9:56 am Jun. 7, 2012
The designer Michael Kors has told the story of his fashion origins many times before, but last night at the 92nd Street Y, he told it again live, in his outrageous, flamboyant, and finally kaffeeklatsch-friendly Long Island accent, and the crowd was all ears.
When he was five years old, he helped his mother with her wedding dress. It had lots of bows. “I think it’s really busy,” he recalled telling his mom. So they took the bows off and the dress, at least, was a success, even if the marriage wasn't.
“My mom ended up getting divorced from Bill Kors, but I think the dress was pretty timeless,” he said.
Just about six months ago, his label went public at $3.8 billion, becoming the largest initial public stock offering in fashion-industry history.
“It beat my Bar Mitzvah,” Kors said.
“It doesn’t matter if I had ten zillion dollars in the bank or ten dollars in the bank. I care about people, I care about nature. Sure, comfort’s fabulous. It’s not like the next day I ran out and said, OK, solid-gold Cadillac. You know, that’s really not how I operate, that’s not how I think. And quite frankly, we’re so busy everyday, that it’s about doing what we do, and doing it well.”
Kors, dressed in his signature dark T-shirt, blazer and jeans, was being interviewed by Fern Mallis, who is instrumental in creating New York’s Fashion Week and former head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It’s part of a series at the Y where designers are interviewed about their roots and success, and several hundred fashion forward people in the crowd sat to listen.
Kors, now listed as a future contender for Forbes’ Billionaires List (the company sold even more shares in March), is always eager to paint himself as a regular guy, something that is ultimately believable despite his too-much protesting. He told the crowd that a night eating club sandwiches and watching "Mad Men" with his new husband, Lance LaPere, was about as much as he needed money to buy. More precious is time: Kors has always been very busy.
When he was 11, he had a boutique in his basement, which he called his first pop-up store. Later, he hand-washed clothes for other campers at sleep away camp, and designed the mustard yellow and chocolate color scheme for his Bar Mitzvah. Kors, who dropped out of the Fashion Institute of Technology to launch his own line, recalled one fashion moment that seemed to preview the years to come: He went to Studio 54 instead of his senior prom.
“I was wearing a piece of raw silk jersey wrapped into a diaper pant, a Panama hat, a burlap jacket and I took three luggage straps, wrapped them around my waist and my thigh—I was considerably smaller then—and we got to the door at Studio 54 where they were like, these kids are fabulous.”
Kors is known globally as a 30-year veteran in the fashion industry. But he’s perhaps more well-known to most people as a judge on “Project Runway.”
He said he was initially skeptical when approached with the idea for "Project Runway" (which he said will be filming its tenth season next week in Times Square), thinking of "Survivor." But it was a comparison to the process-oriented show, “Project Greenlight“ that got Kors on board.
“I initially thought that the only people who would watch it would be fashion obsessed women, gay men, and men who were obsessed with Heidi Klum,” he said.
Soon, though, he said even investment bankers approached him to laud the show. He didn’t realize people would want to watch the hard work designers do, and it didn’t hurt that many people in fashion have eclectic personalities that make great screen drama.
Mallis asked about when he first met and hired LaPere, whom he married last year.
"What did he show you?" Mallis said. Kors replied simply: "Well."
The room started to laugh.
"He's my husband," he said to the crowd, adding more laughter. "What did he show me? What did he show me?"
But the ladies-who-lunch bawd was quickly normalized as Kors said he saw a portfolio that showed talent and an eye for detail..
Kors and Mallis remembered a show in 1991 that was a part of the beginnings of Fashion Week. During that show, which featured Naomi Campbell and was set in an “edgy” downtown loft, plaster fell from the ceiling and hit viewers and reporters, including powerful fashion critic Suzy Menkes. They continued the show but decided it was time for New York designers to do better.
“We finished off the show and I think we all realized that it was time for New York to get professional show spaces,” he said.
Kors, famous for practical, comfortable, and classic ready-to-wear clothing, said his real big moment was when he was sitting in a London theater and turned on his phone during intermission to find "1,100 emails." Michelle Obama's official portrait had come out, and she was wearing a dress of his.
“And I really thought to myself that when I was growing up, after Jackie Kennedy the real reality is that the first lady is always, you know, in a little suit, she’s all buttoned up. And I was like this is unbelievably fabulous. We have a first lady now whose wearing a Jersey dress with an athletic armhole. Wow, the rules have changed.”
Obama is only one of the countless celebrities who wear Kors’ clothing. His designs are a red carpet staple and said his work is at its best when it’s a confidence booster. He speculated that comfort could be the appeal for many celebrities who deal with cameras, even after stressful events.
“I have seen women, through the years, at kind of vulnerable moments go for Michael Kors. Jennifer Lopez, literally two days after she broke up with Ben Affleck, hits the red carpet, Michael Kors. Jennifer Garner has her first child, she’s presenting at the Academy Awards ten days later, Michael Kors. And I think there’s that confidence boost, perhaps.”
Ending the talk, Mallis asked how many in the room owned Kors, and nearly every hand went up.
“Oh my God, it’s my crowd,” he said.
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