He’s one of today’s most successful American designers—and one of the most outgoing. Known to many as the sharp-witted judge on the Lifetime TV reality series Project Runway, now in its tenth year, Michael Kors is recognized for both his larger-than-life personality and his simple yet chic aesthetic.
“I’m always going to be all about finding ways to make you look more empowered and feel more confident, so it’s all about the body,” he says. “At the same time, I like glamour, but I also like comfort and ease. Those are the key ingredients that are always part of the Michael Kors stew.”
Kors launched his line at age 19, in 1981, when there were few high-end American designers. Since then, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has honored him three times, most recently with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. The vibrant designer opens up to PBI about his journey through the fashion industry.
Do you have personal ties to Palm Beach?
I’m very friendly with Aerin Lauder—Aerin and Jane and their mother, Jo Carole. I’ve known them a long time, and they have such strong ties to Palm Beach. The same thing with my friends Marjorie Gubelmann and Phoebe Gubelmann. Whenever I am in Palm Beach, it’s fun to see all the generations, from babies to grand dames, all in one family. When Marjorie got married, her wedding was in Palm Beach, and it was such a Palm Beach mix—everything from caftans to a tuxedo.
How do your designs fit the Palm Beach lifestyle?
The nature of me as a person is the nature of me as a designer in that I love luxury, I love indulgence, but at the same time, I like to be barefoot, I like comfort, I like ease. That’s always been how I design. My favorite places in the world are places that combine a sense of glamour and luxury with a laid-back, barefoot approach—kind of the best of both worlds. … I also think my clothes are very much designed for someone who loves to travel—how [would she] pack? And Palm Beach [is] filled with people who have a lot of points on their compass.
When you were launching your line in the 1980s, was Palm Beach a stop in your trunk shows?
Oh, definitely. Palm Beach is not often barefoot [laughs]. If it’s barefoot, it’s a gold flat sandal. There’s this incredible opulence and glamour, but at the same time, someone’s jumping on a bike and going to Publix and picking up a quart of ice cream. And I love that idea, that you can have this kind of American glamour. It’s a small town with big-city sophistication.
What do you remember about the early years of your career—being on the road, doing trunk shows, building your name?
When I was in my early twenties, I kind of looked like Christopher Atkins in The Blue Lagoon. I had shoulder-length, curly blond hair and I was in torn-up jeans and basketball sneakers. But the clothes [I designed] were very sophisticated.
I grew up in New York, so I was more familiar with certain cities. But suddenly, when you got to travel, you got to see: Is there a difference between how you dress for dinner in Miami versus Naples versus Palm Beach versus Boca Raton? And there is a slight difference. You might wear the same top and the same pair of trousers, but are you wearing flat sandals in one place? Are you wearing stilettos in another? Are you wearing your hair in a ponytail in another? How would you do it? So I think that starting out like that, it really opened my eyes to how many variations there were in how my customers lived. And you really get to see the life of a city.
Your designs are very versatile. How did you develop a knack for that?
When I’m actually fitting the clothes, I’ll say to the model, “Let’s try it with a belt. Let’s take the belt off. What does it look like if we throw a jacket on over that? Let’s try it with trousers. Let’s try it with a skirt. Can you wear it with flat shoes? Can you wear it with high heels?”
As a designer, I’m very empathetic with the customer. I know what it’s like to be busy. I know what it’s like to travel. And I want people to feel joy and excitement when they buy something new from me, but I also want them to be able to actually use it for a long time to come. …
That’s one of the reasons why doing trunk shows for all these years has allowed me to hear what women think. In today’s world, we get to do a trunk show on a regular basis in a strange way with social media. When I think about our Facebook fans or our Twitter followers, it’s like I’m having a trunk show with a million and a half people [laughs]. But I like the feedback. It’s what allows me to really key into it. I think some designers don’t want to listen. They don’t want to see, and they don’t want to hear. I love [feedback]. It’s the best thing.
Where do you usually find inspiration?
I’m constantly refreshed when I go to different places. For me, it can be anything from Big Sur, California to Bali. When I’m inspired by a place, I always try to think about how we take the mood or the spirit of that place and make it work for people’s everyday lives so they never feel like they’re in a costume.
So is it usually a place that inspires you?
It’s often a place. It can be also, though, a film—an old one, a new one. It can be a television moment. It can be a piece of music. Fashion is the zeitgeist. How does it happen that Amy Winehouse hits the scene at the exact same time as Mad Men and Hairspray? And at the time, I did a collection that was kind of Amy Winehouse meets Mad Men. So it could be anything from a piece of music to a travel experience.
Do you remember most of the pieces you’ve designed?
I have a crazy memory for everything I’ve ever designed. Half the time, if I look at something, I can tell you what model wore it in a show, and sometimes I can even remember what music was playing when she came out. I have a good memory for some things and a terrible memory for others, but I’ve been doing this for so long, the clothes are very personal, so I remember them all.
How do you keep your designs fresh?
Fashion is this kind of living, breathing thing. The world continually is changing, and when the world changes, people’s lives changes, so there are new fabrics developed. There are new rules. We never thought that people would wear sequins for day. We never thought people would wear sandals in the winter. We used to have an idea of, “That would be something that would be great for you to wear if you’re 30, and that’s something that you’d wear if you were over 50.” Well, those rules are all changing. And they’re always changing.
Keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s next and what’s new makes it, for me, exciting and interesting still. I’m not about a revolution each season, but I am about an evolution. So it’s always going to evolve.
