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How Michael Kors Became New York Fashion’s Ultimate Entertainer

He couldn’t sing, he couldn’t dance, but from Studio 54 to Broadway to Seventh Avenue, he designed his way into a 40-year success story.
On April 20th, American designer Michael Kors celebrates 40 years in business. BoF/Getty Images.
On April 20th, American designer Michael Kors celebrates 40 years in business. BoF/Getty Images.

If fashion was a Broadway musical, it would be “Call Me Kors!”

Here’s the preamble: “When I was growing up on Long Island, Manhattan was the Emerald City. I had this feeling that life would begin when I got to the Midtown Tunnel. Forty years in, I still feel that way.”

And here’s the soundtrack: “The year I moved to New York was the year that the song ‘New York, New York’ came out. We’d be leaving to go to Studio 54, and we’d have exactly $20 in our pockets. It was enough for us to have two drinks, a bagel at the Empire Diner and catch a cab home. I remember thinking, ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’.”

Then this: “We would stay sometimes until the last song, and of course when Donna Summer came out with “Last Dance,” that would be it. But then, Diana Ross did a Stevie Wonder song “Too Shy to Say I Love You.” There’d be no one left on the dance floor, and you would just have the boys cleaning the place up at 5.30 in the morning, and I always thought it was very romantic. When we were at FIT, we would steal the flowers and bring them back to the dormitory.”


And even this: “We were sitting outside having a drink in the rain at The Monster the other day. They have music piped onto the street, and three songs in a row came on. First, “Native New Yorker,’ an all-time favourite for me. I mean, we’ve used it in fashion shows, fragrance commercials. It was the Studio 54 song that I loved most. Then it went to “Horse With No Name,” one of my favourite Michael Kors shows. We even called it the Horse With No Name Show. And then the last one was Donna Summer singing “I Feel Love,’ which is the only song I played at my 30th anniversary show.”

And don’t forget the look: “My first serious fashion purchase was an Armani blazer, black and white glen plaid linen. That was Studio 54, with a white tank top, sleeves pushed up, torn-up jeans, cowboy boots. And I saved up and bought a Barry Kieselstein Cord belt, and that was my look. And I loved big Porsche sunglasses back then, the enormous ones. It was very Yoko Ono crossed with Peter Frampton. As soon as I got up in the morning, I would have to press my Armani jacket to refresh it, because I’d danced in it all night long.”

You don’t gotta be no Einstein to winkle out the common thread. It’s part of the Michael Kors myth that he blew off his high school prom to go to Studio 54. The club had been open all of four days and it already had a reputation. Sinatra had been denied entry! But when 17-year-old Michael and his three friends showed up at the notorious velvet rope, they were ushered in, and his life changed. “I think it might be one of the reasons I dropped out of FIT. I was more intrigued seeing Nan Kempner wearing David Webb bracelets on a sofa at Studio 54, or watching Halston with the Halstonettes, or going to Valentino’s circus birthday party, or being there for Bianca Jagger on the white horse.”

Michael Kors Autumn/Winter 2019
Michael Kors Collection FALL 2019 READY-TO-WEAR Look 65 from Michael Kors’ Studio 54-themed Autumn/Winter 2019 collection worn by Kris Grikaite. Michael Kors. (HIROKAZU OHARA)

When I first met Michael in the mid-80s, he was working his Roger Daltrey-meets-Peter Frampton mop of curls. The late, great Oribe Canales advised a cut, short in back, long in front, (Kors remembers it being “a little Eraserhead-ish”), but for years he would still toss his head around on the dance floor like he had long hair. There was no more Studio 54 by that point. It was Nell’s or MK. And eventually, there was no more dancing. “I was working, travelling like crazy doing trunk shows,” he recalls, “and restaurants became the new weird social thing in New York. Indochine opened, Mr Chows opened. It became a different sort of thing. I guess I burned my club years out in my late teens. By the time I was 22 or 23, I was maybe a little bored of it.”

I remember at that first meeting, he told me that his big ambition was that his business would always be “real.” If he said it was worth a million dollars, he wanted to be able to go to the bank, get that million dollars in cash and put it on the table in front of me. Kors didn’t even do a fashion show for his first three years, until he was absolutely sure he could produce and deliver a collection. “Holding the horses back, building a clientele,” he calls it. Years later, when he went on to mould young fashion minds during his ten-season stint as a judge on Project Runway, he was still the voice of restraint. “When I work with students, they’re in the craziest rush, and when they show me their work, they’re immediately talking about their ‘brand’ and they’re 18. And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, you have to wait to be a brand, you’re not there yet.’”

