Bridget Foley’s Diary: Michael Kors, Masked and Working

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Michael Kors arrived in fashion at a time when the ivory-tower designer still existed and thrived, a lionized persona whose wardrobe prescriptions for clients were often delivered from a position of assumed sartorial omniscience.

That genre of a designer’s lofty distance from all but the grandest of clients was never Michael’s thing. Chalk it up to nature (ebullient people-person personality), nurture (pre-adolescent fashion dialogues with mother and grandmother), or maybe to a retail reality: While you can take the guy out of the Lothar’s you can’t necessarily take Lothar’s selling floor out of the guy. (Lothar’s was the emporium of high-style cool on 57th and Fifth in NYC where Kors worked for some time, beginning at age 18, an experience that greatly influenced his career.) For whatever reason, Kors has always had an up-close way with the ladies who wear his clothes.

“I don’t like anonymity. I like connecting with clients,” he told a convocation of devotees just before Memorial Day. Of course, this being the age of COVID-19, the process for making those connections has changed, with Kors maintaining those relationships digitally. Through quarantine, he attended nine video trunk shows with clients around the globe, some hosted by his company and some by retail partners. I sat in on two: a Kors company event just before Memorial Day and his most recent Zoom trunk show, hosted by Neiman Marcus at the end of July.

Kors has always believed in the once-standard opportunity for designer-client interface — and “always” is a long time. Sunrise, sunset: 2021 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Michael Kors company. Kors started on the trunk-show circuit just about immediately, in 1982, and has maintained it ever since. He sees the format not only as a way to sell clothes in the short term, but to build relationships and learn firsthand what his clients want and expect from him and his brand. He is preternaturally suited to the format, a genuine optimist and skilled conversationalist for whom the awkward pause doesn’t exist. He can carry a conversation while ensuring that it’s a participatory two-way street. And if he considers these events work, he doesn’t show it.

Many years ago, I witnessed that skill firsthand. The event was a 1999 benefit at Saks Fifth Avenue for the CFDA’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative, a special shopping night, for which a legion of designers turned out. Despite their best efforts, some wore anxious expressions and seemed to count the moments until the clock struck midnight on the event. Not so Kors (or Oscar de la Renta — another story). Kors hit the selling floor like the former Lothar’s impresario he is. He helped women with their selections, noting what he thought worked and what didn’t, even asking actual store staffers to pull this or that from the stockroom. It was a masterful example of relationship-building-cum-marketing. And it felt genuine.

It still does. The Zoom events I witnessed each started with a seasonal video and charming introduction of Kors by an employee well acquainted with the clients: Michael Kors’ U.S. Collection area manager Nicole Mancini, and Neiman’s manager of VIP private client experiences Manuel Huerta. Kors then offered casual opening remarks, after which he walked the clients through some favorite looks. In May, he focused on the spring 2020 collection that got serious short-shrift at retail because of the COVID-19 shutdown, and then pre-fall, which he called Fall 1; in July, Fall 1 and Fall Runway were highlighted.

He then opened each event to questions. While one can hardly assume a statistically correct snapshot of a customer base from two such gatherings, the anecdotal experience indicates a multigenerational range of women with busy lives who love but don’t live for fashion. Over the course of the events, Kors was asked broad-stroke questions, from where he finds inspiration (pop culture, and even more so, from meeting his clients and hearing their needs) to the impact of the global lockdowns on fabric deliveries (his Italian suppliers are rock stars; “it’s great to have the right partners”). Twice he was asked what he foresees as the lasting impact on fashion of this watershed year of 2020. His take: comfort is here to stay but, as he put it to the Neiman’s set, “Now we have to find a way to blend in joy and glamour, opulence that feels laid-back, which I think is very American.”

More personally, during the May session, longtime client Kay Pappas asked for very specific wardrobe counsel. She told Kors she’s worn his clothes for “the most special” events in her life, including her son’s and nephew’s weddings. Now she’s getting married. The wedding will be outdoors next September at her beach house. Suggestions? “Something that is casual but glamorous.” He suggested looking at her closet for a piece she loves and perhaps redoing “a more special” version. “We’d love to collaborate.”