Sometimes when I design something, I think, “You’ll never need another black dress. That’s the only one, ever.” And then of course six months later, I’m like, “Well … did you see this new fabric?” or, “Oh, it’s really kind of fabulous with the slit,” or, “Ooh, the bare back on this one”—so there’s always going to be the evolution of the next one. It’s just making sure you keep your eyes and your ears open to what’s happening in the world and to what’s happening in people’s lives.
How would you describe your personal style?
I spend all my time thinking about everyone else, so the last thing I want to do is think about what I have to wear. So I want it simple and easy, and I like it clean and comfortable. So for me, it’s generally going to be black and white. I can go anywhere in the world in a black jacket, a white jean, a pair of loafers and a black t-shirt.
You sound like a mom on the go.
Yeah. Well, I think maybe that’s also one of the things that people would appreciate, that I do understand what life is like when you’re busy.
If you weren’t designing, what do you think you would be doing?
Well, I love the theater, and I’ve always been a theater fan. We go all the time. I don’t think I’d be a great Broadway star, but maybe a great Broadway producer. Who knows? It could happen. Again, I love to travel, so I think theater is a way to travel without jumping on the plane.
What else do you like to do in your down time?
Again, if I can escape, I’m happy to escape to a beach or into nature in general, whether it’s going out east—and believe it or not, yes, Michael Kors will get on a horse—or being able to catch up on reading a great biography on a beach. I like to get out of the city when I can.
One of your biggest accomplishments has to be winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. What did that mean to you?
Fashion’s always about living ahead of the time, so I never really thought about, quite frankly, how long I had been designing. And in my mind, when I was in my 20s and designers won the Lifetime Achievement Award, I always thought they were, you know, 80 [laughs]. And so when I first heard that I won, my first reaction was, “But I’m too young.” And then of course, the dust settled and I really was incredibly flattered.
We were entering our thirtieth year, and it made me think. It’s a competitive game, the fashion game, and it sounds cliché to say, but it really is like the Academy Awards. When your competitive peers decide to acknowledge you, it’s very gratifying. For me, it was almost the halfway point. It wasn’t the crowning achievement.
What else would you like to achieve?
I think the biggest thing to achieve in fashion is to stay curious and to be ready for what’s next. The world changes so frequently, and it’s going to continue to change. What do I want to achieve? I want to achieve everlasting curiosity. Curiosity and energy. That keeps you going.
Project Runway just hit 10 seasons this year. That’s a huge milestone.
A long one, yes. A long, television life, yes, absolutely.
What’s it like to look back on the last 10 years?
Honestly, it’s gone incredibly quickly. We’ve now had more seasons than I Love Lucy. … I have to liken Project Runway to fashion in general: It’s always changing. There’s always something new. And that’s what keeps it interesting and makes it fun. I get to spend my time with smart, beautiful, stylish women like Heidi [Klum] and Nina [Garcia]. So if you’re a guy who likes fabulous women, that’s not a bad gig.
You always look so concentrated when a garment is coming down the runway. What’s going through your mind?
When I look at clothes in Project Runway, I’m really trying to focus on the actual project at hand. How well did they actually listen and execute? I’m looking to see how things are made, how they’re cut. Does the designer understand a woman’s body? Did they make the right choices? It’s a lot to absorb in a quick moment, so I’m very plugged in and concentrated when I’m watching it.
I’m sure the designers appreciate that.
Well, I feel that it’s the least I would expect from anyone who’s sitting in one of my shows.
Your remarks on the show are always so creative and memorable. How do you come up with them?
Honestly, I never think about it. I don’t always look to be funny. I just go with my visceral gut reaction when I see something. And sometimes it’s funny because I end up saying things that a lot of people are thinking anyway. Instead of the designer thinking that it’s all about ruffles, [I say,] "Well, it looks like toilet paper." So I’m just honest. But at the same time, I know how much work they’ve put into it, so I’m always conscious of that and try to get them to do the best work they can do. That’s my main objective.
Where do you get your sense of humor?
I grew up around people who were funny and they didn’t know it [laughs]. I grew up with a cast of characters. I had a lot of aunts and uncles and my grandparents—it was like watching a [Frederico] Fellini movie. I was an only child and very observant, so I sat back and observed all this. To me, there’s nothing better than a belly laugh that you can’t stop.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
Before I started my own business, I designed for a store in New York called Lothar’s that was across the street from Bergdorf’s. And at the time, I thought I should go to work for a designer, because that’s what everyone did. There was a designer named John Anthony who was very popular at the time, and he was a family friend. I went to go see him and showed him my work, and he looked at me and said, “You don’t belong working for anybody but yourself. You really understand women, and you know what works for them. Just stay true to yourself. You’ll always be successful if you just go with your gut.”
Did you take his advice right away?
I got discovered shortly thereafter [laughs]. Dawn Mello was the fashion director at Bergdorf’s at the time, and she saw the clothes and she contacted me. The next thing I knew, I was whipping up a collection and within a few months, the clothes were at Bergdorf’s.
So what’s next for you?
Oh my gosh. I think what’s next for me is we continue to open our own retail stores all around the world. ... I’ve learned so much over the years doing trunk shows and personal appearances. The contact with my customer has always been a hallmark of who I am as a designer. Through opening these stores, it’s like having multiple laboratories all around the world. We’ll continue to open new stores in places that I as an American designer never dreamed of opening stores—everywhere from China to the Caribbean. That and staying energetic and curious, those are my key priorities.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Hopefully [the notion] that you can have it all. You can be glamorous, you can be sexy, you can be powerful and you can be comfortable at the same time.