Now, of course, Forbes writes about “Michael Kors: Billionaire.” That word would have been a hazy fantasy to the moptop I met in the mid-80s. What does it mean in real terms? “When I read that, it seems really abstract, because at the end of the day, the people who’ve known me a long time know I’m still going out and grabbing a slice of pizza. I’m not suddenly being carried around in a sedan chair. The more real thing for me is the freedom to travel that I always dreamed of. In the Eighties, when we were in our 20s, we’d be, like, ‘Can we make it to South Beach?’ and we’d be staying at a terrible hotel. So, now you can say ‘I want to be in Tanzania for the Great Wildebeest Migration’ and you can make it a reality. That’s a very nice thing.”

And that’s not all. “You can also give back,” says Kors. “I think about the AIDS pandemic in the Eighties when it really first hit, and I was young and didn’t have any money. We all had that sense of helplessness. And now, fast forward, to be able to see a problem or something that is in dire need of help and to be able to help financially, that’s amazing.” Over thirty years ago, after the death of a close friend, Kors became a supporter of the New York-based non-profit God’s Love We Deliver, which at the time provided meals for people suffering from AIDS. (It has since broadened its scope to serve people with cancer and other serious illnesses.) As his business bloomed, so did his support for GLWD. The charity recognised him in 2015 by naming its new Soho headquarters the Michael Kors Building. You can imagine that moment getting a spontaneous ovation in “Call Me Kors!”

It’s so right that there should be such a solid token of his love for New York. More than love, it’s always been akin to a magnificent obsession. Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled was his “Rosebud,” the key that unlocked the enigma of his very being. Kors says his “Rosebud” would probably be shopping bags from the big city. “Because honestly, when I was a kid and I walked into a store, it was that Holly Golightly cliché. I felt this magic that nothing could ever go wrong when I would walk into a store and be surrounded by beautiful things. So, I think that set the course.”


“The two loves were live performance and fashion,” Kors continues. “I was bitten by the theatre bug early. I decided I should see if that’s for me, so I started taking acting lessons in Greenwich Village. Kind of crazy when I think that my mom let a 13-year-old take the train from Long Island and take the subway downtown. I did it for about a year and a half. Then I looked around and I thought I enjoy this, but honestly, I’m a terrible dancer, I do not have a great singing voice, and I was surrounded by people who were so driven. I, on the other hand, would save up the money my mom gave me for lunch and the train. I would basically walk through the Long Island Railroad, so I didn’t have to pay the train fare. I would take the subway instead of a taxi, so I’d save the taxi fare. I wouldn’t eat lunch. And then in two or three weeks, I had enough money to go shopping and buy something. So, the fashion bug just bit in a much stronger way.”

Kors remembers when he was 11 or 12 and the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby came out, and there was Myrtle, the mistress who lived in a decrepit gas station in industrial Queens, a metaphorical no man’s land between Manhattan and the Hamptons. “All she wants to do is get to the city. And when I heard the rumble of the Long Island Railroad, it just made me think, ‘OK, get me to the city.’ I was Myrtle by the gas station.”

When I heard the rumble of the Long Island Railroad, it made me think, ‘Get me to the city… Get me out of the suburbs.’

Much earlier than that, there was Vogue. “I particularly loved all the people pages, the party pictures. And then we had the New York tabloids. The Daily News would have Jackie and Ari coming out of P.J. Clarke’s. The New York Post would come out in the afternoon in those days, and you’d have a picture of Liz and Dick fighting in Rome. And then, as I got a little older, my information came from more sophisticated places. I started to read Interview Magazine when I was around 14. And I was just, ‘This is the life!’. So, between Interview, the tabloids and the movies … you know when Diana Ross did Mahogany, I thought I was Mahogany. And so, all of that was just ‘get me out of the suburbs.’ GET ME OUT!”

Michael Kors Autumn/Winter 2011
Michael Kors Autumn/Winter 2011 Look 63 from Michael Kors’ 30th anniversary Autumn/Winter 2011 collection worn by Carmen Kass. Michael Kors. (©DAN AND CORINA LECCA)

But Kors’ childhood in Merrick, Long Island doesn’t sound typically suburban at all. His mother Joan rode with a bike gang. They made him a little baby biker jacket. “I think my mom has always been a rebel,” says the loving son. “If I had to equate her to anyone in the public eye, she’s a little like Jane Fonda in that she goes through these cycles, from suburban housewife to rock ‘n’ roll biker to powerful working woman. I think she was always rebelling against the suburbs, which I may have learned from her.”

