If there is anything Michael Kors likes as much as fashion—and there’s not, really—it would have to be a Broadway show. This season he’s seen South Pacific (twice), A Little Night Music, Sondheim on Sondheim, A View From the Bridge, and, on a super-humid summer night, Red.
“We ran into one of our neighbors and he said, ‘What does red mean to you?’ ” Kors smiles and his face lights up pink. He’s just arrived at Joe Allen for a late supper with his longtime boyfriend, Lance LePere. “Red? It’s the only color that New Yorkers will buy!” He lets out an enormous peal of laughter and waves hello to Cheyenne Jackson (“Now, that is a star!”), who is at the next table, and then he orders a hamburger, fries, and an iced tea with extra ice and lemon on the side. (“Does that make me sound like Donna Karan?”) “If you want to be a real girl,” he says, “you should order a banana cream pie and nothing else.” He leans back, delighted. “A banana cream pie and nothing else!”
Kors goes to the theater as much as he can, usually accompanied by LePere, who is also a creative director at his company and looks, according to Kors’s friend Marjorie Gubelmann, like a “cross between Jesus and Tarzan.”
“I don’t understand why fashion people don’t love the theater,” Kors says. “Fashion people love escape and a show and pageantry and storytelling, right?” LePere nods gravely. Kors shrugs. He loves escape. And shows. And pageantry. And storytelling. How could he not?
Kors is having a moment. As the recession has contracted lots of luxury businesses, Kors has seen his brand explode. The company is expected to hit $1 billion in sales this year. He opened his first boutique in 2000, and by the end of 2012, he will have close to 200 worldwide, in addition to the 1,000 venues already selling his various labels, accessories, and perfumes. He’s currently wrapping his eighth season as a judge on Project Runway, the TV show that has made him the de facto authority on what is and what isn’t “fashion” in living rooms all over the world. To just about anyone with a cable box, and the tendency to care about these things, Michael Kors is American fashion.
“He was our first choice,” says Runway executive producer Jane Cha. “We wanted someone with a very serious business. But it turned out that he’s a completely natural performer. Everything is a catchphrase. Nothing is ‘too crafty’; it’s too ‘Becky home-ec-y.’ Nothing is ‘too country’; it’s ‘Appalachian Barbie.’ ”
Kors himself had no idea what a difference the show would make to his business: “I just figured, why not try it?” he says. But it’s made all the difference. Kors’s clothing is often about the lifestyles of the rich and highlighted, but the message he delivers by being on television is one of quasi- democracy. By embracing TV, he has cracked some sort of code about what makes a designer matter now. His is a brand of fashion that is as straightforward as it is chic, and his personality happens to match. You can’t imagine him, à la Yves Saint-Laurent, locking himself away to draw and fester, or being cruel to the unattractive or the poorly dressed. And TV plays to those traits: There’s the clever on-air bitchiness, but there’s also the overt accessibility and a fixation on what women might actually want to wear. “So many designers are so tortured,” says his Runway cohort Nina Garcia, the fashion director of Marie Claire. “It’s, Oh my God, I’m an artist. I’m so sad. There’s none of that with Michael.”
A week after Kors’s trip to Red, he was at Lincoln Center receiving the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA. Gwyneth Paltrow was his date. “When I spend time with him, I feel understood,” she said afterward. Kors stood beside her and beamed. His award was presented by Anna Wintour, who had given Kors his first editorial coverage 29 years ago in this magazine. The photograph was of a mohair coat and a pair of suede culottes. The caption read: “Michael Kors, 22, feels that fashion should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.” She was giddy presenting her friend with his prize, and she told one story of running into Kors at Round Hill resort in Jamaica. “After splashing about in the water, he was ready to come ashore, when he suddenly realized that he could not. Ralph Lauren had arrived and was perched on the sand right in front of him, and Michael did not want Ralph to see him in his swimsuit. So he just bobbed around in the water for hours, smiling and waving.”