Committed to the Kors

A rejection of downbeat fashion cool has served Michael Kors very well indeed, with the brand registering a 40 per cent upswing in sales in the past year. Vanessa Friedman meets fashion’s ebullient anomaly, who is proving as popular with investors as with clients

Michael Kors with looks from his 2013 resort collection. Dresses from far left: column dress in crepe sable, £1,792. Leopard-print crepe column dress, £1,699. Giraffe-print one-shoulder gown in sequined tulle, £9,727. Jersey and crystal cutout gown, price on request. Giraffe-print gown in sequined chiffon, £10,214. Ocelot-print bias-cut gown in sequined tulle, price on request
Michael Kors with looks from his 2013 resort collection. Dresses from far left: column dress in crepe sable, £1,792. Leopard-print crepe column dress, £1,699. Giraffe-print one-shoulder gown in sequined tulle, £9,727. Jersey and crystal cutout gown, price on request. Giraffe-print gown in sequined chiffon, £10,214. Ocelot-print bias-cut gown in sequined tulle, price on request | Image: Dorothy Hong

Earlier this year, at the Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013 womenswear show, a sign was posted up backstage just before the exit to the catwalk. On it was scrawled the following note to models: “Ready, set, go! You are fast-paced, athletic and chic. You race all over town from the Lower East to the Upper East Side. Be strong, powerful, and sexy... Make them die with envy! Have a great show!!”

And so they did. Out the girls came, swinging their ponytails, marching down the runway in camouflage minks, bright-blue and taxi-cab-yellow double-faced skirts and tailored jackets, and sleek leather, all to a musical mash-up that included Willy Moon’s She Loves Me and songs from West Side Story – just as they do, with small variations, at almost every Michael Kors show. The songs may change, the silhouettes evolve, but the essential ingredients – zest, sportswear, luxe – remain the same. What you see is what you get.

This makes Kors, 54, something of an anomaly in the trend-today-passé-tomorrow fashion world, and has, in the past, caused some people to raise an eyebrow and call for more “direction” and “concept” in his collections. Despite winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 (having previously been the Womenswear Designer of the Year in 1999 and the Menswear Designer of the Year in 2003), despite a six-year stint in Europe as the creative director of Céline, and despite the fact that his clothes are worn by women as diverse as Lil’ Kim and Sigourney Weaver, Kors is considered by many to be a known (which in fashion terms often reads as unexciting) commodity.

Which is probably why those very same people were so surprised when just over a year and a half ago Michael Kors took his brand public, in one of the most successful initial public offerings (IPOs) of the year – and the biggest American fashion IPO ever – with the brand becoming only the third stand-alone US luxury fashion brand on the New York stock exchange (the other two being Ralph Lauren and Coach). They were also taken aback to discover that, in the last fiscal year, Kors reported an increase in same-store sales globally of 40 per cent, and growth in European revenue of 103 per cent – at a time when other brands were reporting flat or negative growth in the region. And they could only watch as Kors landed on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world list earlier this year, the lone fashion designer included in the “Titans” category, alongside such names as Jay-Z, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Oh-Hyun Kwon, the CEO of Samsung.

Bouclé and crepe peplum gown, £2,860, and Barbara Runway sandals, £345. Both Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013
Bouclé and crepe peplum gown, £2,860, and Barbara Runway sandals, £345. Both Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013

“It’s a phenomenon,” says Marigay McKee, chief merchant of Harrods, bluntly.

It turns out that fashion forgot something Michael Kors has always held dear, a reality that has powered his brand’s revenues from $17m 10 years ago to $2.2bn in 2012-2013: “There is real value in being understandable, reliable and luxurious,” according to luxury-brand consultant and former senior vice-president of fashion and PR at Bergdorf Goodman, Robert Burke. Or, as Aerin Lauder, who has been a client for over 15 years, says, “It’s OK to like looking pretty.” (“Pretty and rich,” says Kors.)

