Lily Donaldson, Mario Testino, Uma Thurman, Michael Kors and Manolo Blahnik at the "Icons of Style" dinner, held at newly refurbished The Ivy restaurant in London. Picture credit: Getty
I am telling Michael Kors about a friend, just back from Cuba, who said that everything there, from those vintage Chevrolet cars to the Havana cafes, is frozen in time — except that every other woman is carrying a colourful MK bag.
There is not a micro-second before the spread of the wide, warm Michael Kors smile.
The all-American designer will surely soon be in Cuba chatting with clients, who are the bedrock of his success.
He tells a story of going to his Madison Avenue store in New York as two clients emerged from the fitting room in identical dresses.
‘It was a sitcom,’ Kors says. ‘They both came out, they knew each other, they couldn’t have had a more different perspective on fashion, and they both said, ‘Oh, you look great.’ I asked the client I was fitting, “Did you feel uncomfortable because she had it on?” She said, “Honestly, no. We are going to wear it so differently — that’s what I love about your brand. It’s never going to feel like it is wearing you.”
Michael Kors and Kate Hudson at the "Icons of Style" dinner hosted by Michael Kors and Vanity Fair. Photo by Getty
Kors, who uses ‘she’ as an all-embracing name for his type of woman, is an enthusiastic personal contactor.
‘I think that is the best thing about what I do,’ he continues. ‘We do trunk shows, we still do personal experiences. I always think the store is the lab where she gets to experiment. But I don’t think she wants to be Cinderella and become another person — you want to be the best “you”.’
The designer was in London for two reasons: the re-positioning of his store — one devoted only to his top Collection line; and to hold a strategic seminar, ‘Icons of Style’, hosted by Vanity Fair with three starry Kors clients: bubbly Kate Hudson, whom he escorted to the recent Met Ball in New York; growing-old-gracefully Ali MacGraw; and Rene Russo, who revealed some of her own fashion insecurities on the red carpet.
I asked the designer first about the Sloane Street store in London’s Knightsbridge, filled with bright clothes and, of course, colourful bags. Is this store dedicated to a specific British tribe?
‘The location is a little more residential than anything we have ever done — I don’t like to use the word “salon” because it seems old and stuffy, but you can exhale in there,’ Kors said. ‘London is, of course, a crossroads of the world – every nationality, every type of woman — but in this instance it also has the possibility for being the neighbourhood store. It is both. So we have a lot of local clients that live in Chelsea, and spend a lot of their time there, like the Upper East Side. If they are working, they have kids. I like that this can be the neighbourhood store in a city where the world is the neighbourhood.’
That sounded so smart that I hesitated to say that the entire portion of Sloane Street, where Michael Kors is ensconced at number 29, is a sea of global luxury fashion names: Armani, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Fendi, Marni, Prada, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Versace.
But Michael insisted that his new territory is cosy compared with his previous store on Bond Street.
‘I love Bond Street, but it is a bit like Fifth Avenue in New York — I don’t feel like you are running your errands and stopping in on Fifth Avenue, whereas Madison Avenue you are, and Sloane Street is that,’ he said.
Ali MacGraw, Michael Kors, Rene Russo and Kate Hudson flew to London to discuss ‘the role of fashion in American film over three decades’. Picture credit: Darren Gerrish
I doubt that Kors himself could walk down a classy street anywhere in the world without being stopped for a selfie or a chat. That gives him a link with the Hollywood set who were all dressed so differently for their on-stage discussion exploring ‘the role of fashion in American film over three decades’.
Ali MacGraw was in a crisp blouse and mid-calf skirt; Rene in a little black dress; Kate Hudson in a rhinestone-studded ‘onesie’.
Kate remembered the first fitting she had for Almost Famous, when she was ‘like a kid in a candy store’.
I especially enjoyed Ali MacGraw’s comments about movie stars on a plane, ducking into the bathroom to wriggle into a fancy outfit before landing.
‘I am always pretty simple — comfortable pants and a big shawl — while I have a movie star friend who goes on a plane and then heads to the ladies’ room pretending to look great,’ she said. Kate admitted that she wears ‘sweatpants and fuzzy socks to get cosy on the plane — then I’ll take out a little dress’.
Michael, with the blond hair of his Swedish father, said at the talk that his choice of movie hero would be Daniel Craig.
But Kors has a connection to fame that goes beyond his Hollywood friends and his mother, Joan, living on the West Coast: his worldwide television success in Project Runway.
He illustrated how actress Debra Messing — one of the most devoted Kors ‘girls’ and guest judge in one of the finales of Project Runway — differentiated her big- versus small-screen fame. For television ‘you are in someone’s home, they are eating ice-cream out of a container and hanging out with you — all the barriers will fall — people will talk to you in the street, like they know you well.’
But the attention does not bother Kors, who seems to see the world sunny-side up. He jokes that vendors in London’s Portobello Road antiques market raise the prices when they spot him — and then ask for a picture together!
It is hard to crack the bright, shining Michael Kors surface, although I think back to the founding of his business in the Eighties and how the ceiling in a downtown show location literally cracked open, dropping chunks of plaster on front row heads, including my own.
The interior of the new store which carries ready-to-wear and accessories from Michael Kors Collection, as well as watches, jewellery, footwear, fragrances and eyewear. Picture credit: Michael Kors
We rarely hear about his six years designing for Céline in Paris, shuffling between two continents, although I remember his mother, who attends every show, telling me that the constant Paris/New York travel was too much for him.
I go back to the subject of those bags, whose success, especially in Asia, have made the designer a billionaire.
‘It’s about combining the idea of something that is pragmatic and useful but still gives people a lift, a sense of glamour, because it always seems like something is either utilitarian or glamorous,’ says Kors. ‘The accessory world has those two extremes, and when you find the balance, I think that works whether you are in Cuba, London or Moscow. ‘
The new Michael Kors store on Sloane Street, SW1. Picture credit: Michael Kors
He continues: ‘Some people are so casual that your exclamation has to be what is on your foot, your wrist or what kind of glasses you’re in.’
The fashion shows are worked on the same principle. Or, as Kors puts it: ‘The story is not finished until those accessories go on that girl. It can be the most fabulous garment, and I am in love, but I am not really there yet. And if I feel like that as a designer, I know that is how she feels.’
I ask him about his huge success in Asia. ‘In the Asian market they are so curious, and they have this optimism, even if life is not perfect,’ Kors said. ‘By nature it is my personality. I think the brand is optimistic.
The interior of the new store which carries ready-to-wear and accessories from Michael Kors Collection, as well as watches, jewellery, footwear, fragrances and eyewear. Photo by Michael Kors
‘I truly believe in authenticity, and I think she smells it,’ he continues. She says, “I want to feel good about myself, my life. I want everything I buy to actually make sense.” And that is where I come in. I don’t think you can market it — she knows. It is the attitude when you walk into a shop: the first thing I want people to feel is optimism.
In front of his movie friends, Michael Kors gave the purest explanation of his work and his attitude.
‘Some designers make collections for the theatre of clothes, but what we send down the catwalk, I want to see people wear.
‘The reality for me about everything I design is that women want something that is luxurious, glamorous and indulgent. But at the same time we are all conflicted. She also wants something that is comfortable, pragmatic and practical. If you combine it all — that is how I work.’
Michael Kors with Ali MacGraw, Rene Russo and Kate Hudson. Photo by Darren Gerrish