Jacqueline Nickelberry, a philanthropist and the creator of the web site “Jackie Unfiltered,” asked Kors if he would reduce his number of seasons post-COVID-19 (he will), and pleaded that he not abandon the [pre-fall] and resort seasons which “make my heart beat really fast.” They’ll be folded into the main seasons, he informed, but the sensibility will remain.

She also offered a note on the importance of fashion. “I didn’t realize I had missed fashion until today, to be honest with you…” Nickelberry said. “[The Zoom presentation] made my heart go pitter-pat.”

That’s ultimately Kors’ goal — to make the heart happy with happy clothes. In a conversation after his Neiman’s event, we talked about that long-standing premise, how he fared during lockdown and how it feels to get back to work — really back, at his 42nd Street studio. As for what the designer offered as his top acquisition for his cherished clients, “Right now,” Kors mused, “optimism is obviously the best thing that all of us could invest in.”

WWD: Michael, it’s been a while. How are you?

Michael Kors: Let me just show you. In all the years you’ve known me, have you ever seen me wear a colorful print?

WWD: I have never seen you wear a colorful print.

M.K.: You know what? During these f–ked-up times, everything flies out the window. Look at my everyday office mask. It’s zebra. Do you remember the restaurant near Bloomingdale’s called Gino’s on Lexington Avenue? The food was always terrible but I loved the wallpaper.

WWD: Why go the humdrum, blue-paper route?

M.K.: The wallpaper was from Scalamandre. Of course, Scalamandre is now making masks.

WWD: Delightful. Speaking of which, the ladies at your Zoom personal appearance sessions seem delightful as well. Before we discuss them, you said that next year is your company’s 40th anniversary. That seems impossible. Are you freaked out? Amazed?

M.K.: Honestly, I know this sounds — really, it’s no BS — I truly still feel like, “Didn’t I just start?”

WWD: I get it.

M.K.: I’m like, how could this be? It’s an impossibility. It’s so funny. When I see models like Iman, I have known all these years. The last time I saw her, I said, “How long have we known each other?” And she was like, “What do you think, 15, 20 years?” I said, “Iman, more like almost 40.” I can’t believe that it’s 40 years, because I’m still juiced, I’m still energized, I’m still curious. Other than my feet hurting after I run down the runway — after I take that [postshow] sprint, that’s when I know I’ve been doing it for 40 years.

WWD: How do you stay juiced and energized? How much is will and how much innate?

M.K.: I think it’s both. I think by nature, for someone who is not athletic, my competitive spirit comes out in other ways. If, God forbid, when I was a teenager I could’ve taken my competitive spirit and channeled it into, I don’t know, track and field.…But I channeled it into fashion.

WWD: Wait a second. There’s will, yes, but there’s also a talent element involved. Perhaps you are not equally naturally talented in track and field as in fashion.

M.K.: You know what? I’m smart enough to know that.

WWD: There you go.

M.K.: I’m smart enough to know what my aptitude was, where my talents lie.

WWD: The energy and focus have paid off.

M.K.: Sometimes when I’m doing something, I feel like, “That’s the only camel coat I’ll ever want to design. That’s it, that’s the perfect one. [The customer] will never want another one.” And then somehow my mind wanders and six months later I’m like, “Wait a minute. I love that one, but I’m not ready to concede that that’s the only one forever.” I am always ready for the new thing.

WWD: To your prior point, you’re still juiced.

M.K.: And right now, of course, time has gotten so screwed up that, probably more than ever, it’s forced me to reassess, reset and not move at that same pace. But I’ve gotten used to the [old] pace. So when the pace stops I get crazy.

WWD: That perfect camel coat — creating a new one doesn’t negate the validity of the older one. You’ve always been about clothes that last and concepts that last.

M.K.: Absolutely. But do you know what’s funny? You watched these [digital trunk shows], and saw some of the women I have as clients. They are collectors, in a way. So let’s say they are women who just go crazy for cashmere, for sweaters, or they are berserk for black dresses, or they are nutty for a trouser suit.

WWD: Or just for Michael Kors in general.

