Michael Kors is not the kind of designer who approves of knee-length tuxedos. Or of tight pants. Or of men who experiment with bright colors. When, in early June, Esquire asked the designer to host a screening of a film – any film – that inspired his new line of men’s clothing, he chose Downhill Racer, the 1969 classic featuring a lean Robert Redford as a swaggering downhill skier, and co-starring a white turtleneck. “I mean, totally body-conscious, but not vulgar,” Kors told the packed theater after the screening. “Après-ski. The American in Europe.” He paused and smiled. “It works.” Kors has been dressing the most polished members of the Park Avenue–Palm Beach–East Hampton set since the early eighties, but his hyper luxurious American classics were geared toward the ladies only. Along the way, the designer was vexed to discover that he couldn’t find the two things that he really needed: good black cashmere sweaters (crew and turtleneck, please) and a pair of well-cut gray flannel pants. “Everything was either, like, Fred Tipler hundred-year-old man,” he says one steamy afternoon in his pristine offices on Seventh Avenue, “or it was like ‘Okay, that’s really nice, but it’s like supertight and in stretch mesh.’ “
Since fall 1998, Kors had been producing a capsule men’s collection for his runway shows, mostly because he enjoyed the frisson of sending chiseled boys down the catwalk to flirt with his leggy girls. The men’s clothes he made for the runway were reflections and extensions of the women’s line: When Kors did his “Palm Bitch” season, with shrunken cable knits and Lilly Pulitzer–style prints, the guys got chintz trunks to match. The results were so egregiously preppy they called to mind Niedermeyer, the evil frat guy from Animal House; needless to say, the clothes weren’t for retail. “It tells the story better, having the guys,” Kors explains. Desperate to get his hands on the clothes he wanted to wear, he used his women’s factories to produce a small range of men’s basics to sell on a trial basis at Bergdorf Goodman and at his boutique when it opened in 2000. “It was a little test run,” he says. “Market research.”
The first few items Kors produced – which included the black cashmere sweaters and gray flannel pants – were an instant hit in both locations, even though they were very expensive (a symptom of their limited run). Kors’s well-heeled women were thrilled to dress up the men in their lives, and soon the men themselves were begging for more. “They were asking, ‘Where’s the rest of the enchilada?’ ” says Kors. Now, after nearly two years spent laboring over fit and production, a full trousseau has arrived in the shape of leather pea coats and ski jackets, chunky cashmere sweaters and soft cotton utility pants, and – what Kors considers the most important piece – a down anorak with a lush, fur-trimmed hood. And it’s in a full range of stores: his boutique and Bergdorf Goodman once again, but also Saks Fifth Avenue and specialty stores like Camouflage and Scoop.
Naturally, he’s still refining the basics that started this whole thing off: those cashmere sweaters, those perfect flannel pants. “I don’t know that any woman thinks that everyone can wear the same evening dress,” Kors says with a sigh, shaking his head a bit. “But men all assume they can wear the same pants. So I really, really worked on that fit.” They’re more generously cut than skinny-boy hipsters of recent seasons (Jason Sehorn, for example, was caught complaining to his wife in Paris earlier this year that he couldn’t get his Louis Vuitton trousers over his legs). They’re higher-waisted because not everyone, after all, wants to be Jim Morrison. And the prices are much more approachable. “Guys don’t want to buy clothes and feel like they might have made a foolish mistake,” says Robert Burke of Bergdorf Goodman. “They’re not going to make mistakes here.”
Kors, who strives for Vreeland-like quotability, has a few maxims to share: “Spend your money on coats. It’s your ultimate hello,” he states, wagging his finger. “Everyone needs to take their suits and take the shirt off and put on a sweater underneath. You’re ten years younger! You really have to start looking in a three-way mirror when you’re buying trousers. Women are staring at your ass, so maybe you’d better start looking at your own backside.”
Which fits in perfectly with the Zeitgeist. Men, after all, are the new women: buffing, nipping, tucking, preening – and squeezing themselves into new collections by the designers loved by their girlfriends and wives. Nicolas Ghesquière is producing a men’s line this season, too, and the term manorexic is fashion-standard for the guys who starve themselves to fit Hedi Slimane’s neat, mod suits. “The dieting and taking care of your skin and gym culture – all of these things are not just part of the gay world anymore,” Kors explains.
And, of course, men who want to look good are still struggling with the whole saggy-bottomed, casual-Friday debacle. “Michael’s doing sportswear, and doing it perfectly,” says Burke. “It’s the best parka, the best khakis. They’re American classics, only better. It’s not really a moment for tricky fashion. People want real clothes.”
Above all, Kors believes, men still want to look like men – men who are thinner, taller, younger, but men all the same. “If you see a man too matched, he looks like he’s wearing women’s sportswear,” Kors says, crinkling up his nose. “I think what I bring to the table is this: You might not be Peter Beard, but, God, wouldn’t you want everyone to think that you were?”
He catches his breath and leans back in his chair, grinning like a well-fed cat. He’s spent all this time perfecting his ladies, ensuring that they have the best khaki pants, the most beautiful shearling coat, and now, at last, they’ll really have the perfect accessory. “It’s all about that Madison Avenue stroll,” he says, folding his arms. “Finally, Bill Cunningham will be able to shoot them as a couple.”