The Militant Modernist: A Q&A with alumnus Michael Kors

The Militant Modernist
A Q&A with alumnus Michael Kors, Fashion Design, a designer who needs no introduction
By Alex Joseph

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Have you ever wished that one day you would answer the phone and hear a nicesounding lady say, “Hi, would you like to speak to Michael Kors?” Don’t hate me, but this happened to me the other day. The staggeringly successful sportswear designer, former Project Runway judge, and FIT alumnus recently endowed a $1 million scholarship for a Fashion Design student. He took some time to tell Hue about his plans for the lucky recipient, Michelle Obama’s style, and the future of fashion. Kors grew up on Long Island and came to FIT in the late ’70s to study fashion design. Soon after arriving, he got a job at the upscale boutique Lothar’s, where he began designing and selling his first collection. He was discovered by a Bergdorf Goodman buyer, and launched his namesake line there in 1981. Over the years, he’s dressed numerous celebrities and won awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for women’s wear in 1999 and menswear in 2003, and in 2010, a lifetime achievement award. The brand has grown to encompass a diffusion line, KORS (footwear and jeans). It was through his appearances on Project Runway, however, that his larger-than-life personality became generally known, particularly for his quips: Once, he described a contestant’s gown as “Mad Max rigatoni.” In our interview, he said, “I don’t know where I got those from,” and the wisecracking persona was nowhere in evidence. He was, instead, thoughtful and perceptive, an articulate businessman in charge of a flourishing career.

Hue: What’s it like to see your designs on Michelle Obama—in the official White House portrait, no less?
MK: I’ve met her numerous times, though we’ve never had an official “fashion repartee.” What’s interesting to me is that, in my lifetime, other than Jackie Kennedy, first ladies were always more formal and buttoned-up. Mostly they disdained fashion. Mrs. Obama demonstrates how you can be smart and interested in fashion while keeping your hectic schedule. Traditionally, the first lady would wear a suit or something colorful for the White House portrait. I never thought we’d see a first lady in black matte jersey!

Who else wears your designs well?
We have a huge range of clients of all ages and sizes. We also dress celebrities. Blake Lively, Jennifer Hudson, Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain—these women are all full of confidence. They want to walk in a room and be the person you look at. I think of myself as the framer; the woman is the picture.

Sounds like something Chanel would say.
Well, like Chanel, I think about how clothes work in real life. Of course, celebrities—like Angelina Jolie, who’s been a client for years—have a heightened real life. But again, I think it’s really that confidence that’s the connective thread. Also the idea that good fashion doesn’t have an expiration date. The dress Michelle wore to the last inaugural reception was four years old.

Do you have a muse?
I have my mix of muses, just like women have different moods. It’s not one woman; it’s a cast of characters, like an Almodóvar or Fellini film. My mom has always been a bellwether. She likes simplicity, understatement, a laid-back look. My grandmother, on the other hand, was over the top. She loved beads and glamour. They’re two sides to one coin. I do a blend.

Last fall, you endowed a $1 million FIT scholarship. The student recipient gets a full ride, plus an internship at your firm. What’s the most important thing you have to tell them?
Two things. One, they have to know the customer. They have to spend time watching people shop. But they also need to have a curiosity about what’s going on, past and present. Pop culture, film, music, TV, travel…. Even if you can’t afford to travel, in today’s world, you can sit in traffic and on a bus and go to Bali on your phone. You can’t be bottled up. You can’t say, “I’ve seen it all.” Fashion is the big picture. We tell the story of what’s happening in the world, so we have to know that story.

Over the years we’ve noticed that a lot of designers on Project Runway have vision, but limited technical skills. How important are they in today’s global fashion world?
There’s no set way of doing things. I’ve been sketching since I was 4 or 5, but I am a disastrous sewer. I like to work fast. Sewing is like baking, and sketching is an impromptu stew. I am not a baker. You do need to know how clothes are made—the finishing, the fit. But I think more of the skills needed today are, Can you talk to the press? Do you know who the customer is? When you meet that customer, can you talk to them? Can you strike a balance between art and commerce?

What’s different about young designers today from when you started out?
In a word, the internet. It changed everything about fashion. I used to go to the FIT library and look at 1935 issues of Vogue. That’s not the same as putting Poiret into Google. Today, there’s a lot more sampling of styles. Back then, you could start quietly. For my first fashion show, we only had one TV show—Style with Elsa Klensch on CNN. Today, you can graduate from school, put a collection together, and suddenly there are a million blogs with all these opinions being thrown at you. Then, if you didn’t live in a big city, you didn’t have a chance, but now anyone can watch a show live stream from Manitoba. So you can get that attention very quickly, but you haven’t learned how to sustain things. You’re finding your way, but doing it very publicly. There’s more opportunity today than when I started because of a greater curiosity about new designers. But it’s much harder to work when the spotlight is blaring at you with such a high intensity.

What’s the future of fashion?
We never thought fashion would be so global. Once, I had to learn about the customer in Texas; now, it’s Singapore. We’ll never go back to Kay Thompson in Funny Face saying, “Think pink!” and everyone’s suddenly wearing pink. We’ll definitely see more democracy of fashion, which began in the ’70s. More and more, individuals will dress for their own individual styles, their own group. And the rest of it—who knows? We’ll see where the world takes us, and that’s where fashion will go.

This interview originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Hue magazine.

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