M.K.: Or maybe just for Michael Kors in general. When they collect a new piece, they don’t get rid of the old one. They are the cognoscenti of whatever [item] we’re talking about. So it’s not about disposing of what they have from before, certainly not that. Women say to me all the time, “Do you know how old this is? Do you know how long I’ve been wearing this? I’ve had this since 1989.” Of course, my reaction is, “Maybe you should get a new one.” But they love their piece. I’m happy that we’re not known [for clothes that] you wear one minute and then you’re done. I think it’s part of my legacy that people really, truly live and wear what I design.

WWD: I want to get to your relationship with your clients. But first, you’re back at work. Before you came into this Zoom, I saw [p.r.s] Francesca [Leoni] and Mona [Swanson] together, in an office space. It’s odd to see people sitting in a room together in a work context. When did you go back?

M.K.: Mid-June, the week of the 16th. To walk into your office space and have a machine set up to take your temperature, and then have a bracelet put on you — as soon as your temperature is checked you put on this bracelet so everyone knows [you’re safe]. And then, we’re socially distant; everyone is masked plus tested. We have had testing in-office numerous times and socially distant.

WWD: Is everyone back?

M.K.: No. No, no, no. It is a very, very tight group. We’re about 20 percent.

WWD: All design and production?

M.K.: It’s a mix of people who really need to get their hands on things, so to speak. A lot of the financial people are able to work from home, but design — at a certain point I’d looked at the same sketches for four months. My poor production assistant was trying on prototypes in her garage in New Jersey, and she kept texting me and saying, “I’m not a model. Please keep that in mind.” So by the time that we actually walked in and we were able to see a prototype, it was cause for celebration. When we talk about 40 years in, you would think that I’ve seen every garment and every shoe and every handbag that you could ever see. But let me tell you, a new one thrilled me like nobody’s business.

WWD: Wouldn’t you also think that you had seen every challenge over 40 years?

M.K.: Guess what? Never thought I’d see this. Right before lockdown, all of the presidents of different divisions here at the company, we all sat down knowing we were going into lockdown. And at this point in my career, I’m the oldest person here. So I looked at everyone and I could [see] the sense of uncertainty. I said, “Guys, we don’t know what we’re going into.” I said, “I have lived through New York in collapse in the late Seventies, the crack epidemic, three different financial collapses, my own Chapter 11, the AIDS pandemic, standing on my terrace the day before my fashion show and watching the plane go into the Trade Towers.…I have a feeling what we’re going into is going to be all of that combined, times infinity.” And who could imagine this kind of thing being something that we are all experiencing around the world? In prior [calamities], I don’t know if people felt that everyone on the planet was experiencing a similar reality at the same time. This wakes everyone up to realize how connected we all are in every way.

[In fashion], it’s tricky for all of us who are so used to a calendar; we know our calendar. I could tell you normally, “OK, April I’m in Italy; May I’m in Italy; after my fitting in May, I go away for the weekend to Capri. Then I come back to New York and I do resort; then I get ready for men’s.” Well, guess what? That’s gone.

WWD: Fashion is so creative and yet there has always been that very, very, very clinical timetable.

M.K.: Listen, you know that I am methodically organized. Partially I think when we started producing everything in Italy, I didn’t have a sample room in New York so it forced me to get onto a calendar. So maybe I was forced into it.

WWD: You’ve had to step back from that. Has this been a shock to your system in terms of the way you work?

M.K.: A shock to the system? You’ve got all of these ideas that you want to see come to fruition. I will tell you what’s interesting about it, for myself. Lance [LePere, Kors’ husband] and I are together 24-7 and we’re happy about that, we’re really very fortunate. My God, you get to spend your life with someone whom you adore and whom you love, and then you get to work together and go back and forth. It’s kind of like a great tennis match. Of course, when you’re locked up for three months and you’re discussing the exact same sweater 32 times…

WWD: Twenty-four-seven under lockdown. Something about each of you must get on the other’s nerves.

