THE KORS CODE
For more than three decades, Michael Kors has dressed everyone from everyday women to European royals, first ladies and Hollywood stars. The secret to his success? A canny ability to balance consistency and creativity, says GRACE O’NEILL
What, exactly, is Michael Kors’s secret?
IF FASHION is the intersection of art and commerce, then you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern designer straddling that dichotomy with the aplomb of Michael Kors. As I walked into the designer’s A/W 2018 show at Lincoln Center, New York, on Valentine’s Day morning (feeling far from romantic, having been up until 3am with the editors and A-listers he’d invited to an industry dinner at ABC Kitchen in the chic Flatiron district), I was struck by the shrewdness of the Kors operation.
In the front row I clocked Hollywood bombshell Blake Lively, red-carpet regular Emily Blunt, supermodel Eva Herzigová and millennial megastar Zendaya. But there was also Theodora Richards (daughter of The Rolling Stones’ Keith), Princess Maria-olympia of Greece, fashion maven Sofía Sanchez de Betak and TV host Jessica Kahawaty. As I took my seat, I was bombarded by a pack of paparazzi falling over each other to get shots of the woman next to me, Selina Jen, a Taiwanese pop star. She was sitting alongside Davika Hoorne, a 26-year-old Thai actress with 7.5 million Instagram followers, and 21-year-old Zhang Xueying, a child star turned superstar in her native China. In one carefully curated seating plan, Kors had ticked off every continent, every social echelon and generations X,Y and Z.
His collection was equally universal in its offering: an homage to the wardrobe staples of stylish women, reinvented in fresh new prints and fabrics.think a floaty floral dress worn over slouchy leopard-print boots and topped with tartan outerwear, or a baggy Fair Isle sweater worn over a jacquard evening dress with clompy boots.
During the 15-minute show, more than 30 songs were played, changing every 30 seconds to represent the choppy ‘swipe’ culture we’ve found ourselves in thanks to social media. Models — including Joan Smalls, Ashley Graham, Bella Hadid
and Adwoa Aboah — wore natural hair and makeup, as per Kors’s instruction to “wash [their] hair the night before, sleep on it, then do nothing else”. As with everything Kors does, there was an almost tangible air of optimism about the whole affair.
“I knew we were showing on Valentine’s Day and I really wanted the collection to be a valentine to personal style and to the diversity of New York,” Kors told me after the show at a private table at Sardi’s, the iconic Manhattan theatre district haunt. “the streets of Newyork are full of all these characters — the uptown girl and the downtown girl — who pass each other on the street and take a little bit of influence from each other. These were the characters who were flowing through my head when I designed the collection — a little like a Fellini movie. It’s Margot Tenenbaum passing Zendaya, passing Blake Lively, passing Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina; Jackie Kennedy and Carrie Bradshaw … they’re all in there.”
The collection’s splicing together of things that seem intrinsically opposed provided a nice segue into the question I was most keen to ask Kors.as a consequence of fashion’s insatiable appetite for the Hot New Thing — whereby hyped labels churn out an unprecedented amount of It items per season, only to have those pieces relegated to the backs of wardrobes months later — have we lost reverence for consistency? “I do think it’s confusing for customers when a brand changes so often. They don’t know what to expect,” says Kors, who has been creative director of his eponymous label since it launched in 1981.Aside from his seven-year tenure at Céline in the late ’90s and early ’00s (alongside which he ran the Michael Kors brand), he has occupied the same role for 37 years, an anomaly in the industry nowadays. For context, the past three years have seen the creative directors of Chloé, Céline, Givenchy, Burberry, Christian Dior, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Bottegaveneta, Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta, roberto Cavalli and Lanvin depart.
