SHANGHAI, China — From humble beginnings as a boy growing up on New York’s Long Island to launching the largest fashion IPO in history for his eponymous brand, Michael Kors is the driving force behind the rise of one of the world's fastest-growing fashion businesses — known for its "jet set" aesthetic — which now generates over $2 billion in annual revenues and has a market capitalisation of more than $18 billion.
On the eve of a Michael Kors extravaganza in Shanghai — set to include a runway and special effects show staged in a 30,000-square-foot airplane hangar at Hongqiao International Airport — the designer sat down with BoF founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed, before an audience of VIPs, global media and international guests, to talk about his personal and professional journey.
Growing up with a mother who was a former fashion model, a grandfather who worked in textiles and a grandmother who was a teacher but “more obsessed with fashion,” Michael Kors was surrounded by a like-minded and supportive family. "Talking about fashion at the table was something that was the norm," he recalled. "I realised by the time I was a teenager that this was just the life I was meant to lead."
I spent a lot of time in the stores hearing what women had to say. The best thing a designer can do is stand near their merchandise in a store.
But his path to becoming a household name was anything but linear. After nine months at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Kors dropped out. "I got to school and suddenly I realised, I was never going to be a brilliant seamstress. That was never going to happen. And even though I was 18, I knew the kind of woman I wanted to design for. I knew what the aesthetic was," he said. Encouraged by a teacher who urged him to seek employment, Kors earned a different kind of education, in retail, at a boutique called Lothar's on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
"I got to design, I got to merchandise, I got to sell, I got to do displays, I really got to think about the whole experience, 360. That was my education. And retail will always be my education," he said.
Eventually, Kors began designing his own line, which was picked up by influential department store Bergdorf Goodman in 1981. His sleek and sporty womenswear gained traction with customers, buoyed by the ‘jet set’ lifestyle that formed the core of the brand’s DNA. “The simple truth is, we’re plugged in 24/7. We’re always on the go. We’re moving quickly. But at the same time we don’t want to wear things that are banal and utilitarian,” Kors explained. “We still want indulgence, we still want glamour, and ‘jet set’ is the perfect way to sum up how you have both.”
But the perfect storm of the early ‘90s economic recession and the collapse of a licensee that still owed the brand money drove Kors to file for bankruptcy protection, more than 10 years after launching his brand. As a result, the designer began to second-guess his aesthetic, at one point sketching out “crazy cocktail dresses,” he recalled. “It forced me to focus and say, wait a minute, find what makes you Michael Kors. Don’t look over your shoulder.”
How did he rebound from that low point? “I spent a lot of time in the stores hearing what women had to say. The best thing a designer can do is stand near their merchandise in a store.” During that time, Kors was hired as a designer for Parisian sportswear brand Céline, eventually becoming its creative director. But around 2004, he returned to New York after seven years in Paris to refocus on his eponymous label, which had just received a significant investment from apparel moguls Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll. But Kors credits his time in Paris with teaching him “how to make decisions and be in more cities at once – [how to] to think about a global business.”
As a New Yorker, it’s the city that never sleeps — well, New York is quiet and sleepy compared to Shanghai!
The debut of the hugely popular design reality show Project Runway in 2004 catapulted Michael Kors into the mainstream, as he was a judge on the panel. Initially, he was sceptical. “I said, you know what, it’s reality television. No way. Fashion is always made to seem like a joke and it’s really hard work. What are these designers going to be, in the jungle, eating bugs? I said no.” Throughout his 10 seasons on the show, Kors noted how the show had helped established fashion design into the realm of pop culture, and — to his surprise — how many people were interested in the design process.
Michael Kors’ initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in late 2011 made the designer a very wealthy man as shares of the company’s stock surged, bolstered by his brand’s strong positioning in the ‘affordable luxury’ segment of the market. On what is his first trip to mainland China, Kors also discussed his company’s strategy for expanding in the world’s largest luxury market.
“As a designer, someone in the fashion business, I’m concerned with markets where people are curious and thirsty. And the Chinese consumer is curious about what’s next, what’s new. And when you think about a fast life, this is the epicentre of a fast life,” he said. “As a New Yorker, it’s the city that never sleeps — well, New York is quiet and sleepy compared to Shanghai!”
Despite reports of a slowdown in the Chinese luxury market, with sales growth slowing to low single-digits compared to the double-digit growth of years past, Kors remains optimistic. “I still think newness counts for a lot here in China. As an American house, I approach it from a modern perspective. Also, we are dealing with a mix of product where we have a range of prices that makes us accessible to a huge range of people.”
Asked about his advice for emerging designers, Kors said to start small, gain experience in retail and keep your customers in mind. “Find something that’s small and focused. The biggest thing is, how do you do something that you feel in your gut and at the same time when you look at the marketplace, is it missing?” he asked. “Because if you can’t answer the question differently, nobody will care.”
The conversation was broadcast on www.businessoffashion.com. If you missed the broadcast, please enjoy the full interview in the video above.
Disclosure: Imran Amed travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Michael Kors.