume is called Very Hollywood; the intensifier is truly Kors-ian. His ad campaigns are so thoroughly aspirational that they often verge on comical. "The message is always spelled out," says Calgary Avansino, executive fashion editor at Vogue. "You've got the beautiful woman stepping off the private jet with some hot guy. It's a very clear image, not too cool or hard to grasp."

The imagery for the launch, featuring supermodel and muse Carmen Kass in a floor-length gown on a red carpet, is being humped through the dining room at Claridge's as we speak on great posters and hoardings. "The thinking was, this isn't necessarily something you can only wear to a party," he explains. "How many people go to a red carpet situation? So if you're running out to the grocery store in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, what can be that one thing that can make you feel glamorous? Fragrance is the fastest way to do it."

It may seem obvious, but the directness of the message belies its very real effect on Michael Kors' business. It's this municipal red carpet air about him that means he is opening shops while other labels are closing them. Designers who have foundered in the past year or so have in common a lack of diversification into the lucrative spheres of cosmetics and accessories. And Kors doesn't just do his perfumes on the side. As well as the womenswear line, there is also a menswear range (which launched in 1997) and a less expensive diffusion line, dubbed MICHAEL Michael Kors, which includes ready-to-wear, swimwear, accessories, eyewear and watches for men and women.

Unveiled in 2004, the second line launched in over 350 concessions across the States, an unprecedented number for a new range that was yet to be tried and tested by consumers. "We always see an amazing reaction to his products," agrees Holli Rogers, buying director of online boutique

"His lifestyle is accessible to all – it's affordable luxury." Affordability is obviously relative, but the fragrance and accessories put the trademark Kors glamour within the reach of an audience who aren't about to spend £1,200 on a jumper dress.

"A designer has to have a big ego," he shrugs. "You're basically telling everyone how I think you should look." But where this good-humoured ambition and breadth may now seem justifiable, it originally contributed to one of the brand's darkest hours.

In 1993, in the aftermath of the last recession, the Italian company that produced the then- diffusion line, Kors by Michael Kors, ceased operations. To make matters worse, many of the label's stockists then went out of business, forcing Kors to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. "Many successful businesses go through a period of setbacks," says economist Fred Fuld of "Donald Trump's casinos filed for bankruptcy twice. Kors kept moving forwards, eliminating the cheaper line and expanding the prices of his main collection. He continued to make great decisions."

Contemporaries on the New York fashion scene include Marc Jacobs, with whom Kors is often confused in the street, despite looking antithetically different to him ("I think since we both begin with M"), as well as the much-feted Isaac Mizrahi, who went out of business in 1998 and recently relaunched himself with a line at high-street chain Target, America's answer to Primark. When I ask Kors if a collaboration like this appeals, he pauses before saying very openly, without spite or grandeur, "We don't need to."

Expansion and diversifying aside, Kors has also built his empire on the strength of his personality, with himself as the figurehead of the label, the "jetrosexual" as his customer has been dubbed: "I cannot lie. I work hard, but I do have time off." He is perennially sun-kissed and sleek-looking, with a strict beauty regime that includes botox and plenty of tropical holidays. "Now that Valentino has retired, I believe someone must wave the too-tanned flag," he smiles.

He also lives the glamorous life that he preaches, especially now that he is one of fashion's most recognisable faces, thanks to Project Runway. "When I heard the words 'reality TV', I said 'absolutely not.' I thought it would be designers eating bugs in the jungle," he says. It's certainly less ritually humiliating than other contestant shows of its ilk, and is noticeable for the fact that the people who go on it are talented and get jobs within the industry; it isn't the Jade Goody version of reality TV or of celebrity.

Executive producer Barbara Schneeweiss thinks he is a natural: "He is hysterically funny, and really nurtures the designers with his great advice." Kors, who had acting lessons as a teenager before realising he couldn't sing or dance, has certainly had a good response from the show. "You're in people's homes: they're in bed eating popcorn and hanging out with you. It's broadened our age range – we never had 12-year-olds who were interested. Or 10! Begging Mom, 'pleeeeeease can I have those glasses?'"