M.K.: OK, simplistically, I’m a Leo. I react to everything big, fast and then I’m done. It’s over quickly. He’s a Virgo, he is methodical, linear and very focused, and he holds onto everything. So it is the New York Leo explosion versus the Midwestern Virgo slow boil. Actually, I think it’s great that the two of us are so different, because it evens itself out. Quite honesty, if I were locked up with another New York Leo I think I’d kill them.

WWD: So, to your Zoom sessions with your clients. You are a trunk show master. You told the Neiman’s ladies that your first Neiman’s trunk show was in 1982. Was that your very first trunk show?

M.K.: No. My very first one is crazy. I didn’t actually know what a trunk show was. In WWD there would always be articles about Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta doing these events and how successful they were. Now, I was already [in contact with customers], because at Lothar’s, I was in the store with my customers. I designed it, I did the windows, I sold the clothes. But I didn’t really understand what a trunk show entailed. So my first season in business I sat down with Dawn Mello [then president of Bergdorf Goodman]. She asked me, “What would you like from us to support your launch?” I was 21. I didn’t really know what to say. And I said, “I’d love to have windows on Fifth Avenue, and I would love to have an ad in The New York Times and I want to do a trunk show.” I think she was shocked that I volunteered to do a trunk show.

WWD: I’m sure.

M.K.: She was like, “Great, we’re in.” I knew a lot of New York women from Lothar’s so I contacted all of them and said, “’I’m no longer at Lothar’s. I started my own business and I’ll be at Bergdorf’s on this date,’ and they all came. I think everyone at Bergdorf’s was shocked at how this Peter Frampton lookalike who was 21 knew all of these women who lived on Park Avenue. It started the whole process.

WWD: What was your first destination trunk show?

M.K.: I think the first one was in Minneapolis, at a store that’s no longer in business, Jackson Graves. I always loved to travel. I was always ready for the adventure and meeting people and seeing how they lived and getting the rhythm of the city. So I went to Minneapolis. I went down to Dallas. My buyer at Neiman Marcus was Julie Gilhart [now chief development officer at Tomorrow London Ltd.] And I guess Rick Rector was the divisional. I grew up looking at the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue; I always thought, “Oh my God, you can buy someone a red sleigh with a matching red beaded gown and ruby earrings.” And then, here I am at Neiman Marcus, I’m 23 years old, so excited. When I first did the trunk shows, I would show up by myself, no salespeople, no assistant. I didn’t even pack my clothes in a trunk; I just put them in a giant blue garment bag.

WWD: Not the standard luxury approach.

M.K.: The first time that I realized that perhaps my shows weren’t as slick and polished as others, I was arriving in Tulsa, Okla. Bill Blass was just leaving and he had his retinue of people — assistants and a p.r. person and sales director. I watched how they packed their samples with tissue and plastic. Meanwhile I was just tossing it all in a garment bag.

WWD: Over the years, you upped the presentation polish. You also developed an incredible rapport with your customers. In watching you with the Neiman’s ladies, and earlier this summer, with the Michael Kors retail customers, you really seem to know some of them. You said at the end of one session that fashion shows are great, but for you fashion comes alive on your clients.

M.K.: At the end of “The First Wives’Club” [the characters played by Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn] are celebrating that they’ve opened this big feminist center. They run into Ivana Trump and she says, “Darling, don’t get a little. Get everything.” Everyone says, “What are women looking for when they shop?” What I have discovered is people want everything. They want it to last, but they want it to excite them. They want something that makes them feel confident. They want to feel powerful but feminine, they want to be able to move in their clothes. They’re not willing to give up anything.

I think for a designer, you have to really stick to your game and say, “All right, I have this idea, now how do I work it out? How do I make sure that there’s a sense of joy when you try it on that’s balanced with something that’s pragmatic?” Because all of these women [want both]. Now, I’m on my third generation in some families.

WWD: That’s remarkable.

M.K.: There’s grandma, there’s daughter and now there’s granddaughter. And if I do my job well, why aren’t they all able to shop? In today’s world sometimes they buy the same pieces and they just wear it differently. And sometimes they trade. That’s when I’ve done my job well.

WWD: You’ve done nine of these video P.A.s under quarantine. It’s very different than speaking to a group of people in person. How do you prepare for it?

