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American Idol

Tan Siok Hoon
Tan Siok Hoon • 14 min read
American Idol
The launch of the new Michael Kors flagship store in Singapore’s Mandarin Gallery presents an opportunity for Options to enjoy an insightful conversation with the famous New York-based designer on what makes him and his fashion business tick.
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The launch of the new Michael Kors flagship store in Singapore’s Mandarin Gallery presents an opportunity for Options to enjoy an insightful conversation with the famous New York-based designer on what makes him and his fashion business tick.

Mention American fashion and the name Michael Kors immediately comes to mind. After all, he is the epitome of a modern, all-American style that is the perfect alchemy of classic lines, sporty silhouettes and sophisticated detailing.

Already well-known and widely recognised within fashion circles for his relaxed glamour sensibility, Michael Kors made the final leap to household name after starring on Project Runway in 2004, holding court among the show’s panel of high-profile judges.

Kors confesses, “I have to say I was definitely not a fan of reality television. Fashion is something I love, and it’s hard work. I didn’t want anything to make fun of the hard work that goes into fashion, but for it to be shown as the creative endeavour as it is. The first year we did it, I thought maybe it would last a year, with a few fashionistas and a few guys who had Heidi Klum posters watching it.” Contrary to his underestimation, Project Runway grew into a global phenomenon. And even though Kors quit the show in 2012 to concentrate on his business, fans will always adore his on point, acerbic yet witty critique, which was a double-edged sword — informative and entertaining at the same time. More importantly, his TV exposure was a blessing in disguise and, in hindsight, the ramifications were immensely positive.

“What it did for me and my business was that people started for the first time to actually understand — hearing me speak so they knew how I felt about fashion — where I was coming from. When you see a pair of beaded trousers, a cashmere sweater and a men’s raincoat and you immediately say, ‘That’s very Michael Kors,’” he says.

Misjudgments in Kors’ book are rare, like his initial opinion of the reality TV show, as he celebrates his 35th anniversary in business this year. The long career of the veteran American fashion designer resembles an upward trajectory, hitting a peak on Dec 15, 2011, when his fashion company went public, becoming the biggest IPO for a US fashion house in history.

With his inimitable humour, Kors quips, “My mum was there and she said to me, ‘Oh my God, this is even more fabulous than your bar mitzvah’ and my bar mitzvah was fabulous!” On a more serious note, he continues, “What I remember about the day, quite honestly, was all the hard work and all the years I had been in the industry. Now, we were going to be speaking to a much broader audience and it was gratifying, certainly, and exciting.”

That “broader audience” is defined by a fashion empire that now counts more than 770 stores worldwide, including the new flagship in Singapore’s Mandarin Gallery, the first and largest of its kind in Southeast Asia. The duplex, 6,957 sq ft store carries accessories — bags, shoes and small leather goods from the Michael Kors Collection and MICHAEL Michael Kors lines, watches, eyewear, jewellery, fragrances and ready-to-wear from MICHAEL Michael Kors for women. Menswear and men’s accessories are also making their Southeast Asian debut in Singapore in a freestanding Michael Kors store. To mark this milestone, Kors was honoured with the Dendrobium Michael Kors orchid, named after him and presented to him in a ceremony in the National Orchid Garden, located at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

With the mammoth scale of the Michael Kors business post-IPO, surely things must have changed. “Regardless of the number of stores we have now, compared to when I first started, my thought process as a designer is still the same. It’s just a broader or bigger audience, but it’s no different. Whether I’m here in Orchard Road or in Manila, New York or London, when I see my designs on the street, I’d say I did a good job. Someone voted for me. Out of all their choices, they voted for us. I have always had my eye on the customer.”

Kors’ path to success was not a smooth one, and he has experienced his fair share of troughs and valleys along with the mountain-top moments. At one point, he was forced to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which provides protection from creditors, giving a debtor breathing space to reorganise the business, and Kors pulled himself up by the bootstraps and fought his way back.

He ruminates, “You have to be tenacious if you want to have a long career in fashion. What I learnt from the early 1990s — we had a terrible economic situation globally and I got caught up in someone else’s business problems — but what I did learn was, more than anything, you cannot take away from a creative person his or her gut instincts. Instead of making me nervous and trying to figure it all out, I learnt to really be true to myself, my customers and ethos. And when times get tough, you hunker down and focus. Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look at the other guy. You just have to do what is right for you and your customers.”

Fanning a passion
And gut instinct is something that Michael Kors does not lack, even in identifying his vocation from an early age. Growing up in Long Island, New York in a family of people who loved fashion and were involved in the fashion industry, the young Kors found a passion that fuelled his own sartorial interest.

“I was an only child and with my mum and grandparents all the time. I was always reading, dreaming and sketching from really young. Even though I was sketching houses and cars, I slowly realised I could never be an architect, as I am not a mathematician. I couldn’t design a car, as I’m not mechanical, but fashion was always something that excited me. For a minute, I thought I wanted to be a Broadway singer; so, I took some acting classes but I couldn’t dance and, the minute I left my acting classes, all I wanted to do was to go shopping. And by the time I was 13, that was it,” he comments in amusement.

Precocious as a child, the five-year-old Kors took fashion matters into his own hands when his mother married for the second time: He edited and changed her gown with the removal of an excessive number of bows. He declares that the final product boasted “simplicity, elegance and good lines, and the bows would have killed it”.

Encouraged from a young age by a supportive mother and family to “follow his dream, do what he loves, know what he’s good at and be passionate about it”, it was not surprising that by the age of 10, Kors had his first taste of creative enterprise. Convincing his mother to let him transform the basement of their house into a store called The Iron Butterfly, he sold the things he had made — tie-dye, batik, candles, fringes, macramé and jewellery — together with a friend’s knits and crochets. The merchandise sold out in four days.

How an empire was built
Who knew that this childhood venture would herald a Michael Kors fashion empire that spans the globe today? On his journey, Kors would form two fortuitous partnerships — with a Fifth Avenue boutique called Lothars and Bergdorf Goodman. En route to that, he enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology after high school, but left after two semesters or so, citing impatience to design the kind of clothes he knew he was already interested in.

“In the meantime, I was working selling clothes in a boutique in New York on Fifth Avenue, like the Orchard Road of New York. It was a famous store with a lot of famous customers, called Lothars,” Kors says. “My first season in fashion was in 1981. The owners of Lothars noticed I had a good rapport with the clients, so they decided to set up a workshop for me to design and make the kind of clothes that I thought the clients would love.”

Kors’ gig at Lothars eventually led to an opportunity to sell his designs at Bergdorf Goodman, New York’s premier department store, where the Michael Kors label has retailed since, for the last 35 years. His first collection was a runaway hit but it was another three years, in 1984, before Kors would finally stage his first runway show at New York Fashion Week. Above all, from the very beginning, Kors has managed to clearly articulate his design vision, never veering far from the core from year to year and collection to collection.

“When I design something, the best thing that can happen is people walk over and say you look great, and then they say they love what you are wearing. It’s all about the person,” Kors says. “I found out early on that fashion has a tendency to swing from one extreme to another. It’s either so classic that it will put you to sleep or it’s so avant-garde that you’ll wear it just once. I discovered that the women I knew wanted to feel feminine but powerful and they wanted to be glamorous but comfortable,” he says, disclosing the rationale behind his design philosophy.

He elaborates, “I never design anything for just the photograph or just the image. If I never see anyone wearing or using what I design, I feel that it’s dead. If people call me commercial, I’m not insulted because if I wanted to make something purely beautiful for beauty’s sake, I would have become a painter. Fashion is creative but it’s also a creative business. I want to solve problems, I want to be the solution. That’s what I do. “Somehow, you can have 25 handbags but why do you always grab the same two, along with the same dress and the same coat? Those are the ones — your best friends. I want to build in the feeling of comfort and security that when you buy something, it becomes your best friend. My job is to know what people want.”

Obviously, that strategy has borne fruit for Kors, not just in terms of business profitability, but in a long list of accolades that he has received. He has been named on TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential (2013) list, and has won numerous Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards, including Womenswear Designer of the Year (1999) and Menswear Designer of the Year (2003). In 2010, he became the youngest recipient of the CFDA’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ageless fashion for all
How is the Michael Kors brand wooing the millennial generation of shoppers without alienating its more mature clients? Kors’ answer is a surprise. “We actually have many instances of three generations of women in one family wearing Michael Kors — the grandmother, mother and granddaughter. Sometimes, they buy the same pieces but wear them differently. I’m finding now that younger women are more sophisticated and older women are more curious and, in a strange way, everyone has turned into 35-year-olds.”

