“You walked into the party, like you were walking onto a yacht...” When Michael Kors arrived in Shanghai wearing signature aviators and a sharp black jacket, with Karmen Pedaru, Isabeli Fontana and Miranda Kerr in tow it was easy to imagine this opening line of Carly Simon’s signature song of the 70s as his soundtrack. Kors had come from the Met Gala in New York City on Monday night where Lily Aldridge made a statement on his arm straight to central China to open his flagship store and stage a fashion show, or in this case a “jet set experience”, in the private hangar in Hongqiao to be attended by more than 1000 people. The ensuing cinematic special effects display and global party included the attendance of Hilary Swank and a Michael Kors private jet: all in aid of Kors’ dream to spread his ‘jet set’ attitude all over the world.
It was photographer Ron Galella, the pioneer of paparazzo, who first ignited Kors’ fascination with these travelling international pleasure seekers. His pictures in the 60s and 70s for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker of “Jackie Kennedy, Robert Redford, the Bianca Jaggers of the world” had a huge influence on Kors and is something he credits as his enduring inspiration. “It’s the lifestyle I wanted to create for women all around the world. There’s a way you can have a sense of glamour and luxury that works for everyday life,” he says. “The whole idea of the jet set was that these people moved fast, and now everyone moves fast. You don’t have to have a private plane to have a fast life. Everyone has a fast life, even if it’s just on their phone.”
Every Kors collection presents nostalgic echos of eras gone by while maintaining a relevance to a modern girl who is fast paced, athletic and chic. He calls it “sporty, sexy, glam” and always classic enough to transcend what’s ‘in’ fashion. It’s why every gamine will have a Kors silk cashmere tank hidden among their Isabel Marant and why so many models rely on the brand for low-key evening dressing.
Whether with a cashmere lounge suit made solely for reclining on leather Chesterfields or simple but charming safari shorts and a white T-shirt, Kors entices a dream of the kind of life we’d like to live. He conjures images of getaways to rustic cabins in snow covered mountains, far away tropical beaches and luxe African safaris and yet his pieces, when broken down, translate perfectly onto the urban streets.
“I like to see a woman not sacrificing anything … To look amazing but to still feel comfortable. I want my clients to look fabulous but also to move and have fun when they are out on the town. Too practical, it’s boring and too crazy, you wear it once and it’s finished. Why do we all have closets full of clothing but always wear the same jacket? Why do we have many shoes but wear the same pair?
“I always try to say the best pieces are something day-to-day mixed with something unfamiliar, something classic with something indulgent. It’s always the blend of the two, a yin and yang approach of balancing practical and luxury.”
It’s this aspirational attitude – the practical glamour of the modern jet setter – that Mario Testino, Kors’ collaborator for over a decade, has helped him capture this lifestyle through his collections and campaigns. This global proposition is unique to Kors and is responsible for the exponential growth over the brand over the last decade and while it sounds like it’s out of a naff 80s handbook on ‘how to dress for the life you want’ somehow it works.
“All I really do as a designer is become a confidence-builder. It’s first about how the woman looks and secondly about what she’s wearing. I design for the woman to be the focus. It’s about balancing simplicity and quality that shows off the woman first,” he says.
Born in Long Island, New York, fashion played a big role in Kors’ life from his very early days. “My family, I have to say, very much shaped me,” he says. “I grew up with people who were fashion-obsessed and they were my original influencers.” His mother, once a model, is “sporty and laidback. She’s all about simplicity; she likes a T-shirt and an evening skirt with a slicked back ponytail.” He recalls his aunt, on the other hand, who wore a bikini top to a family Bar Mitzvah as showing him the “the value of sexiness”.
His mother always encouraged his creative sensibility – when he was five she asked him to help with her wedding dress – and to this day she is an influence. “My mother doesn’t give me input but she does give an opinion,” he says with a wry smile.
“I was actually an actor for a bit, so she would take me into the city and we’d each go to our own castings. It was fun, but after she realised I wanted to work more than I wanted to go to school, she knew it was time to pull me out a bit. But I always loved fashion. In high school I sold some jean sketches to UFO Jeans where my friend’s dad worked. After that, I managed the pro shop of a country club, and was soon in charge of ordering the clothes. It was all very natural to me.”
Enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology after school is a time Kors remembers romantically. “I grew up and came of age in the era of Studio 54. I was at FIT during the day and at Studio 54 at night watching fabulous people being fabulous. Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Ali McGraw, all of them they were part of my school nights,” he says.
“I worked at a high end boutique in New York City on Fifth Avenue and I gained valuable retail experience that became an integral part of my brand’s DNA. “I learnt early on the importance of listening to your customers and designing pieces for them to use in their everyday lives that could make them feel beautiful, glamorous and confident.”
This boutique allowed Kors a small space to sell his designs and the fashion director from Bergdorf Goodman, just across the road, asked him to show his collection to their buyers. They loved it immediately and this saw the beginning of Kors’ women’s wear line. By the early 80s Kors was selling his collections through all the major department stores and by all means living his dream until a bankruptcy in the early 90s forced him to press pause. It was then, he took on the role of the first ever ready to wear designer for Céline.
“Céline taught me the importance of global dressing — how women in Paris and women in New York essentially want the same thing: clothes they can live in, that make them look and feel great,” he says. “I also realised that, especially in the fast-paced world we live in today, a dress has to work just as well in London as it does in L.A..”
Having made a success of both RTW and accessories lines at Céline, he left to pursue his original plan – his own brand – which he has grown extraordinarily over the last decade to place him with a suggested net worth over $1 billion; his jet set ambitions now firmly his own reality. Although now, having been bestowed with many awards, such as the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award, and great wealth, philanthropy has become a huge and significant part of his life. “I think all philanthropy should come from some kind of personal feeling,” he says. “My primary focus is and has been hunger, especially in our partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), to fight hunger on a global level. Hunger is a global crisis, but it is also something you can solve.”
Sipping on iced tea and looking airbrushed despite the heat in Shanghai, Kors exudes a sense of calm you’d expect from a man living the life he’s always hoped for. He’ll reach Milan by the weekend, then Capri (one of his favourite destinations along with Parrot Cay), the week following.
“Yes, for me travel is the ultimate inspiration. I’m a curious person, so I’m inspired by everything: film, theatre, books, the people I meet, things that I see on the street, architecture — it all comes into play. I think if you’re really out there living and engaging in the world, there is never a shortage of ideas.” And his tips for staying impeccably chic on the journey? “I think when you’re travelling, especially for long periods of time, the best thing to do is pick a colour palette and stick with it. This way, you can mix and match and change up your look with a different shoe, or a glam cuff. I have a few must-haves: aviators, a black jacket, a cashmere knit, white jeans and La Mer lip balm.” And then with a wink: “Aviators make every man Steve McQueen.”
MODEL MOMENTS: MEET MICHAEL KORS' MUSE KARMEN PEDARU