Then there was the grandmother. “She definitely did not believe in casual; she’d wear a gown and a stole in the Caribbean.” Kors’ grandparents were constantly travelling. Whether it was Greece, Morocco or merely Las Vegas or Miami, little Michael was enthralled. He’s definitely one apple who didn’t fall far from the tree. But what about the great grandmother, who arrived in America on her own at the age of 11, and built a hotel and restaurant business? She also survived the Spanish flu, but never spoke a word about it. “It was a bad time, and she didn’t want to dwell,” Joan told Michael.

I never get really sad. At this point, you start to feel like the village elder.

So now we’re in another bad time, and his great-grandmother’s optimism gene is being sorely tested. But Kors has been here before. “At a certain age you just look around and you say, ‘Okay, we’ve been through this,’ and somehow there’s real resilience. When I started my business, New York was quite honestly a shithole. The crime was terrible. My apartment at the time was at Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street. When you got out of a cab, you would run from the curb into the building, because the sidewalk was so scary. And then you think about the ’80s in New York, the AIDS pandemic, death all around you, drugs, crime, all of it. And yet, somehow, we found joy, we moved forward. Then I get to the trials and tribulations in business, the ups and downs in the economy … the morning of 9/11, I was supposed to finish my last fittings for our show the next day and I was late for work. My apartment at the time faced directly onto the Twin Towers. I stood on my terrace watching both planes go in. I remember thinking, how will we recover from this? How resilient can we be? Are we capable? And at the time, everyone said, ‘You can’t live in downtown New York,” and ‘No one will ever live in Tribeca.’ Well, now Tribeca is the most expensive zip code in New York City. Maybe it’s my Pollyanna side, I think we will always have scar tissue, but eventually, we know we’ve got to get back into the thick of it. I’ve seen it in my life, I’ve seen it in this city especially, that somehow the resilience comes back.”

But Kors faces another more insidious challenge now. As someone who has always relished multitasking, never mind the one-on-one humanism of a trunk show, he now concedes concern at the warp speed of life, and fashion. “When I think about photography, for example, the work that goes into crafting an amazing image … well, sorry, the selfie on your phone or the TikTok is not the same thing. And that does make me a little sad. When I think about the work that we put into a garment, it’s built to last. So, when I hear people say, ‘Oh, I already wore that, I can’t wear it again,’ I just want to scream and shout, ‘Nan Kempner wore the same dress for 20 years!’ That makes me a little melancholy. But at the same time, we have to balance it with the fact of this past year. Do I want to do trunk shows on Zoom? No, but thank God for it. The speed has allowed for all of this to happen. So, I never get really sad. At this point, maybe you start to feel like the village elder. I’ll say to my staff, ‘Guys, you don’t have to order so many clothes. You can buy one thing and wear it lots of ways. And when you’re watching a movie, don’t look at your phone while you’re watching the movie and start Googling the Wiki page on the actor. You know, really appreciate the film.’ Listen, it’s a balance. But do I think so many amazing, wonderful things are possible now? Yes, they are. I still feel that way.”

This collection is a love letter to big city life, for the people who come from small towns to reinvent themselves.

So how on earth do you tie all of that up in a 40th anniversary show? “It’s not that easy,” Kors acknowledges. “And it’s not the end, so I’m not looking to tie it all up. What I’m really looking at with this collection is a love letter, not just to New York, but to big city life, for all the people who come from smaller towns or suburbs to reinvent and find themselves. There’s also just the idea of community and live performance, whether that’s a fashion show or someone singing in the street, or a play in the West End or on Broadway. I want it to very much have this feeling that we all crave as human beings, just to step out and strut your stuff. So, is it going to sum up forty years? Well, put it this way. Am I allowed at this point to say, ‘That’s very Michael Kors’? Yes!”


There are three CFDA awards lined up on the cabinet behind him: menswear, womenswear and lifetime achievement. Missing is one for accessories. “How many Michael Kors handbags and watches exist in the world? I’ve had six nominations and never won. I’m afraid it’ll be like the Oscars where they bring Myrna Loy up on a hydraulic lift, and she’s holding her awards. I’m praying we don’t get to that.”

But what a curtain-closer that would be for “Call Me Kors!”

Related Articles:

Michael Kors Broods on Longevity

The BoF Podcast: Michael Kors on Why He Left Fashion Week

Game On: Michael Kors Acquires Versace for $2.1 Billion

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