Talking about “ageless” fashion, Kors says, “Honestly, it’s just knowing what works for you. We are not ever going to be specific to one age group, but the attitude of the customer. We dress women in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. I don’t like to think about nationalities or age and size. When we put the show together, someone asked, What’s the look of the models? And I said the mix of the world: petite, tall, curvy, slim, boyish, sexy, all of it. The mix is what is interesting. I think, ultimately, that’s what it is.”

As a global conglomerate with a growing number of retail spaces scattered worldwide, what is the brand doing to prepare itself for the future of fashion? Kors observes that there are now fewer and fewer variances from region to region, country to country, as the seasons have disappeared throughout the world, in addition to the advent of controlled indoor temperatures. Products such as the Michael Kors Access collection of customisable smart watches and accessories or wearable tech make up one aspect of fashion’s future, in addition to new materials that react to the weather and convertible things that are versatile and can be changed. Kors concludes, “Life is only going to get faster and faster. It’s not going to go backwards and get slow. My job is to stay ahead of it.”

E-commerce and social media platforms have also brought great benefits to the brand in a “shrinking world where there are no borders and no seasons”. Kors says, “So, how we shop is, of course, different. The excitement when you walk into a bricks-and-mortar store combined with the ability to shop on your phone on your way to work is a revolution.” Social media has made it possible for fashion brands such as Michael Kors to communicate with their clients globally and get simultaneous feedback. “How great is that? We can try new things all the time in different ways. It’s like I’m having a personal conversation with millions of people globally, all at the same time. It’s a brilliant revolution,” he enthuses.

At the opening of the Michael Kors Mandarin Gallery flagship store in Singapore, amid the camera flashes, screaming fans and smooth flow of champagne and hors d’oeuvres, the attention is on the stylish and beautiful crop of international social influencers, socialites, celebrities, including award-winning Hollywood actress Kate Hudson and, of course, the man of the hour, Michael Kors.

Striking a balance
But if we were to browse the store when it is quieter, sans the throngs of guests, we would concur that a Michael Kors store comes stocked with “a full range that’s really a lifestyle, where we do everything from a chic flip-flop to an extravagant fur coat, from a beaded evening gown to shorts”. That winning strategy, in the words of Kors, reads like this: “We mix everything together because I think we’re here to answer all these questions in a woman’s closet and life. The deal is that our shorts feel elegant and chic and we make the evening gown relaxed, meeting somewhere in the middle. There should be a balance of practicality and utility with glamour. What we do is combine the two things and strike a balance.”

The Michael Kors ad campaigns feature a jet-set theme inspired by 1960s and 1970s icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Bianca and Mick Jagger, who seemed to live in a heightened reality, showcasing how fast-paced, modern and glamorous they were. The connection to our fast-moving lives today, whether it is on a plane or subway, is not lost on fans and clients of the brand.

As the exemplary global fashion player, Kors also practises social responsibility. He has undertaken to fight world hunger with the Watch Hunger Stop campaign, which donates 100 meals for each Michael Kors 100 Series watch sold. So far, 15 million meals have been served. Kors has also been active since the 1980s in a New York organisation called God’s Love We Deliver, which provides nutritious meals to those ill with AIDS. This has now been expanded to include people afflicted by other diseases. Kors has also funded the new headquarters of God’s Love We Deliver, located in the Michael Kors building.

As the festivities wind down over a hosted dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT restaurant in Marina Bay Sands, Kors makes his way out and passes the table at which I am seated. He reaches out to shake my hand, thanking me for the nice chat earlier this afternoon. A zillion things must have occupied his attention all day, and I am impressed that he remembers our interview. I cannot help thinking what a class act Kors is, recalling TV journalist Alina Cho’s introduction of him at their dialogue that we attended in the morning: “In all the years that I have known you, you have managed to stay the exact same person — you are humble, you are kind, you are generous, you are hilarious and you are larger than life.” I could not have said it better.

Tan Siok Hoon is an assistant editor of Options at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 758 (Dec 12) of The Edge Singapore.

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