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Interview of a self-made man: Michael Kors

 

Numéro met up with New York designer Michael Kors, whose clothes and accessories brilliantly combine a certain American pragmatism with the fantasy of the jet-set lifestyle.

How did you start in fashion?
Oh my goodness... I’m an only child, and grew up in a family where not just the women but also the men loved fashion. And some of them worked in the industry, like my grandfather who was in the textile business. I remember when I was six or seven going with him when he was being fitted for a suit. He told me, “Never buy a jacket where you can’t open the buttons at the wrist. It shows quality, and it’s nice if you un- button it, you can show your lining.” I was just a child, I had no idea why this was so great. The women in my family were also very outspoken, and very specific in their sense of style. My mother vs. my grandmother vs. my aunt – all different fashion tribes. My mom is understated, she likes tailored clothes and is always in black, white and grey. My grand- mother was very extravagant, she loved jewellery and colour and pat- tern. I had one aunt who was very bohemian, another who was very sex goddess. All those moods have al- ways inspired me to sketch.

So at an age when most boys dream of being train drivers, you wanted to be a fashion designer? Not exactly. When I was a teenager I wanted to be an actor and took les- sons. But I can’t sing, I’m a terrible dancer and on top of it, as soon as I finished acting classes, all I wanted to do was shop. I started shopping at 13 or 14, and I’m still obsessed with clothes. At 16 I started selling designs to a friend’s father who manufactured jeans. I started school in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but I’d been sketching for so long and I felt ready. So I dropped out after less than a year. The traditional path would have been to go work in a studio, observe and get coffees. But I started to work in a shop run by French company Lothar’s, who were the people who popularized duvet jackets and coats back in the 70s, and who also in- vented the St.-Tropez tie dye – very tight jeans, Brigitte Bardot... We had an incredibly glamorous clientele coming into the store, from Jackie Kennedy to Diana Ross to Cher. It was much more eye-opening than school, seeing how these women dressed, what they needed. When the trend began to shift, the store’s owners said to me, “We think you really understand what our customer loves.” So we opened a small atelier, when I was 19, and that’s what I did for the next two years, designing the clothes, the window displays, everything. And I saw exactly what worked and what didn’t work.

How did this début shape your atti- tude towards fashion?

I like the connection to real life. This is what I do. We produce everything in my fashion shows – it’s in the stores and women wear it. If I see people on the street in Paris, Tokyo or New York wearing my designs, then I know it actually works. There’s so much to look at today, we’re over- loaded. If my customer grabs some- thing from Michael Kors, I must have done something right! I try to com- bine the glamorous, the sexy and the functional.

At one point you were artistic direc- tor at Céline. What did you take away from your time in a major Parisian fashion house?
I love the confident attitude of the French woman – she’ll wear a white coat in winter, have a glass of wine and a bit of cheese for lunch, and still look good and be working and living her life. A woman in New York will have a salad with no dressing, and won’t leave her desk. And I say to myself, “When did you lose the joy?” I think Paris freed me up. I’m very casual and relaxed, but also very in- dulgent. I like potato chips with
caviar. I like crocodile with a pair of jeans. I like yin and yang.

 

After leaving Céline in the late 90s, what direction did you want to give your own brand?
The walls of fashion were beginning to crumble. Thanks to the internet, everyone was becoming more in- formed. And we started borrowing from each other, ending up now with what I would call an international style. If you’re busy and active and curious, I don’t think there’s a nation- ality anymore. Style is more demo- cratic, too. Before, you had to live in a big city and have money, but now I see teenagers and people in small villages who are sophisticated and knowledgeable. While I love it when the rules change, I don’t like a revo- lution. I prefer an evolution. I still be- lieve in old-fashioned notions like the word “appropriate.” But the idea of appropriate has changed. Before, appropriate was very rigid. For her first official portrait, Michelle Obama wore a Michael Kors dress. It’s black, it’s jersey and it’s sleeveless. And at the time people were shocked! I was like, “She’s a modern woman. She’s not going to wear a colourful suit with a big blouse.” It was an evolution. Was it appropri- ate? What made it appropriate was that she knows herself and it’s something I really believe in.

At the recent inauguration of your London flagship store, you announced a new partnership with Formula 1 team McLaren-Honda. What’s your relationship to speed?

With the arrival of jet planes in the 60s, people started changing cli- mates and locations constantly, and suddenly life was faster. So speed is something that fascinates me, it al- ways has. But speed linked to glam- our and design. Are men in real life all James Bond? No. But do we like a little James Bond in our lives? Yes! Women, would you like to be Lara Croft kicking ass? Absolutely! Not everyone can drive a Formula 1 car: it’s a fantasy that is a reality – height- ened reality, but still reality.

 

By Delphine Roche, portrait by Victor Demarchelier

 

 

 

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