M.K.: In the 39 years I have been doing events, normally, you have to travel to this place, you might have a live fashion show or a lunch, you have a whole process. Now, I’m in the middle of a shoe meeting with an Exacto knife, cutting straps off of a sandal, and someone runs in and they’re like, “Michael, Neiman Marcus in 10 minutes in your office.” So in a way it’s more immediate. There isn’t this slow process.

WWD: In a way it’s more intimate.

M.K.: It’s much more intimate. And every call that I’ve done now, I always want to know not only who the women are but where they are. We did one in Europe. My God, I felt like I was at the World’s Fair.

WWD: How so?

M.K.: A woman in Switzerland has a view of the Alps behind her on a terrace. Another woman in the South of France has got palm trees, I’ve got two women who are sisters locked up together in London; another woman in Milan, women in Germany. They are all in such different environments and they’re different ages with different perspectives, but they’re still juiced by fashion. The woman in the South of France killed me. She was wearing a dress from this past pre-fall. She kicked her leg up in the air and said, “I bought the shoes. I know a lot of women complain about high heels. I’ve been in flat shoes every day. I’m happy to put on heels again.”

WWD: Was that a Michael Kors company trunk show or a European store?

M.K.: That one was our European clients from our stores. We had one with Net-a-porter that was the most global — people in Los Angeles, the U.K., Italy.

WWD: So somebody got up in the middle of the night to Zoom in.

M.K.: A woman in Los Angeles, she had her small child asleep on her lap. I said to her, “You really are a fashion fan.” She said, “I miss fashion. I miss being in the stores and engaging with fashion.”

WWD: Back to your most recent session. The elephant in the room is the current state of Neiman’s. As you’ve said, you go way back with Neiman’s and Bergdorf’s. What’s your take on what’s going on?

M.K.: It’s all about the people. In any store that I have done business with in my career, I always tell everyone the sales associate is king, they are the translator, they bring it all to life. I lived through Chapter 11 in my own business. We never stopped presenting a fashion collection or shipping a fashion collection — it was the people. And in this instance, I see that the people who work with their clients are so devoted to the customer and have such great relationships that I know they’ll pull through this.

WWD: You think so?

M.K.: I really do. Here in New York, when Bergdorf’s opened for shopping by appointment — I mean, here I am in my black T-shirt every day — well, Lance and I rushed into the men’s store the first day they were open and ended up shopping. The sales associate who helped us — there was real joy of working with the customer. It wasn’t just for the sale. He really wanted us to find wonderful things. And, of course, after being in lockdown for so long — the only thing I bought for three months was a watering can for the terrace — I was like a kid in a candy store. So I think it’s about the people. Certainly, things evolve, things change. If there is a location that’s not working, that’s life, that’s business. But I think that the people involved are so dedicated and really focused on the customer. So I think Neiman’s [will come through].

WWD: Now, you’ve been showing pre-fall and fall. Back in the day, trunk shows were opportunities for preorders. You hit the road right after the show.

M.K.: Picture in today’s world saying to someone at the end of March, “Here’s a great coat, you’re going to love it in October.” She looks at you like you’re totally insane, you’ve lost your mind. Now, we’re all used to more immediate gratification. But even back at Lothar’s I changed the windows according to the weather. If it was raining, I’d put in raincoats in the window. If it was hot, sundresses. Because people respond emotionally to the environment and to what’s happening.

WWD: You designed the clothes some time ago. Is it hard when you’re also working on upcoming collections to get back into the mind-set of a collection you designed months ago?

M.K.: You’re right. It’s a long process from when I started to conceptualize the collection, fabricate it, fit it, sketch it, put a show together and then you’re revisiting things that happened a long time ago. But you have to step outside yourself, and realize that to the customer, it’s brand new. I think the industry is convinced that women are, “Oh they’ve seen it, they’re bored.” They’re not fashion professionals. They don’t spend their entire day looking at shows. They’ve got busy lives. So that’s why for the consumer they are excited, it’s new.

WWD: So women aren’t “over” a collection by the time it hits the stores.

