September 2 2014

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Michael Kors: “The Rules Have Tumbled”


Just shy of his 30-year anniversary in the business, Michael Kors is receiving the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at the CFDAs tonight. He’s hardly resting on his laurels—as you’ll read, the guy spent the weekend literally making snow in the summer heat—but that’s business as usual for the indefatigable designer (and TV personality). Kors spoke with executive editor Nicole Phelps about his early ambitions, fashion’s recent re-embrace of reliable all-American sportswear, and how much has changed in the nearly three decades he’s been in business. (Hint: Plenty.)

How are you spending your weekend before Monday’s awards ceremony?
I’m not heading out to the beach. We’re shooting our Fall ad campaign on Sunday, and we’re re-creating a snowy day in this heat. We shot last Spring’s in the cold, so we thought, why not go for 90 degrees and snow? It’s insanity.

And how does it feel to be receiving the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award?
At first, I was totally blown away and surprised. I mean, the first time I went to the CFDA Awards in the eighties, Katharine Hepburn got honored. I still think I’m a kid. Then, all of a sudden, it’s been 30 years. To have your peers tip the hat, say bravo, I’m unbelievably touched; it’s your peers and it’s a competitive world.

Back in the early eighties, when you were working at Lothar’s, what was your big dream?
I was doing everything in the store, picking up shoulder pads, fabric, zippers, and buttons; working on prototypes; delivering clothes from our workroom in a taxi; ripping them off the mannequin and taking them to the dressing room. But my name was never on the label. When you’re young, you’re very impatient, and I couldn’t understand at 20 why my name wasn’t on the label. I wanted to break out from being the anonymous designer. I also wanted to jump across the street and be in Bergdorf’s, and that’s what happened.

What are the biggest changes between then and now in the fashion business?
When we started, we weren’t thinking overseas. There used to be very specific looks in Houston, Kansas City, San Francisco. Now, people travel to such a degree, needs and tastes are pretty similar everywhere. What’s a hit in L.A. is a hit in London, and it works in Seoul, too. The rules of appropriateness have changed, people are in better shape, women are more opinionated. It’s not as “think pink” as it was. The seasons have changed, too; no one’s putting clothes in storage. We sell boots in summer and sandals in winter. The other thing is, the whole idea of dressing for your age is over. Now you dress for your body; there are women who are 20 who hate their arms, and women who are in their seventies and love them. The rules have tumbled.

Why do you think your Fall collection was such a hit?
Fashion’s a moving target, which is why it’s still exciting for me. It’s always changing, shifting. In the eighties, at the height of brocade, I didn’t go there; I was swimming against the tide at the time. We’ve just come out of a decade, I think, about which people are going to look back and kind of feel like they feel about the eighties, if they lived through them: like, “my shoes were ridiculous, my bag was too big, everything was too much.” What comes to me naturally, which is something that’s simultaneously indulgent and pragmatic, the zeitgeist is calling for that.

Are you interested in doing more TV?
Runway has gone on for as long as it has because it’s about a living and breathing thing; it’s not a sitcom, where you get bored. It’s fashion and there’s always something new. For the right idea, sure, I’m open. Would I design an airport lounge? I’d love to. A box of chocolates? No. The thing is, women and men have questions about getting dressed. Fashion people assume that everyone knows how to do it, but they don’t. Last night, a man stopped me in Times Square and said, “Excuse me, but I just lost 60 pounds, and I’m here to buy a tux for my daughter’s wedding. What should I get?” And I thought, is that such a hard question? But he really didn’t know. So I told him to skip the double-breasted jacket, make sure it’s two buttons, not three, and absolutely no pleats. If you do all that, people will be able to see how thin you are. Anything that gives information to people intrigues me.

What can you tell us about the Spring 2011 collection you’ll show in September?
We’re staying relaxed and easy. Everything has been tarted up, that whole sex-aholic-on-the-run thing, I can’t look at it anymore. It’ll be about easiness and separates. We’re training a whole new generation of women to buy investment pieces. Why pull away from that, when she’s just getting used to it?

What do you make of the fact that the English designer Phoebe Philo, at your French alma mater, Celine, has become a champion of sorts of all-American sportswear?
When you travel the world—I don’t care what city you’re in, Paris, Rio, Sydney, anywhere—the simple truth is, life is casual today. In most instances, people won’t give up comfort. America is the place where it started because life was faster here first for women, but life is fast now even in a small town in Italy. I don’t care what city, people are craving clothes they can hold on to, live in. Geoffrey Beene was a pragmatic couturier. He ripped the structure out of anything people thought of as old-school elegance and gave it comfort, ease. It’s American, yes, but it’s really international. It’s the zeitgeist that’s right for today.

Have you prepared your acceptance speech?
I’m keeping it short and sweet. I spent a lot of time with [director] Matt Tyrnauer on the film; I’m going let the film do the talking.

Photo: James Veysey / Camera Press / Retna