And although basing a business on something as apparently obvious and banal as “pretty” may seem reductive, sticking to this in the face of fashion is a more complicated story than you might expect. “Fashion people are crazed for cool,” says Kors, who has the cheerful, well-fed aspect of the prosperous, in his uniform of T-shirt, jeans and New Balance trainers. “And I think they are often a little embarrassed about being in this ‘frivolous’ industry, so they want to imbue it with all this heavy seriousness. But, in reality, if you stand anywhere on the planet and ask someone for their list of priorities in the morning, I bet cool would be very far down the list. People want to feel confident, and they want their problems solved.”

For Michael Kors, it has ever been thus, since he started his own boutique, called Iron Butterfly, in his parents’ Long Island basement, aged 11, after a brief stint as a child actor. An only child, Kors spent less than a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology, leaving to work for an uptown boutique called Lothar’s, dressing the windows, working as a sales assistant and doing some designing in-house. In 1981, aged 22, he launched his own brand, based on the same principles then as now: “comfort, elegance and unselfconscious glamour”, as Anna Wintour has characterised them.

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“Michael really understands the idea and allure of effortless, casual luxury – which we all know is not effortless at all,” says McKee. “But he makes it look effortless. He has simplified the luxury wardrobe-to-go: you get a dress, a cardigan, trousers and a cape, and you can wear each of them three or four different ways. He makes it easy to put clothes together.”

Kors has an ineffable ability to make very simple lines look expensive, and very luxurious fabrics look casual. Cases in point: the 1950s-style quilted-leather full skirt (£3,790) under a belted cashmere jacket with motorcycle sleeves and zips at the pockets (£1,190) – think couture-meets-Marlon Brando – from the autumn/winter collection; and the looks from the resort collection, which included a nude chiffon floor-sweeping T-shirt dress, embroidered in silver-sequin giraffe-print spots (£10,214). The juxtaposition of the over-the-top animal print and understated silhouette balanced each other out – and left room to stride. Energetically.

Indeed, Kors says the biggest mistake he ever made was in the 1990s, when he briefly succumbed to fashion pressure and made a “sombre” collection. “It was a time when sadness was in,” he says. “But really, who wants to put on something that makes you look dour? Show me that person. I want to meet them. It’s just not my thing, and it never will be. I like optimism.”

He still often refers to his formative years; recently, at fittings for his resort show, he observed of a taupe leather dress, “Oh, that’s heaven. It’s a leather tennis dress. It’s so Toby Behar.” When his staff looked puzzled, he explained: “Toby Behar was the mother of a boy I was friends with in junior high school. I say he was my friend, but we didn’t really have anything to talk about – but his mother was so chic! She would wear a raccoon coat and Tretorns.”

From left: Antonia Runway shoes, £345, and Miranda haircalf tote bag, £1,215. Both Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013
From left: Antonia Runway shoes, £345, and Miranda haircalf tote bag, £1,215. Both Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013

In other words, his peers may find inspiration in trips to exotic places or any of a host of esoteric references, but Kors has always found it in the world around him – and the women who live in it. Unlike many European designers, who come from a tradition of the creator in the ivory tower, Kors comes from the garment district, and is notoriously hands-on.

“I think the biggest disaster for any businessperson dealing with consumers is not to be with them,” he says. “And when I’m with them, I’m very upfront. I’ll say, ‘Take that off, it makes your ass look fat.’ But if you’re honest with them, they’re honest with you.”

According to McKee, who has stocked Kors for more than 13 years, “customers are incredibly loyal. And they are not the size 0 customer, they are the UK size 10-14 one, and he makes them look good.” It’s not a coincidence that Kors provided the clothes for Helen Hunt when she starred in the 2000 film What Women Want.

