UNITED WE STAND How Michael Kors designs for every woman, everywhere
Michael Kors has been on a mission
to celebrate women ever since he designed his mother’s wedding dress at
the age of five. Today, his inclusive approach transcends race, religion, size and age, as he brings his joyful, colourful fashion to the world
John Betjeman once memorably declared that, in the event of Armageddon, he would head for Peter Jones, since nothing unpleasant could ever happen there. Wandering around Michael Kors’ Regent Street flagship prior to meeting the designer, I find myself musing along similar lines. The moment you walk in off the street, the world begins to seem a better place. Trying to analyse the source of my elevated mood, I first notice the friendly young assistants, the optimism of the vibrant colours and strong prints, the pleasant shock of the entry-level pricing and the fact that everything seems to be available in my size.
But what it really comes down to, I realise, is the glorious diversity of the female customers. At a time when global political trends are pushing us apart, the store resembles an unusually harmonious UN convention. Here are women from all corners of the world, dressed in everything from hijabs to microshorts; here are grandmothers flexing gold cards alongside teenagers spending their pocket money; here are the sylphs and the statuesque, wandering along the same rails in a sorority of style. Somehow, Michael Kors has pulled off the extraordinary feat of speaking to us all.
‘My job is to make everyone look great,’ agrees the designer, when we meet the next day in his spacious Claridge’s suite (another place where it’s almost impossible to feel gloomy). ‘Whether it’s a teenager or an 84-year-old, whether it’s an American size zero or an American size 16… I don’t think it’s like, “Oh, if you can’t fit into this box then you’re not part of my club.’’’
Kors certainly practises what he preaches. His catwalk shows are
renowned for featuring women of all races, ages and, latterly, sizes. Bazaar’s July cover star, Ashley Graham, walked his A/W 17 show, not as a ‘plus-size’ model but – his charming term – as ‘part of the rainbow’. ‘I said to Ashley, when we had her fitting, “You’re an amazing beauty, everyone needs to see your body. The last thing I would do is put you in a tunic and a pair of elasticated trousers. Let’s celebrate you.” I’m not trying to dress Ashley as a bigger girl; I’m not trying to dress the older models as mature women, or the teenage models to look young and kooky. I don’t approach it that way.’ He launches into an anecdote about dressing a ‘very powerful producer’ for the Oscars, who astonished him by requesting a huge ball gown although her signature style was elegant and tailored, because she wanted to surprise everybody. ‘I said, “I’m not the man for that.” And the moral of the story is, she did wear a big ball gown, they didn’t win and, after, I saw her and she said to me, “Why did I want to be someone else?”’ He has no interest in what he calls the ‘Cinderella complex’ of dressing a woman to transform her. ‘I think most of the women who appreciate what I do, they just want to look like their best selves, better.’
No wonder Kors’ clothes seem particularly popular with women of strong personality. His fans include Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Bette Midler, not to mention a triumvirate of First Ladies. Kors was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and gave her his Award for Outstanding Community Service in 2013; Michelle Obama posed in a sleeveless Kors shift for her first official portrait; and Melania Trump has been wearing his designs for state functions. ‘All have been clients, honestly, from before…’ he says. ‘I’ve had conversations with all of them, where I’m like, “Well, what about this?” or “Try that,” but they still know what fits into their parameters. Hopefully when they put something on, they know it’s going to look great 360 degrees around.’ Equally vital, he continues, is comfort. ‘That just adds to your own sense of confidence, and that’s the best thing I could do.’ It’s an attitude that, sadly, is not as prevalent as it might be in high-fashion circles, where all too often, designers appear to subscribe to the dictum of il faut souffrir pour être belle. For Kors, by contrast, looking good is simply a matter of wearing what works for you; which is why he declares that the best-dressed woman in the world is, in fact, the Queen. ‘She would be my ultimate person to be able to dress,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘To pull it off with such aplomb, it’s amazing. She has total understanding of her life, her needs, what’s the best part to show off… I love the consistency, I think it’s brilliant. At the end of the day, consistency is what becomes style versus just fashion. And you don’t even notice it, you know?’
Kors owes his female-friendly approach to an upbringing in a family of what he calls ‘very strong, very opinionated women who all knew themselves well’. His parents divorced when he was small, and he was brought up in a matriarchy, headed by his mother Joan, a former model. ‘I was surrounded by aunties who were very fashion-y, my mom, my grandmother, great-aunts… And they were all very specific in their look. My mom is super-understated, always neutral, clean lines, sporty, and my grandmother was the polar opposite – jewellery, colour, fashion, glamour. She would travel with six wig boxes and take fur to the Caribbean because it might be chilly from the air-conditioning. I thought both had something right about them.’
The young Kors himself also had a keen eye for style. At the age of five, he reimagined his mother’s wedding dress for her second marriage, and as a teenager, sold clothes from his parents’ basement, before enrolling at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1977. Within four years, he had launched his first womenswear line, and by 2014, he was one of fashion’s selfmadebillionaires(havingalsofoundtimefor stints as the creative director of Céline and asa Project Runway judge). This summer, it was announced that he had invested £900 million in buying Jimmy Choo.
Naturally, such success is born of a formidable work ethic. ‘We live by the calendar, and the calendar is jammed,’ he says. He plays just as hard. ‘I talk jet-set, I live jet-set,’ he says. ‘It’s not a fantasy concept.’ He and Lance LePere, his husband of six years, divide their time between homes in Manhattan, Long Island and a third, new property on the Gulf of Mexico. As well as constantly travelling for work, they like to island-hop – ‘Anywhere from Phuket in Thailand to Capri to the Caribbean. If I can just be barefoot, I’m thrilled,’ says Kors. The night before our meeting, he hosted a noisy party at the Saatchi Gallery that went on into the small hours, celebrating ‘the most exciting, interesting and beautiful young women in Britain’; and before he flies out again tomorrow, he intends to defy his jet-lag to see the National’s eight-hour production of Angels in America. ‘When it’s theatre that great, it’s fine,’ he says.
The schedule sounds exhausting to me, but Kors prefers it that way. ‘I sometimes think to myself, what if I had what I’d call a grey life, an in-between life? I don’t know how great I’d be at it,’ he says. ‘But quite frankly, the world is in such a state of change and flux in how we dress and how we live, and how we present ourselves, I don’t know how you could be bored right now.’
Not bored; but you might possibly be a bit scared? ‘No, not scared,’ declares Kors. ‘I’m an optimist. A realistic optimist.’ And one determined to bring his fashion rainbow to colour lives that are greyer than his own.
Kors’ fans include
Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Bette Midler, and a triumvirate of
Michael Kors in his office in New York