Three decades after his women’s wear debuted at Bergdorf Goodman, Michael Kors isn’t just a brand; he’s the head of a multibillion-dollar company, the go-to label for Michelle Obama and, when it comes to reality TV show judging, has a tongue that would make Simon Cowell blush.
Author Hilary Moss Illustration Sam Kerr
It’s fitting that Michael Kors would unveil his new eponymous beauty line in the Presidential Suite of the arty Surrey hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Long Island native presently sits atop the throne of the American fashion industry, with his clothes sought after by first ladies, film stars and working women alike.
At an energetic 54 years old, Kors already has a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a company worth more than $12 billion. Michelle Obama regularly wears his creations (including in her official White House portrait).
He’s even achieved broader celebrity as a judge on the hit TV show “Project Runway,” thanks in large part to his notoriously snappy critiques. (“It looks like something a Teletubby would wear to a party.”)
Earlier this summer at the Surrey, as a coterie of New York beauty editors spritzed, bronzed and glossed themselves with products from Kors’ new line, the designer ducked into a neighboring room for a lively chat with Hemispheres.
Hemispheres: Your brand is resonating right now like it never has before—not just on the coasts but in middle America, too. Why do you think that is?
Michael Kors: I grew up with women who wanted it all and they wanted the men in their lives to say, “You look amazing.” And at the same time, they were not willing to give anything up. I’m about strength, power and a lot of glamour. Initially it was a very New York thing, but now you could live in Ames, Iowa, and life is fast.
Hemispheres: You mention the women you grew up with. I assume you’re talking about your mother and grandmother. How did these women help you develop your understanding of makeup?
Kors: They each were very, very specific with their beauty ideas. My mother—her makeup regimen was 10 minutes and she was out the door.
Hemispheres: But she was a model, wasn’t she?
Kors: Yes, and they would pile the makeup on. So in real life, the last thing she wanted to do was that. I don’t think she’s ever worn foundation other than while modeling, so for her, it was a great bronzer, a little bit of mascara, lip color, nail polish and ready to run. My grandmother, on the other hand, packed train-cases full of false eyelashes and eyeliner. She would switch up her lipsticks. She always went for it. She traveled with wig boxes and enjoyed the whole process of dress-up. And my aunt was full-on, unabashedly sexy. The minute that a crazy new thing would happen, she would try it, whether it was a dark lip or fake lower lashes.
Hemispheres: As a child, did you pay attention to their beauty rituals?
Kors: I loved watching the process. When we’re getting ready for a fashion show now, and we do a hair and makeup test, it takes me back to childhood, sitting and watching my mother get her hair done when she had a special event. Actually, I was always pushing her to be more outlandish. I was a pretty trendy kid, I guess.
Hemispheres: How about your own grooming routine? I heard you took a, shall we say, serious liking to Halston Z-14 cologne when you were younger.
Kors: I did, I did. At 15, I did not have a light hand with cologne and that’s a nice way to put it. My mother used to say, “What? Oh my god! Just spray a little on! You’re dousing yourself!” But coming of age in the late ’70s, there was this decadent attitude that permeated through fashion and into the beauty world and I was truly ready to go full-tilt. Today, I don’t wear anything. I use Jo Malone soap and that’s my fragrance. A little bit of grapefruit for me and I’m done. I’m not that much of a guinea pig at this point.
Hemispheres: So how has your fashion aesthetic evolved since the days you were dousing yourself in Halston?
Kors: [In the late ’70s at Studio 54,] I once took a piece of raw silk jersey—this kind of beige-y colored silk jersey—and I wrapped it as a diaper pant with leg warmers, boots and a luggage strap as a belt, with a panama hat. And then, of course, as I was dancing the night away, I realized at 4:30 in the morning that my diaper pant was quickly coming undone and I hunted around and found a safety pin somewhere and I lasted for the rest of the night. Now I like a sense of easiness. Even on a red carpet in an evening gown, I think people still need to be able to move. They want to sit comfortably and dance comfortably. But I love really glamorous textiles and anything that is tactile. So for me it’s this yin-yang.
Hemispheres: What do people who wear Michael Kors have in common?
Kors: I think it’s that they know what works on them, and a majority of them are jugglers—they enjoy fashion and want to look stylish, but they’ve got a lot going on. And I think that Mrs. Obama is indicative of that.
Hemispheres: It must be a thrill seeing the First Lady wearing your clothes.
Kors: When I was growing up, I always thought first ladies wore prim colorful suits for an official portrait. I certainly never dreamed that times would change; that, in fact, she would wear jersey, it would be sleeveless, it would be black, it would be athletic, and it would be mine. And then Mrs. Obama wore a dress of ours on election night that was almost four years old. I like the idea of wearing a piece that you grab for again and again. “I’ve got a big night; I know that this bag, that dress, that lipstick—those are the things I can depend on.” If I pass the test of someone who’s got millions of eyes on them, then I know that for a woman who’s not in the public eye, it’s really going to work.
Hemispheres: Speaking of not being in the public eye, you had to skip most of the last season of “Project Runway.” Viewers surely missed your cutting commentary. You once told a contestant that their design looked like “the art teacher is on an acid trip.” Do you ever feel bad about saying such things?
Kors: I always just say what I viscerally feel when the clothes come out, which, quite frankly, is what any designer is going to have to contend with when they have their own collection, so I don’t feel bad about it. I do always try to say it with a grain of salt that’s a little funny.
Hemispheres: Another thing new designers will have to contend with is the current economic situation. What do you think that means for the future of the fashion industry, not just financially, but in terms of the fantasies it sells—the idea of luxury and glamour?
Kors: Luxury and glamour will always be something that people desire, and something that they strive for. Whether the economy is doing well or struggling, if something makes you feel amazing, then it’s luxurious—it can be a fabulous coat or a new lipstick. Everyone needs a little fantasy, and that’s what fashion and beauty are all about.
Hemispheres: If you hadn’t become a fashion designer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Kors: I love theater and Broadway, but I can’t sing or dance, so I’d probably be a producer.
HILARY MOSS is a New York-based fashion and culture writer who has been known to pull off an outfit a Teletubby would wear to a party.
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Michael Kors by the Numbers
Year his designs first appeared in Vogue
Year of the debut runway show for his eponymous line
Seasons as a “Project Runway” judge on both Bravo and Lifetime
Name-drops in rap music, including in a song by Nicki Minaj and Big Sean
Cameos on shows other than “Project Runway,” including “Gossip Girl”
Times his clothes have been worn by a first lady in an official White House portrait
Age when he opened up his first shop, called Iron Butterfly, in the basement of his parents’ Long Island home