As Lauder points out, one of the tenets of Kors’ clothes is that they transcend fashion seasons. “I still wear tunics from five years ago, and the leather trousers,” she says. “I think probably 50 per cent of my wardrobe is now Michael Kors. You know, I work, I have children and I travel a lot; I need versatility, and he does all of that and you never have to worry about being appropriate. I was just in Texas to give a presentation at Neiman Marcus, and I wore a Michael Kors sleeveless lace dress – and I felt perfect.”

Tweed Jacquard jacket, £1,165, matching trousers, £505, leather belt, £435, metal Curb Chain choker, £280, leather gloves, £460, and Ayah Runway shoes, £395. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013
Tweed Jacquard jacket, £1,165, matching trousers, £505, leather belt, £435, metal Curb Chain choker, £280, leather gloves, £460, and Ayah Runway shoes, £395. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013

Burke remembers seeing Kors doing a trunk show at Bergdorf Goodman in his early years. “It was about 1998,” he says. “Women were enthralled. Everyone, including all the salespeople, was laughing. He’s not afraid to deal with the customer.” And when Kors became creative director of Céline after LVMH bought the brand in 1998 (a position he held concurrently with running his own house), he “used to go to the shop to see how things were going”, he says. “Once Madame Chirac was in there and saw me in my jeans. She was shocked.” He shrugs. “It’s who I am.”

Kors still likes to show up on the shop floor and chat; and when he isn’t in the store, he’s doing it virtually. He has more than 1.3m followers on Twitter, more than 927,000 on Instagram and more than 5.3m “likes” on his Facebook page (indeed, he considers social media to be a global trunk show – an opportunity to interact with all his customers everywhere). Recently, in Manila, he “went out for food, and ended up in a restaurant full of women having their office Christmas party. They surrounded us – they all wanted to have a picture taken with their handbags.” On another trip to Australia, he says, he was at a beach snack bar, when a man and his two daughters came up to him and said, “You’re Michael Kors! My wife would have a heart attack!”

This, presumably, is one of the reasons why, when Harvey Weinstein was looking for a designer-judge for a new television show called Project Runway, Kors’ name came up. And although appearing on a mass-market fashion show was theoretically a risk for a high-end designer, Project Runway, which Kors stayed with for 10 seasons, helped make the designer a star.

“It put Michael’s personality in front of people and gave his name content,” says John Idol, who has been chairman and CEO of the Michael Kors brand since 2003. “It was a gamble, but we hoped that since Harvey was involved it would be done well.”

From left: metal Curb Chain choker, £280, leather Portfolio bag, £780, and silicone Mercer watch with neon dial, £259. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013
From left: metal Curb Chain choker, £280, leather Portfolio bag, £780, and silicone Mercer watch with neon dial, £259. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013

“I know fashion thinks I’m just this jovial fellow, but I’m not always like that. I think the show made people really understand me in a different way,” says Kors, “because I’d always be asking the kids why there were creases at the crotch. And viewers would see me leaping out of my chair and going crazy if someone said, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to dress bigger people, or older people.’”

This sense of right and wrong and strength of conviction surfaced after Kors left Céline in 2003, making him one of the few designers to ever voluntarily quit an LVMH brand. He famously told Women’s Wear Daily that he felt “neglected” there, and had spent an estimated total of three hours with chairman Bernard Arnault. “I never felt as though there was a strategy at LVMH to pit the designers against each other or the brands against each other,” Kors said. “It’s just that I never felt as if anyone was watching the smaller companies at all; everybody was spending their time on the two first-born children – Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. In a way, if you’re a nice kid, no one pays attention to you. If you’re a bad kid, you get spoilt.”

This dissatisfaction coincided with a meeting with investors Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll – who were looking for their next brand after selling their controlling stake in Tommy Hilfiger – and with Idol, the former CEO of Donna Karan. Chou and Stroll hatched a plan to buy out LVMH’s stake in Michael Kors.

“I spent 13 years at Ralph Lauren,” says Idol, “and I had the opportunity to see what happens when a design vision is executed very consistently over a long time. I thought Michael had the same vision. Plus, he is an incredible merchant: he knows where to put the watch, the shoes. And not everyone has that right-brain/left-brain combination.”