M.K.: The clients who love fashion might look at a half-a-dozen shows, designers they’re curious about because they wear the clothes. But other than that, they’re not glued. They’re busy, they’re working, they’ve got families, they’ve got a life. We in fashion have given up our lives for an entire month where we don’t do anything but live, breathe and eat fashion. The assumption that the general public is doing this [is wrong].

WWD: The fall collection had a comfort-country-ish vibe. During quarantine we’ve seen a migration, from city to country, suburbs, beach, whatever. Are you feeling prescient?

M.K.: It was definitely escapist, about comfort and security. And, of course, you have a masked singer [Orville Peck, who performed through the show]. I don’t want to sound like Sybil the Soothsayer, but I have my witchy moments.

WWD: Impressive.

M.K.: I certainly never imagined this. I did think that we’re at a moment when that sense of security and comfort felt really, really necessary because everything seemed so upside-down. Of course, that has accelerated to a speed that we never could have imagined. [Relocating] is definitely happening. A lot of the women [in the P.A. sessions] were not in the cities where they normally would be. These are urban people in country, beach or suburban settings. So my brand now is thinking, how do we combine all of this? Because we’re not giving up our way of thinking as urban people. We can’t.

WWD: You’ve gone the other way. You’re typically not in the city in the spring, after the show. But you’ve spent much of quarantine here. Does that mean that your spring 2021 collection will reference urban life in odd times?

M.K.: When you spend that much time not only in your apartment, but walking three blocks those first two weeks of lockdown when we took a walk, [the desolation] was frightening.

WWD: It was dystopian.

M.K.: Everywhere we looked, though I kept finding things. I’ve lived in Greenwich Village my whole life but I found buildings that I never noticed before, architectural details that I thought were spectacular. For the first time, I’m appreciative of seeing New York bloom. Watching New York come to life and go green was remarkable. So, with the fall collection prior to all of this, I thought about how do we hold onto our urban desires but find a country-relaxed, laid-back way of expressing ourselves even though we are urban creatures. Now, I just lived it. I got to see it. We didn’t have a watering can in our apartment because I’m used to having someone come and take care of our terrace. And suddenly Lance and I are out there with measuring cups watering the terrace. I felt like it was “Green Acres” and I was Eddie Albert with the pitchfork.

Even when people return, whether it’s to Paris or London or New York or L.A., we have been exposed to more nature, if we had the chance to go to the country, but even just taking a walk — seeing green and seeing life. So for me as a designer, it definitely affects how we design.

WWD: You said something interesting in response to one of the Neiman’s clients. So many of us are talking about the state of fashion in general and the state of American fashion in particular, the struggles, etc. You said perhaps we’re moving into what could be a good time for American fashion because casual glamour originated here.

M.K.: We invented it. When I arrived in Paris for Celine [in 1997], the president of Celine was an American woman, Nan Legeai. [Kors designed Celine from fall 1998 through fall 2004.]

WWD: Of course.

M.K.: Nan said to me, “Michael, we’re Americans in Paris. You cannot wear sneakers on the street.” And I said, “Nan, I wear sneakers every day.” She said, “It’s not a great idea. And when you’re in a restaurant, don’t drink a Coca-Cola.” Of course, later I found out that Karl Lagerfeld had his Cokes lined up all day. I remember thinking, “Am I not allowed to do this because it’s seemingly so American?” The casual aspect of how we as Americans live has always imbued what American fashion is about. So if we lead a faster life, I think New York was the city that was fastest first. Now, imagine fashion without mobility, without easiness, without comfort. You couldn’t have gotten through all of this without it; you’re not sitting in a bustier dress and stilettos on a Zoom call. You might be in a bustier, but I have a feeling you’re in track pants and you’re barefoot.

American fashion — we started [casual chic], we’re not the land of the ballgown; that’s not what we do. At least myself, I can’t speak for anyone else. That idea of luxury and comfort combined, I think it’s a magic solution for most people around the world, not just here.

WWD: A magic solution. Sounds like a great place to end.

M.K.: We need a magic solution.

Launch Gallery: Bridget Foley's Diary: Michael Kors, Masked and Working

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