Park Avenue Jesus!

Photo: Peter Hapak

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.”

Kors with Nina Garcia and Heidi Klum on Project Runway. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Nitke/Lifetime Television

Michael Kors has always had very specific ideas about clothes. He has never posited a version of fashion that challenges our ideas about femininity or asks us to question proportion or silhouette. What he has done, for the past 30 years, is present a rotating collection of very, very classic things. As for inspiration, he likes Ali MacGraw in Love Story, he adores Jackie O. (especially during the “O” years), and he can’t quite get over how good Lauren Hutton looked circa 1983. His friends are Upper East Side women with hair ranging from butterscotch to baby blonde; they love him for his cashmere turtlenecks, his caramel-colored shoes, his tendency to dance his heart out at their weddings and benefits. Another of Wintour’s CFDA anecdotes told of Mouna Ayoub, the famously rich Lebanese divorcée, approaching Kors at an event on a yacht off Saint-Tropez. Ayoub was praising his 76-ply cashmere. “Michael,” she told him, “you are my Gap.”

As Garcia puts it, “Michael really thrives on knowing his customer. It’s the storytelling: She’s in Palm Beach, she’s in Aspen, she’s going to Elio’s for dinner. He speaks about his clients as his closest friends. You’re never going to be a victim in Michael Kors, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.”

It’s a position that pleases Kors. “Look, there are different designers for different things,” he says, “and if you’re looking for an avant-garde art project, I am not that designer. There are people who do that beautifully, and that’s great. If you’re looking for the trousers you live in, that’s my thing. Maybe I’ve just spent a lot of time in the dressing rooms of the world.”

On a Friday afternoon in July, Kors was meeting with his accessories team in a boxy white room in his offices near Bryant Park to review the shoes that will walk his runway in September. He was wearing what he usually wears: a black T-shirt and a pair of black (Michael Kors) cargo pants. “I used to be so trendy,” he says, “and then I cut my hair from Peter Frampton to Steve McQueen and just said, ‘I want to be plain, plain, plain.’ ”

The shoes are spread out over two tables. They range from straightforward, strapped wedges to canary-yellow stiletto heels. “She’s demented!” is high praise for a pair that manages to resemble riding boots even without a toe. “They’re the ultimate anti–Heidi Montag moment.”

As for a pair of dotty wedges: “Send them back to Boca. Send them back to Boynton Beach!”

“Park Avenue Jesus” are flat sandals, but they are not to be confused with the “sexy Tevas,” which are flat as well, as are the “Jesus Lady” sandals, which have a thinner strap. “Viareggio edgy—Via-edge-io!” are sandals with a stacked wooden heel. These are considered a success, as are the stilettos that have “a bedroom stripper thing. Which we like.”

Kors spends the whole meeting sliding around on a wheeled leather chair and sucking from an enormous plastic cup of iced tea. Holding the cup, he says, makes him feel like the Olsen triplet. “Where are the interesting shoes with the low heels?” he wants to know, and here come two pairs. “I was doing an event in L.A. and this woman comes who lives, like, out in the desert. She’s kind of hippie-dippie, but fabulous chic. She had these great shoes on that were cool and aggressive-looking but they weren’t skyscrapers, and I said to her, ‘I love your shoes,’ and she said, ‘You can’t find shoes that are important-looking on lower heels.’ So now I make shoes for her. I send them right to L.A. Now that is a dream customer.”

Kors is an only child, raised by his mother and a crew of aunts, uncles, and grandparents in the Five Towns section of Long Island. His grandfather and many of his neighbors worked in the garment business, making the commute from Woodmere station to Seventh Avenue and 39th Street. Kors himself would stop by the station on his way to school to pick up a copy of WWD: Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley, and Ellin Saltzman were the idols whose photos decorated his bedroom.

He describes his childhood as a swirl of Ultrasuede and crop tops, frosty lipsticks and chilly, shaken martinis. The first thing he knew how to order in restaurants was Chateaubriand for two, and then he learned how to ask for things to be flambéed tableside. He saw his first Bette Midler concert at 13, and a few years later he ditched his prom in order to sneak into Studio 54. He was wearing layered Yves Saint-Laurent crêpe de Chine shirts, unbuttoned down his chest.

From left, with Lance LePere, his boyfriend; with his mother, Joan, on her wedding day (he helped customize the dress). Photo: From left to right: Patrick McMullan; Courtesy of Michael Kors

“The women in my family could sit and argue the merits of a slingback versus a peep-toe for hours,” he says. “I was the only child in this whole circle of adults, and I became the shopping companion. I had very strong opinions.” At the age of 5, he redesigned the wedding dress (“Too many bows!” he complained) that his mother wore to marry his stepfather, Bill Kors, the man who adopted him later that year. (His parents had divorced when he was 2.) In the fourth grade, he wore a “Russian Cossack tunic” to school.

The only detour he took from fashion involved some acting classes in Greenwich Village when he was about 13. “I had Broadway fantasies,” he says. “But then I realized that what I loved about going to acting school was being in Manhattan, and that the minute I left class all I wanted to do was go shopping. And that was it. The final decision was made.”

He opened a shop in his basement called the Iron Butterfly, where he sold tie-dyed shirts and miles of macramé. He hired himself out to do caricatures at bar mitzvahs, and in the evenings he managed a local tennis club. “All the women would come to play and they’d miss half their game because I’d be sitting there chatting with them. It was like, Oh my God I want to redo my mink coat—what should I do?” The club’s owners noticed his interest in fashion and his gift for bonding with the members, and asked him why sales in the pro shop were so poor. “I was like, ‘The women here are great-looking and hip and you’re selling clothes from 25 years ago. Let me re-merchandise it.’ ” So they did. “And the next thing I knew, I was off to F.I.T.”