Felted jersey peplum sheath dress, £1,070, plastic Teri goggles, £130, leather gloves, £460, leather Carrington satchel, £960, and Amador Runway shoes, £345. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013
Felted jersey peplum sheath dress, £1,070, plastic Teri goggles, £130, leather gloves, £460, leather Carrington satchel, £960, and Amador Runway shoes, £345. All Michael Kors autumn/winter 2013

“I’m pretty competitive,” says Kors. “It’s why I don’t do sports; I’m not naturally athletic, and I don’t like doing things I can’t win. But at Céline I learnt two things: first, the incredible power of accessories; second, that globalisation was real. Before that, my idea of having an international business was selling to Holt Renfrew in Toronto. I’d never thought about Singapore. But I really saw the walls tumbling down between, say, American and French and UK brands.” Not to mention a change in the way women dressed all over the world, moving from the classic “outfit” of the couture age to the separates that gave rise to sportswear and are Kors’ sartorial building blocks. So they began what Burke characterises as “stealth” brand-building. “Everything was done in a very strategic way,” he says. “They knew that if they wanted Kors to be a big-time player globally they had to focus on accessories. And they realised this before most other brands.”

Idol says that 80 per cent of their business is now in accessories and related products. “The bags are off the Richter scale for us,” says McKee. Furthermore, they have taken a strategic approach that was identified by the designer in his interactions with customers: although there are now two different Michael Kors apparel lines – Michael Kors Collection, from the catwalk line, and Michael Michael Kors, a more contemporary offering – they are often retailed together, and shown together on the website, because, says Kors, “that’s how people shop”.

“I’ve been in five continents over the past few months, and whether it’s Russia, Brazil or the Middle East, the brand is entirely consistent,” says Burke.

“Michael Michael Kors is an unusual line for us, in that it is cross-border, cross-age-group – people buy it at 18 and 60 – and cross-size,” says McKee. “It’s growing at an enormous rate.”

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The brand launched watches through a licence with Fossil in 2004 – and Kors is now one of the world’s top-selling accessible watch brands – and will debut Kors beauty, done under licence with Estée Lauder (which also produces the brand’s fragrances), this month. “For me, beauty is like a handbag,” says Kors. “It’s a way to change a look quickly; it’s colour. These things feel natural to me. We didn’t include foundation, because I don’t think I’m the person you want to sit down with to discuss ways of protecting the skin against UV rays. Whatever you do, it has to make sense. It’s why there will never be Michael Kors hosiery; I haven’t had pantyhose on the runway since 1992. No one would believe me doing it. We’re not about ballgowns. If ballgowns become a major trend, I’m happy to give our customers Oscar de la Renta’s business card.”

The cosmetics line consists of three themes – sexy, glam and sporty – with five colours in each, and four products (lipstick, lipgloss, nail polish and bronzer), priced at slightly less than the Dior/Chanel level. It will be, according to a Lauder spokesperson, one of the biggest launches of the year. Industry watchers are predicting global revenues of $80m in the first year, according to Women’s Wear Daily.

All of which means, says Idol, that in the next three to five years he expects the company to double in size. There are currently 400 Michael Kors stores around the world, with plans to open 100 more company-owned boutiques this year – including 40 in Europe, a focus for the brand (along with menswear, which currently represents a small percentage of sales). Ultimately, Idol would like to have 100 stores in Japan, 200 in Europe and 400 in North America.

As a result, Kors himself is now on the road for a third of the year. “I just look at it like another trunk-show circuit,” the designer says, “except instead of going to Toledo and Kansas, I’m going to Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. And I’m finding out how people live there and where they go and what they need to wear. In the end, I always feel my responsibility is to the consumer, not the fashion flock.”

Not that he’s complaining. In fact, you could say that he’s having the last laugh.

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