With His Hot New Line, Michael Kors Grabs the Fashion Ladder's Top Rung
Michael Kors swears he can’t program his VCR, which has been blinking “12:00” 24 hours a day for the past two years in his minimally furnished Greenwich Village penthouse. He insists that he can’t remember his daily exercise regimen without his personal trainer, Courtney Franklin, by his side to nudge him. But the baby-faced designer more than makes up for such quirks when he’s at work, nine floors above the traffic in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. There, Kors and his 35 employees create sexy little somethings that have fashion insiders heralding him as the next Calvin Klein.
The 31-year-old Kors has charmed Julia Roberts, Demi Moore and supermodel Christy Turlington with sleek sportswear and bare dresses that he has been fashioning for well-heeled boutique customers for 10 years. In January, Kors went wider, introducing a less expensive (price range: $50 to $400), less exclusive line of sporty clothes called, not surprisingly, Kors, which retailers say has been selling like candy since it arrived in 150 department stores nationwide. “Michael Kors is going to be a household name,” says Andrew Basile, fashion director of New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman, where Kors’s gray cotton jackets ($285) and orange poplin shirts ($95) are hot sellers.
“I’m the most established new name in town,” jokes Kors, relishing the attention from this new venture, which, along with new swimwear and shoe lines, is expected to boost sales to $35 million this year (up from $8 million in 1990). During the ’80s, when new talents were celebrated one season and out of business the next, Kors worked at a deliberate pace in unglamorous garment-district digs, gradually expanding his collection from 15 to 350 pieces, while nurturing a motley clientele, including rock singer Belinda Carlisle, actress Faye Dunaway and news personalities Jane Pauley and Diane Sawyer. “I find his clothes comfortable, simple, practical and fun,” says writer-activist Gloria Steinem, who began wearing Kors no-frills styles for TV appearances three years ago and has been hooked ever since.
Kors’s fondness for simplicity extends to his own wardrobe, which consists of little more than jeans, khaki pants and 38 white cotton football jerseys neatly stacked in a drawer in his charcoal-and-white bedroom. “My apartment looks like no one lives in it,” he admits, not at all apologetically, and points out the blank walls and bare tabletops of the one-bedroom roost he shares with a color-coordinated gray-and-white cat named Max. Kors says he’s so busy that he has put his social life on hold and relaxes by popping an old movie into that unprogrammed VCR when he gets home from work—often at midnight.
But his austere surroundings belie a casual manner. “Michael is very spontaneous,” says Stephen DiGeronimo, chief assistant for the Kors line. “He’ll come into work, kick off his shoes, slide right onto the floor, and we’ll all just start talking about fashion. Sometimes he’ll order pizzas and Cokes for everybody. That’s his idea of a meeting.”
If that sounds like an offbeat way of running a business, Kors has never played by the rules. A dropout from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology after two semesters, he began his career in 1978 at Lothar’s, a trendy 57th Street boutique that specialized in tight French jeans. “I was very impatient as a student,” says Kors. “I knew what clothes I liked, and I was ready to see them.”
At Lothar’s “we had Cher and Diana Ross and Farrah Fawcett and Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand and Jackie O as clients,” he says. “I thought it was truly heaven on earth.” In 1979 the store opened a workroom for Kors to experiment with designing. His neutral-colored ensembles were snatched up by customers and noted by fashion editors. In May 1981 he went into business for himself.
Only his mother had misgivings. “I encouraged Michael to go to acting school,” says Joan Kors, 51, a former model who now designs textiles in Los Angeles, Calif. “He was very comfortable onstage, and I loved the way he sang.”
“Michael Kors,” in fact, is partly a stage name. He was born Karl Anderson Jr. on Long Island to Joan and her then-husband, a college student. Known as Chuckie as a toddler, Kors was a child model, appearing in national television commercials for Lucky Charms and Charmin’ paper towels. He changed his name to Michael at age 5, when his by-then-divorced mother married entrepreneur Bill Kors, who adopted her son (and whom she has also since divorced). “My mother said, ‘You’re getting a new last name, so why don’t you pick a new first name?’ ” Kors says. “Michael and David were her favorites. I chose Michael as my first name and David as my middle name.” Though he took acting lessons in New York City, Kors gave them up at 14. “I figured I’d have better luck as a designer,” he says. “Besides, an out-of-work actor usually waits tables, but an out-of-work designer can work in a store.”
His experience at Lothar’s brought him close to his customers. Even today, on personal appearances—-known as “trunk shows”—at stores around the country, he makes a point of schmoozing with the women who buy his clothes. Occasionally they give him a valuable dressing-down. “One season, we did jumpsuits with zippers in the back,” he says. “Women told me, ‘Have you ever gone to the bathroom in one of these?’ The next season, we put the closures in front.”
Recently, Kors, who will present his fall fashions April 9 and launch a menswear collection next January, has been on a department-store promotional tour to Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for him to realize how close he has come to realizing his mama’s fondest ambitions. “One morning while he was getting ready to present his collection,” Joan Kors remembers, “Michael told me, ‘Mother, I’m still in show business.’ ”