Kors' status now is very different from that of most designers, who remain anonymous to all but the style press. Recognition is odd, but enjoyable, for the man who is a self-confessed celebrity addict, and reads glossies such as Us Weekly and People with near-religious fervour. "It's a little sick," he says, looking sheepish. "I have to tell you – this is embarrassing – my assistant had to Fedex my magazines to Milan because I couldn't wait." Kors sees himself as an amateur sociologist. Despite his preoccupation with glamour, the photos he loves to see are of A-listers buying their groceries and going about their ordinary lives: it's the very combination of the starry and the practical that his designs speak of.

Which is perhaps why Michelle Obama chose to wear one of Kors' pieces for her portrait. "I was coming out of the theatre," he remembers, "and I turned the Blackberry on and there were about a hundred emails congratulating me on dressing Mrs Obama. We had no idea! She wore" – with a little moue of an aside – "I mean, talk about modern, a black racer-cut matte jersey dress. Some people say she was channelling Jackie O, but Jackie O was never in matte jersey with an athletic cut. This is a very different world."

As much as he admires Michelle Obama for her modernity, Jackie O is a figure that Kors returns to persistently throughout our conversation. She embodies a quiet glamour, a stealth style, that he finds incredibly attractive and inspirational, and he refers not a few times to a beloved photograph of her taken by Ron Galella outside the very hotel we are sitting in. "She lived in the public eye from the Fifties through the Eighties, and in each decade she took the best and made it work for her," he says. "When I was 18 and selling jeans on 57th Street, I served her: I was a mess! And Greta Garbo came into the store too, and I couldn't even imagine that she was standing there in front of me."

From being this quivering wreck, Kors has gone on to dress some of the biggest names in the world, from Lauren Bacall to Jennifer Lopez to Nicole Kidman. "I think Kate Winslet is very Michael Kors," he says, the use of his own name in the third person indicating how utterly he understands his marketing. He refers to his customer in a similar way, peppering his conversation with references to a ubiquitous "she".

And the range of starlets who wear his clothes is once again indicative of his mass appeal: "If I'm good at what I do, I can dress Eva Longoria and I can dress Adele." The south London singer herself says, "I find his clothes really honest. His sizes are realistic. Some higher-end labels have size 14 and 16, but they're more like a 10 or 12. His designs work formally or casually, and they're made with room in all the right places."

Far from calling down instructions from an ivory tower, Kors works out what his customers want by meeting them in person: he is one of very few successful designers who still hosts 'trunk shows' in his stores, an event at which the new collection is previewed to a loyal base of customers, who then order pieces ahead of their arrival on the shop floor.

"I came from a retail background," Kors explains "and I kept thinking 'don't you want to be connected to the women? See what their lives are like? Where do they go, how do they live?' I find it incredibly illuminating."

It's a practice that harks back to when designers had salons and met each client face-to-face; like so much of Kors' branding, it makes buyers feel valued and special in a very down-to-earth way. "The only other designer I can think of that does that is Graeme Black," says Calgary Avansino, "who is very different to Michael Kors; he's young and just starting out. But Michael Kors really embodies his brand."

When a label is so diverse in both range and fan base, it needs a unifying figurehead and Kors, with the juxtapositions and contrasts that are so integral to his character and his sense of style, is just the man for it. "I have women who I've known since I was 18 or 19, plus their daughters and their granddaughters," he tells me. But the man who is often referred to as the heir to Oscar de la Renta's throne also has the common touch: "I like to go up to people in the street and say 'how are you enjoying your handbag?' They look really confused – I love that!" Kors' fusion of global vision and doorstep amiability is the very essence of modern marketing. It is this, combined with simple clothes that make women feel extraordinary, that makes him so universally irresistible.

Very Hollywood Michael Kors is available nationwide; Project Runway is on Wednesdays at 8pm on Sky 1

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