On a broiling day in early August, Michael Kors - tan, blond and five days shy of his 51st birthday - is in a photo session at his 42nd Street offices. Front and center stands a model wearing an adorable knit mini dress. "Let me just futz with this," Kors says, adding a scarf, a knitted cap, a pocketbook, all part of creating spring lookbook images for Michael Michael Kors (his less expensive line).
Characteristically, Kors declares that less is more. "I looove it like that," he exclaims happily, removing all the accessories. His staff beams.
The scene reflects Kors' laserlike design vision, both spare and glamorous, serious and full of joy. And it is these somewhat disparate parts that make up the man: He is faaaabulous and still fun, Hollywood but homebody. A sophisticated world traveler and one of the world's most celebrated designers, he acknowledges that at his essence, he is a born (in Mineola) and bred (in Merrick) suburbanite.
The Michael Kors brand was born in 1981. Today, his almost billion dollar global empire includes his signature American luxury sportswear that will glide down the runway next Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, 80 eponymous stores worldwide, mainstream duds from the lower-priced line, perfumes, handbags, sunglasses and shoes sold in about 1,000 venues. Legions of fans include the first lady, movie stars such as Angelina Jolie, and entertainers like Mary J. Blige. Oh yes, and for eight seasons he has weighed in on fashion as a funny, smart, and slightly mean judge on Project Runway. He recently described a look as "transvestite flamenco dancer at a funeral."
Born Karl Anderson, Jr., he took the last name of his mother's second husband, Bill Kors, who adopted him when he was 5 - and changed his first name at around the same time. A former model, Joan Anderson Kors pegged her son early on for acting (he was in a Lucky Charms cereal commercial as a boy). He credits Long Island, home "of Olympic shoppers," his mom, a lover of tailored sportswear, and his grandmother - an over-the-top glamourpuss - as incubators of that distinctly Michael Kors look. And yet, as famous as he is, he has, somehow, retained his sense of humor and perspective.
Can you give us a sneak peek of what we might expect from your upcoming collection?
It's very Michael Kors, in a warm weather way. What it boils down to is laid back, easy and luxurious. There are definitely some colorful surprises riffing on things that are natural.
So how did growing up on Long Island affect your sense of fashion?
On Long Island, shopping is an Olympic sport. Long Island is a short cut to fashion if you grow up around clothes. Everyone sits at the table talking about clothes, textiles . . . and as an only child, coming from a family of shoppers, you become a shopping companion. I'm still a little Holly Golightly - when you're in the right store nothing bad can happen.
You have almost as many stores on Long Island as you do in über-chic L.A. Why?
When I was a teen, my grandparents moved to L.A. and my mom and I started visiting California more often and we realized that L.A. and L.I. are the same thing. L.A. just has palm trees. Shopping street life is not a big thing. How you see people is by going to the mall. In each place, people love fashion, love style, love beach life. They are both sophisticated and laid back at the same time. You know, a lot of designers probably grew up in the suburbs, and they're embarrassed about it, but I like the suburbs. Clothes can have big city sophistication and comfort and ease. It's logical.
Who's your Long Island girl? Can you help us paint a picture of this woman?
On Long Island, she's really a juggler. She's in the car sitting, going to work, dealing with the kids, she's got a lot going on and she doesn't want to be too dressed up like she's going to a wedding or a bar mitzvah, but she doesn't want to be running around in shorts because she enjoys fashion. She is expecting a lot from what she buys.
How are you feeling about the new Lincoln Center digs for Fashion Week?
Listen, I think it's great for any number of reasons. Bryant Park was very convenient for people, but there's nothing iconic about Bryant Park. With Lincoln Center you're really hooking into the creative arts in one spot - dance, opera, art, music, theater - and I also like the idea that you have this incredible architecture. It's convenience, diversity and gravitas - it's a win-win.
What do you eat during Fashion Week?
Ohhhh, it's really the agony and the ecstasy. All you really want are French fries and junk, but since I am one of the rare designers who walks down the runway - and it's a loooooong runway - the last thing I go for is French fries. So there's lots of sashimi and chopped salad deliveries and then sometimes the late night breakdown happens and it's a cheeseburger. There are not a lot gray areas. It's sashimi or grease.
Do you celebrate with a feast-like splurge after show?
Normally the night of the show I'm exhausted and I feel like I jumped off a cliff and I just want to relax with friends and family. It's the morning after - pancakes, maple syrup and bacon.
Who is your favorite runway model?
Favorite? Runway? Ohhh, that's hard. On the runway it's Carmen Kass and Gisele Bündchen.
How did you react to Michelle Obama wearing your dress for her official portrait?
We had no idea. I was in London at the theater when I saw the picture. The simple truth is that this is a whole new kind of woman . . . in a jersey dress with an athletic armhole. Even if I hadn't designed the dress it shows a whole new world. My generation has come of age and fashion reflects them.
I definitely think I'm more direct, it's hard to say meaner. By nature, I'm funny in good times and bad times. I'm about the zinger. Nina can kill them with a look. And there's something about an accent, mine is New York (a bit Long Island actually) hers (Spanish) is more intimidating. We are both viscerally honest.
When you won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award this past June - the youngest ever to win - were you shocked or did you have an inkling?
When I was a teen, there was Calvin, Donna and Ralph. Those are the people who have been at it for a lifetime. So when I heard it, I was like ' . . . I'm just a kid.' But then I guess, I realized I've been at it for, oooh, 30 years - I'm old. When your peers step back and acknowledge you, it's amazing."
What designers are your heroes/heroines?
Halston. He changed the idea of how people approached glamour. (Yves) Saint Laurent. I saw him at dinner in Paris once and couldn't eat. He found staples in a wardrobe. Bill Blass who understood his customer and was smart and clever. (Coco) Chanel. She changed the world. I like designers who think about how people live, not just design.
Are you recognized on the streets?
All the time. And the people who recognize me are always good-looking and well dressed. We have a very attractive fan base.
Are you ever mistaken for anyone else?
Marc Jacobs. People say 'I know you, I know you, you're Marc Jacobs,' and I have to convince them that I'm not. I say, 'I am not Marc Jacobs, we don't look anything alike.' It's designers in New York whose names start with M. Oh, and when I was 17, I was mistaken for Peter Frampton.
Can you tell us one thing that people would be most surprised to know about you?
Actually I'm a closeted schizophrenic in some ways. As social as I am and as much as I enjoy people, at the end of the day I am an only child. So I'm two extremes, social and out there and laid back and chilled. I like disparate things: mud-spattered crocodile boots, sleeping in 20-ply cashmere and being Scandinavian-Jewish.
If you had just one woman whom you might call your muse, who would that be and why?
I have different categories. My mother was sporty and simple, my grandmother was glamorous. So there's the curvy bombshell - Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Angelina Jolie. There's the sporty, tawny All American - Erin Lauder, Lauren Hutton and the outrageous glam girl eccentrics like the Olsen sisters who have an amazing eye, are eclectic and interesting to look at.
What's your absolute guiltiest pleasure?
Travel in the sun. I'm obsessed with it no matter how many times the dermatologist yells SPF. Honestly, I should write a travel book. I've rented the same house in Phuket for years, I love Bali, but the most mind blowing is South Africa and going on safari. (Singita lodges are his favorite places there.) It's the convergence of extreme natural beauty, luxury and design.
So that's your absolute guiltiest thing?
Maybe also Peter Luger's. I did have a tomato so that was a vegetable right?
We don't mean to be morose, but what words would you use to describe how you'd like to be remembered?
That I made people feel and look good. That I simplified their lives and proved that you can be chic and have a sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously.