Michael Kors started his namesake label in 1981 out of his Chelsea apartment. Last year the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, a move that valued the company at over $3.5 billion. The designer sat down with Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y to discuss his roots in Merrick, Long Island, dropping out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and what success means to him.
Kors revealed his early roots in fashion included playing the role of stylist to his mother when he was just 5 years old when she picked out her wedding dress. He said, “I think my grandmother was so excited that there was going to be a big wedding finally … My mother went with my grandmother, which was the norm, and was picking out a wedding dress, and everything was going smoothly … and she brought me to her fitting. Her dress was covered with a zillion bows and my grandmother said, ‘That’s magnificent,' and I sat there in the corner and said, ‘I think it’s busy.’"
Kors’ mother listened to him and stripped the dress of its bows and frills.
“The marriage didn’t, last but the dress still holds up,” Kors said.
The designer also shared that he opened a store in his basement when he was 11. It was called the Iron Butterfly Boutique. “It was definitely the first pop-up store,” he joked.
He also sold sketches to UFO Jeans as a teenager. “I immediately took the money and put it right on my back,” Kors said. “I think it might have gone to the beginnings of a Cartier tank watch … which of course every 16-year-old needs.”
When he was 17, Kors became a buyer for a tennis pro-shop.
Kors said he initially considered becoming an actor (he starred in commercials including one for Lucky Charms as a child), but after moving to New York City and taking acting classes he said he discovered: “I can’t sing. I definitely can’t dance. N, not all gay men are good dancers, and as much as I am comfortable talking and being in the public … I just realized I didn’t belong being an actor.”
Kors instead enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology, but dropped out and began working at the hip boutique Lothar’s—a celebrity haunt at the time—because he said he was ready to work.
“I’m working part time at this store on 57th Street … and I’m pulling Jackie O’s boots off,” he recalled.
Eventually he began designing the store’s private label collection, which led to a meeting with Bergdorf Goodman, which led to his first trunk show. The Michael Kors brand was born in 1981 out of his then-apartment in Chelsea.
Success followed, but the designer said he took the time to grow his brand carefully. “There wasn’t the glare of the spotlight in the same way [as there is now]," he said. "I waited three years to have a fashion show … I had a pragmatic side to me.”
Kors launched a less expensive bridge line in 1990, menswear in 1992, and began designing for Céline in 1998. His celebrity kicked into overdrive in 2004 when he landed as a judge on "Project Runway." “Suddenly with 'Project Runway' I have customers that are 12 years old,” Kors said.
Another milestone for the Michael Kors brand came in 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama wore a black sleeveless Kors sheath for her official White House portrait. “After Jackie Kennedy the First Lady was always in a suit, buttoned-up, and I thought, this is unbelievably fabulous.”
2011 was undoubtedly Kors' year both personally and professionally. He married his longtime partner Lance LePere on the beach in Southampton. “We are probably the only people that got married on the beach, jumped into a Jeep, went to eat pizza at Sam’s and then went to see 'The Help,'” Kors said of his intimate wedding.
Michael Kors, the company, went public late last year, becoming the largest fashion IPO in decades. Speaking of that day Kors said, “It beat my bar mitzvah!” He also revealed of the IPO day, “I look down as I am about to ring the bell and I see my mother saying, ‘Straighten your tie!’”
Kors said of today's up-and-coming talents, “I look at Proenza Schouler, they know their girl, Alexander Wang, he knows who he is designing for. You have to have the talent, but you also have to have that handle.”
As for who the designer would like to see playing himself in a movie, Kors said, “If it’s a drama and vanity comes into the picture, I am going to have to go with Daniel Craig. If it’s a comedy and a big box office I’ll go with Will Ferrell.”