I ask Kors if he thinks consistency is starting to be valued again given how turbulent the world — especially the US — has become. “a little stability never hurt,” he says with a shrug. “we’re living in disruptive times.” Plus, there’s the salient point that for Michael Kors, consistency pays. His personal net worth was estimated at $1.7 billion by Forbes in 2014, while, according to the same report, the company’s market cap hovers around $20.7 billion. Even with some reported losses for the company in 2017, there’s no denying Kors has found a formula that works. “I think how I design is similar to the way I vacation,” Kors, dubbed the ‘King of Jetset’, says with a laugh. “my favourite vacations are when I combine a destination that I feel so comfortable in, where I feel like I’m home, with a destination that is totally foreign to me, where I feel like, Wow, where am I? When I design, I’m looking for that same mix of familiarity and comfort mixed with something unexpected and provoking.” Anyone questioning whether the Michael Kors brand is still unexpected and provoking in 2018 need only look to the
“It’s Margot Tenenbaum passing Zendaya, passing Blake Lively, passing Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina; Jackie Kennedy and Carrie Bradshaw … they’re all in there.”
A-list women wearing it. Amal Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Tracee Ellis Ross — arguably three of the most stylish women in the world right now — have all reached for Kors in the past 12 months. Clooney wore the brand’s Bancroft shoulder bag with a red Bottega Veneta suit to the United Nations in September, Kidman opted for a gold embellished dress for the Academy of Country Music Awards in April, and Ellis Ross wore a fuchsia custom gown to the Met Gala in May.add to that the red carpet endorsements of style darlings Sarah Paulson, Saoirse Ronan, Emily Ratajkowski and the ever-divisive First Lady Trump, and you’ve got a brand that remains at the top of its game.
Part of what has kept the Kors label so successful for nearly four decades is its designer’s insistence on meeting customers in person. One-off trunk shows in the US were one of Kors’s most effective marketing tools in the early days and he still attends them now. As someone who “isn’t red carpet obsessed”, he makes keeping in touch with the everyday woman his priority, always. “The fashion world is filled with too many people who spend all their time with other fashion people,” he muses. “It’s counter-intuitive to do that because then you have no idea what’s happening on the planet. I love walking into a store — my store or any store — and just looking at who’s shopping.what do they look at? What are they picking up?you have to keep your eyes open.”
Kors’s inquisitiveness about the whims of his customers is perhaps the reason he’s been ahead of the rest of the fashion industry in his non-condescending approach to ageing. Everyone from 21-year-old Bella Hadid to 47-year-old Kirsten Owen has walked on his runway, but it’s in his customer base that the full scope of generations is consistently represented. “Look at someone like Princess Olympia of Greece,” he says. “I’ve dressed her mother [Marie-chantal, Crown Princess of Greece] for 20-something years, and her grandmother [María Clara Pesantes Becerra]. And you know, we could give a cocktail dress to Olympia and she would wear it with a stomper boot, and I know her mother would wear the same dress with a stiletto pump and I know her grandmother would pop a jacket over it and wear it with flats.
“We’re starting to see that the idea of rules for how you dress at a certain age has disappeared, ” kors continues. “we have 17-year-old clients who are unbelievably sophisticated and then women who are 70 years old who are edgy and plugged-in and modern. It’s all about how you wear it.”
In a fashion environment where brands are killing themselves to figure out what women want (or, in Gucci’s case, hiring a board of millennial advisors to tell them what’s ‘cool’), is the answer really as simple as Michael Kors would have you believe? Keeping ‘your woman’ in mind while you design may feel like a novel piece of advice, but Kors believes there’s nothing novel about sticking with an aesthetic that isn’t distracted by the whims of what’s ‘hot’. In an era of Diet Prada exposés and the ever-looming threat of fake news, could consistency be the key to authentic design? Michael Kors certainly seems to think so, and when you see him hugging and chatting with Blake Lively post-show or walk into his colossal Rockefeller Center flagship in Newyork, I challenge you to disagree.
Michael Kors Collection A/W 2018.
Michael Kors with Blake Lively (far left) and Emily Blunt.
Backstage and on the runway (left) at Michael Kors Collection A/W 2018.
Right: models Jourdan Dunn and Eva Herzigová front row.
Michael Kors Collection A/W 2018 (and inset).
Fashion consultant Sofía Sanchez de Betak and Eva Herzigová backstage. Left: Zendaya, Lively and Blunt front row.
Michael Kors Collection A/W 2018. Right: Adwoa Aboah on the runway.
From top: a new bag on the A/W 2018 runway; Kors backstage with models Theodora (left) and Alexandra Richards; Bella Hadid in a look featuring David Downton illustrations.