Michael Kors: Master of luxury

Portrait of Michael Kors by Douglas Friedman

Interview: Haris Stavridis // Portrait: Douglas Friedman — Courtesy of Michael Kors

You grew up in a fashion-loving family. Do you feel that your career would have been different if you hadn't, especially since you also tried acting a bit?

I can't even imagine! Everyone in my family was a fashionista. My mother was a model, my grandmother never wore the same thing twice, and my grandfather worked in the textile business. It was in my blood. There was just no question that I was going to be a designer.

What's the most vivid memory you have from your early days as a designer?

Early on, there was just so much excitement for me figuring out what it means to run my own company and how to establish myself as a designer. But every day since has been an incredible learning experience! I remember thinking I'd be happy if my clothes were sold to a handful of the top retailers in the United States and Europe. And now, here we are with Michael Kors stores around the globe.

Has New York gotten less or more exciting over the years for you? Do you miss the Studio 54 days?

There is never a dull day in New York. And who doesn't miss Studio 54? Back when I was 18, we were all fashion-obsessed, and at that moment in time there were no rules. Because of the club scene at the time, there were places to wear crazy things. Everything from leg warmers and army hats to rhinestone brooches to shoulder pads to triple wrap belts, diaper pants—nothing was off limits. A lot of the time people look at fashion shows and say “where would you wear it?” but certainly when I was a student at FIT, you would wear it that night to Studio 54.

How has your experience at Céline changed your perception about fashion and design? What did you learn during the years you were designing for the house?

My years at Céline helped cultivate my global perspective on fashion. The clothes I design have to work for a woman, no matter where she is—whether it's Dubai, Singapore, London, Paris, or New York. If she has a dress that works in all of these cities, and just changes up the accessories...well that is easy and it's chic. What more could you want?

What are the major differences between the way American designers and French designers approach luxury and glamour?

Despite the cliches, Americans do not only wear jeans and T-shirts and the French do not always dress up. There are not many differences today, because modern fashion works worldwide. It combines European heritage and glamour with the typical American comfort.

Your clothes have been worn by many celebrities and you are also good friends with a lot of them. Are there any related stories you'd like to share with us?

Aerin Lauder, Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Lively are just a handful of women I consider muses. They are all chic, sexy, and sporty at the same time. But I have to say that I am just as inspired by my customers and the real women I see everyday on the streets carrying my bags and wearing my clothes.

You have said that Halston was the game changer. What do you admire about his work and life?

Halston blew the dust off the concept of glamour and luxury and turned it into something modern, sexy, and timeless. He proved that if a designer does their job right, you can dress women of any age and size and still make them look fabulous.

Do you design by focusing on the people who will wear your items or on a particular story you want to tell?

When I design, I don't have one woman in mind. I think of the women I know in real life who are busy and engaged in the world around them. They are constantly juggling with family, work, friends, and social commitments. They travel. They need clothes and accessories that will work wherever they are in the world.

What are the traits that make a designer good and what are the traits that make a designer successful?

I think that to be successful in fashion really means being authentic to who you are as a designer and as a person. Women are so smart; when something seems inauthentic, I think that she skips it. I have always believed you can be chic and have a sense of humour, and that you can be sexy and comfortable. Women today want it all. If you listen to that, you'll be successful.

I've read and heard that you are quite approachable as a person. Has this characteristic helped you better understand what customers might want?

Honestly, this is something that goes back to authenticity. Whether it's in person, or women seeing me on television, or reading an article about me, I want my customers to hear not only what I'm thinking about the brand, but also to be able to connect on a more personal level. It's a way of communicating so they know I am actually living the life that my collection reflects.

How do you find the right balance between growing your company and safeguarding important aspects like reputation and prestige?

One of the things that has been key to establishing my brand's DNA is staying true to my vision from the beginning. That is ultimately what has helped the company grow in the most genuine way. I focus on the customer—what she wants, what she needs. I work on bringing that to her season after season.

You have said that you like change. How do you keep up with what's happening in the world, especially with the disruptions created by technology?

Yes, I have. I think that change and growth are essential to sustaining a long-lasting career as a designer. The basis of those two things are that you must have curiosity and you need to have energy. I have built stamina over the years and the curiosity keeps changing, because I'm always ready for what's next and what's new. I always say that when you think you've arrived, you are done. Fashion is a reflection of the world we live in. Life is faster than it ever has been before and a lot of that has to do with technology. Therefore, fashion is faster than it has ever been. You can either get left in the dust in life, which would leave you left in the dust in fashion, or you can learn to speed up and move with the times.

If you were to go back in time, is there anything you would do differently?

I have no regrets. I'm doing exactly what I have always wanted and I needed any, and all, of the bumps in the road to get where I am today.

What's your best advice to all the young designers out there?

I would tell them to make sure they are offering women a solution to a problem. Who needs more clothes otherwise? Believe in yourself, but also listen to your customers. If they are anything like mine—smart, opinionated women—they can teach them a thing or two!

How do you see your brand evolving? What are the challenges when a company gets as big as yours?

The sky is the limit, as long as you listen to your customers and grow and evolve with them. But no matter how much the company has grown, I have always remained true to my vision of chic, luxurious, American sportswear.

You have developed a philanthropic platform that included a partnership with the UN World Food Program. Would you like to tell us about this concept and the results you have had so far?

Our “Watch Hunger Stop” campaign is something I'm really proud of. We are selling our 100 Series watches as part of our partnership with the World Food Program (WFP), and for each watch sold, WFP is able to feed 100 children. WFP describes hunger as the “world's most solvable problem” and I completely agree. Fashion today is such a huge connective force in the world, so why not use that shared energy for good? Our goal is to raise not just money, but also awareness. That's why we wanted to make a great-looking watch that makes a visible—and stylish—statement in support of a world with zero hunger.


This article has been translated and published in L'Officiel Hellas.

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