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I never dreamt of such success: Michael Kors on the brand's 40 years

In an interview with 'Lounge', the American designer talks about four decades in business, on the changing face of fashion, the brand’s outing in India, and lessons learnt from the pandemic

Michael Kors will open the largest Indian store in Mumbai’s Jio World Drive Mall later this year.
Michael Kors will open the largest Indian store in Mumbai’s Jio World Drive Mall later this year. (Courtesy of Michael Kors by Douglas Friedman)

If you look beyond the soft 10-ply cashmere, the shimmering Swarovski crystals and the iconic geometric logo, you will see the vision Michael Kors is sharing through his creations. It’s a desire to create something pragmatic that pushes the luxury envelope. It’s the skill of turning even an apparently simple turtleneck into a super-expensive object of desire.

It’s a dream American designer Michael Kors has been sharing with the world for 40 years. “I always wanted to make clothes but never dreamt of this kind of success,” says Kors, 61.

This year marks four decades of Michael Kors in business—a milestone that was celebrated with a live runway show in April, with supermodels past and present walking on the 45th Street of New York in boss-lady suiting, halter-necks, tank gowns and zebra sheepskin parkas against the backdrop of Broadway lights. The presentation, an attempt by the theatre-buff designer to focus attention to the pandemic-ravaged theatre community, included 16 classic looks from the archive (Bella Hadid’s lipstick-red turtleneck sweater dress with the patent leather car coat was a personal favourite).

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Naomi Campbell closed the 40th anniversary show in New York.
Naomi Campbell closed the 40th anniversary show in New York. (Courtesy Michael Kors)

In these four decades, the brand has made the world realise that luxury can be comfortable—and it has won him a global fan following. The brand has over 1,000 stores worldwide and after a tough couple of years, it’s seeing signs of recovery as economies open up. His seventh Indian outlet—a 2,090 sq. ft space in Mumbai’s Jio World Drive Mall—is expected to open in August, becoming the largest, and first, stand-alone store in India to carry men’s ready-to-wear, besides a luxe selection of fashion and accessories, including handbags, footwear, jewellery, watches and fragrances. The brand first came to India in 2013.

His leisure-class glamour has won him recognition and awards, including the prestigious Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He dressed former US first lady Michelle Obama for her official White House portrait in 2009, a moment he describes as a “game changer”.

Moving beyond fashion, he has been working relentlessly to fight world hunger. In 2015, he was named a global ambassador against hunger for the UN World Food Programme.

These are still “pinch-me” moments for him, he says. While growing up in Long Island, Kors was surrounded by all things fashion. His mother was a former Revlon model; his grandmother was a fan of the American designer Bill Blass and two aunts “idolised” the singer Cher. A fascination with design took him to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan but he dropped out after two semesters to work as a window dresser and “sales boy” at a Fifth Avenue boutique where he also started selling his own designs, from blazers to skirts. By 1981 he had started a small business—and his journey to becoming an American icon.

We spoke to the designer about his journey, the changing face of fashion, the brand’s outing in India, and lessons learnt from covid-19. Edited excerpts:

Forty years…how do you feel?

Very fortunate. When I was starting out, I was 21 at the time, I never even imagined I would be here 40 years later sharing my collections with the whole wide world and having these stores spread across the world. I feel very fortunate…to be able to do what I love, and do it successfully at such a large scale.

During my starting days, being international meant selling your clothes at (luxury department store chain) Holt Renfrew in Canada and maybe (high-end chain) Selfridges in the UK. But having stores across the world? Never even dreamt of it.

What would you consider your biggest achievement?

There have been a lot of humbling moments but two stand out in my mind. One was seeing the former first lady, Michelle Obama, in a Michael Kors piece for her first official White House portrait in 2009. It was a very proud moment. Second was being named an ambassador for the UN World Food Programme.

For the 40th anniversary celebration, you chose New York’s theatre district. Is that location special to you?

New York is my home. It has this power to provide endless inspiration. And I have always been a huge Broadway fan—there’s no better way than the theatre to transport yourself to a different place, a different time, a different life. To see the city and the entire theatre industry come to a halt during the pandemic was heartbreaking. I was so honoured to be able to use my 40th anniversary show as an opportunity to give back and shine a light on an industry that has brought so much joy and inspiration to me throughout my career.

You were 12, right, when you started your first boutique?

Iron Butterfly! It was in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I opened it in sixth grade and sold handmade snoods and whipstitched leather bags. We opened for a few days, sold out and never reopened. It was the original pop-up shop! I knew from a very early age that I was going to work in fashion.

And you did enter the fashion industry at a fairly young age. Was it overwhelming?

At the time, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew who I wanted to design for and I wanted to do it right away. I am sure there were nerves but mostly I just remember being excited…. I couldn’t wait for what was next.

What was it like for you, an American designer, to be the creative director for a French brand like Celine in the 199Os?

In 1997, if you didn’t spend a lot of time in Paris, there was this misconception that it was all perfumed madames with jewels and dogs. But when I started designing, most of the women I met were actually quite sporty. They wanted separates and clothes that could keep up with their everyday lives. And that really cemented my belief that sportswear, which used to be inherently American, is really something desired the world over.

How has the fashion industry changed since?

It’s no longer an insider’s club. People today, thanks to social media, the Net, have more access to designers, to runway shows, to a range of inspiration and influences than ever before. Today, everyone is their own fashion editor and they decide what works for them and their lifestyle.

What is the art of design to you?

To me, designing means creating something that will bring someone happiness each and every day. I never want to design something too precious to use and enjoy in real life.

Your plans for India?

We hope to soon be able to continue connecting with our customers in India, and given the pain and difficulty of the past months, find new ways to be there for them in their everyday lives.

You have this power to make the most simple clothes look regal, luxurious. Has that always been the mantra?

Yes, for me it has always been about the yin and yang of opulence and simplicity, things that are laid-back but at the same time luxurious.

Has covid-19 made you rethink the way you approach fashion?

To a large extent, yes. It gave us all a chance to slow down and reflect on how we have been doing things. And we have made some changes to things like the calendar and our production schedules. We are going to have only two collections per year versus four with the pre-seasons.

What do you think post-pandemic dressing will look like?

I think people are, in many ways, ready to ditch the sweatpants and get dressed up again, so we will see a lot of over-the-top glamour when things return to “normal”. At the same time, I think we have gotten used to a certain level of comfort, so for me, when I am designing, it’s all about finding ways to channel that comfort into something super luxurious that you can’t wait to wear to the office or for a night out.

What are your favourite clothes... ones in which you feel at home? And the most luxurious items you own?

I have developed a uniform that takes me almost everywhere I need to go: jeans or cargo pants, a black T-shirt or crew-neck cashmere sweater, a black blazer and my aviators—they make me feel at home in any situation. The most luxurious item I own, to me, is a sentimental one—my grandfather’s wedding ring.

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