But Kors was restless, itchy to get into the world of selling clothes rather than thinking about them. “I knew what kind of clothes I liked, and to sit and sketch them just seemed boring to me.” So he found a job as a salesboy at Lothar’s, a trendy store on 57th Street. “You got two free outfits a season,” he says. “Done! Sign me up!” He dropped out of school, and within months had full command over Lothar’s: He designed the store’s private label, he decorated the windows, he oversaw the staff. “I had three seamstresses,” he says. “If it was raining on Monday, I’d run down to 40th Street and we’d have raincoats by the end of the week.”

“Women say, ‘I wish I was French. They know how to tie scarves!’ ” Kors rolls his eyes.

One day, Bergdorf Goodman’s then–fashion director Dawn Mello saw Kors in the window of Lothar’s assembling a display. She knocked on the glass and asked him, “Who makes these clothes?” He said he did. She said, “When you have your own collection, call me.”

“I literally ran home to start a collection,” Kors recalls. The buying team at Bergdorf liked what they saw, and they placed an order. “The first thing I said was, can I please do a trunk show?”

Kors loves trunk shows. Even now he does about one a month in locations ranging from Dallas to Greenwich to the Costa Mesa Mall, though his mother, Joan, who is the brand’s “West Coast Ambassadress,” often handles that market herself. He knows his best customers by name. He meets their daughters and granddaughters, and he dresses them as well. “I have a client who is 81 years old,” he says. “Her name is Banana Reily, and she lives in New Orleans. She’ll buy a sable-collared double-faced coat and be like, ‘I’ll turn the air conditioning up, it’ll be fine!’ Oh, she’s just the best. Her family owns the Tabasco-sauce business, so she’s the hot-sauce queen.”

Kors, unusual among designers, likes to listen to his customers. He likes to hear what they’ve liked, what they hated, what chafed when they walked down the block. “I think empathy is a big thing,” he says. “I think a lot of designers don’t put themselves in the consumer’s place. And I’m like, Someone’s got to take out their credit card and buy it. Do you really want it? Are you not going to beat yourself up after you bought it?

He has had his misses, moments when the references to the classics looked costumey and odd, or when he veered too far from the vocabulary he knows best. His Fall 2000 collection, for example, was a big-city homage to the designer Bill Blass: red lipstick, Gershwin tunes. He was slammed by the press, though it sold quite well. “I always like something familiar and something unfamiliar together. When it’s totally unfamiliar I need a road map, and I don’t think people shopping want to think that hard. And when it’s totally familiar, well then it’s a commodity. It’s a Band-Aid. The joy is missing. Over the years we’ve had collections that are, Oh God, Hamburger Helper again?” And so he walks the line, continually trying to make modern the things we already know.

From left, Fall 2010; Spring/Summer 2000; and Fall/Winter 2000.Photo: FirstView

“My job is to figure it out for you,” he says. “I have to guess what you want before you want it. What I do is answer problems. I have a date. I’m going to lunch with a bunch of women, I’m 42, and I don’t want to look like my daughter, but I don’t want to look like my mom.”

From 1999 until 2004, Kors was the creative director at the French brand Céline, which had been lying fairly dormant for years. His work was a success, but it meant a peripatetic life commuting between New York and Paris.

One time, he walked out of the Bristol Hotel and saw a girl coming down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in a plain pair of trousers, a turtleneck, and a pair of slingback shoes, and he thought: Finally, a Frenchwoman I can relate to. When he got closer, he realized it was actually his friend Aerin Lauder, who had just arrived in town to watch his show.

It was in Paris that he and LePere fell in love. They’d known each other since 1990, when LePere joined the company as an intern, but there was something about being together abroad that solidified things. “We share a certain level of taste,” LePere says, “an American point of view, and I think we like to play with Americana. Over the years and the day-to-day process of dreaming together, things just naturally fell into place.” They started taking their meals together at the Parisian outpost of Joe Allen. “We could have quesadillas, they had cranberry juice,” Kors says. “I don’t know that either of us was really accepting the French lifestyle.

“I never cottoned to the idea of people having this intimidation about Europe,” he adds. “Women say, ‘I wish I was French! They know how to tie scarves!’ ” He rolls his eyes and flaps his hand. “Do we have the history and sophistication of Europe? No. But as much as everyone can sit in Paris and die over the experimentation, everyone is dying to take off their uncomfortable shoes, and they’re all wearing casual separates. Sportswear! American designers! I do feel a little responsible to be a flag-waver not just for what I do but for what American fashion stands for. Comfortable is not a dirty word.”

Kors is off to the beach for the weekend. He and LePere have a house on Water Island, a secluded part of Fire Island. He loves the beach: the barefootedness of it all. He loves hosting LePere’s nieces and nephews (he bought them an ice-cream maker), he loves hosting his many friends. “Michael’s one of the very few designers I’ve ever met who is happy and living life and enjoying it,” says Nina Garcia. “He always says, ‘We’re not curing cancer here. Fashion is meant to be fun.’ ”

On Kors’s last trip out to the beach, he saw a teenage girl on the ferry carrying one of his bags. She was with her boyfriend, and she was a bit shy upon seeing the designer, whom she most likely recognized from TV. “I said to her, ‘You’re not only cute, you’ve got very good taste!’ It’s just so nice to see people carrying your stuff. It’s a rush. There’s joy in that. I think that fashion people can forget the joy in all of this. This isn’t sad! This is a good thing! My God! When you see someone get something new and their attitude changes? Wow. That is a great thing.”

Park Avenue Jesus!