Exclusive: How Michael Kors built his fashion empire
After 36 years in fashion, he sits atop a global retail empire
Michael Kors is more machine than man. The namesake and creative force behind one of the world’s most wildly popular fashion houses just flew across the Atlantic from New York to London, and in less than 24 hours, has finished a whirlwind of media interviews and engaged in classic British hedonism at a party with the country’s young aristocracy before duly returning to his plans for world domination. It’s been a year since the opening of his biggest store in Europe, smack in the middle of London’s Regent Street, and judging by the crowds at the flagship, business is clearly booming. We managed to pin the master down for an exclusive interview on his favourite muses, his best business decision, and what nearly four decades in fashion have taught him.
ELLE: So, did you enjoy the party?
Michael Kors: We had so much fun. London is the city of people who like to go out and have a good time. New Yorkers actually don’t go out that much. They say, “Well, I have to get my kids to school…” Yeah, sorry, I don’t care. But people in London like to get dressed up when they go out, which is a good thing for designers.
ELLE: Let’s start off with a simple question. What do you love most about fashion?
MK: First and foremost, I am a people person. I love the fact that we can’t solve the world’s problems by wearing the right dress or handbag, but you can, in fact, see someone put the right thing on and look in the mirror and they suddenly have a different posture, they walk into a room differently. So, I love that it can affect people and the way they feel about themselves. And when you feel better about yourself, you feel better about your life, your family and your work. I have been very fortunate. I have met many such amazing people around the globe, who I don’t think I would have been able to meet any other way.
ELLE: What’s the best business decision you’ve made?
MK: Oh my gosh! Well, leaving my job and going into my business. I had just turned 22. A lot of people said to me, “Don’t you think you started too young?” But I was so impatient. I didn’t finish school; I started my business with no knowledge of the workings of fashion. I just knew the kinds of things I wanted to design. It’s hard when you’re learning along the way—but you’re always learning. You have to. I mean even now, 36 years in, something new happens every day in the world, so never think you know it all.
Michael Kors Pre-Fall 2017
ELLE: Is there one that you regret?
MK: I don’t think I make decisions that are wrong. Sometimes, it’s the timing. Probably the only thing I ever designed that was definitely not a smart idea… we did bodysuits for men (laughs). And I thought it was a really practical idea because I know myself, and sometimes when I tuck a shirt in, it drives me crazy because it comes undone all day. So I thought, ‘Why can’t we attach this shirt to briefs, won’t that be great?’ And we actually sold them in stores. Then I wore one myself, and it was miserable (laughs). They were a disaster. So, I said no to bodysuits for men.
ELLE: Have you heard of the bro romper?
MK: Oh, the RompHim? I don’t think men should romp. Just skip it.
ELLE: How do you think being so personally visible, connecting yourself so closely to the brand—perhaps better than any of your peers—has shaped your business?
MK: I think in today’s world, one of the most personal relationships that people can have is with who is dressing them. We can read an interview with a designer, you might see a photo of them somewhere, but you never really get to know them, to really understand who they are as people and why they design what they design. And I’ve never been shy. I always have an opinion (laughs), that’s for sure. When we decided to do television [Kors was a judge on the fashion reality show Project Runway], quite honestly, in the beginning I did say no. I was afraid of the concept of reality television for fashion because I think fashion is actually hard work. I didn’t want it to ever be a joke. So I thought, what are the designers going to do? Fight each other? Eat bugs? Will they be sitting on an island? Finally, I said okay fine, we’ll try and then landed up doing the show for 10 seasons. Debra Messing from Will & Grace told me, “TV is really personal. You’re in people’s homes, spending time with them. A movie is different, it’s on a big screen”. So I think people suddenly connected and now they know me. I’m always willing to try new things. Even with social media, a lot of designers are hesitant, but we have been very proactive. I like to communicate with my customers.
ELLE: That actually brings us to the next question. How is social media changing the role of the designer?
MK: We have to realise the world is now smaller. Everyone’s getting the information and you don’t have to be in a big city to be informed. You can be in a small town or a village or a farm and, if you are interested, it’s in your hand. I like that feedback. And I can’t meet everyone, so the only way is through social media.
ELLE: Because everyone is very forthcoming…
MK: Everyone’s very forthcoming and that’s fine. We’ve seen how they react when we dress a celebrity. We just dressed Priyanka [Chopra], and I suggested we go a little shorter on the length, just around the calf, which she had never done before. When we posted it, everyone loved it! So you think to yourself, “Yes, I’m [moving] in the right direction. I’m not crazy.” Also, different forms of social media appeal to different age groups. I have every nationality, size, age following me. You know, Snapchat is one generation, Facebook is another generation, visual people are on Instagram… so it’s all different.
ELLE: How does technology play a role in the way you’re building your retail empire?
MK: We have to remember that shopping online and shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store has become a symbiotic relationship. Some people research everything online and then they walk into the store and buy it. I know people who do the opposite. They see it in the store, but then they’re in a hurry, so they decide to buy it online. So we really have to think about delivering a 360-degree experience. Our customer, whether she’s in India or Europe or South America, she’s travelling virtually on her phone, but then she is also actually travelling.
ELLE: Ethical consumption is a growing concern in fashion. How will this philosophy affect the way your company works?
MK: It will become increasingly important for us to look at the process from fabric to material till the finished product, something that we are delving into more and more. We have conversations constantly, with textile suppliers, yarn manufacturers: how can we follow and trace the sourcing? It’s the same thing as when we sit down to eat a meal. But the food industry got better and quicker at it than fashion did.
ELLE: What have you learnt about the Indian consumer so far? What excites you the most?
MK: I like a bit of glamour. I think that the Indian market has, inherently, a love for indulgence. But now, we see Indian customers travelling the world, so it’s exciting for me to see a consumer finding that balance between extravagance and practicality. Now that life is faster, you’re juggling more things, so how do you do all of that and not give up the love of indulgence and glamour. That’s very Michael Kors, so that’s a good thing.