Last night, Fern Mallis’s discussion series at 92nd Street Y wrapped up its first season with a symposium featuring Michael Kors. Entering the Upper East Side establishment, attendees were expecting a sort of fashion comedy hour—as Kors is known to entertain—and though the bar was set high, the designer delivered. “The last thing I can do is work off a script,” Kors told ELLE following the discussion. “I told Fern that I didn’t want to know too much about what she was going to ask me in advance—just let it rip.”
Born Karl Anderson, Jr., Kors had changed his name by the age of twelve. “As we all know, in fashion there’s only one Karl—I had a premonition,” he said. And by that age, his interest in fashion and entrepreneurialism had already started to sprout. AN 11-year-old Kors set up the “Iron Butterfly Boutique” in his basement, selling an array of homemade candles and whip-stitched leather pouches. “They sold out within a week,” he noted. Summer camp was also an opportune environment for Kors’s burgeoning ideas of luxury—he established a laundry service where he’d hand-wash and press fellow campers’ garments. “We didn’t have an iron,” he explained, “so we’d drip-dry them and lay them between two pieces of wooden shelving.”
Fast-forward a few years and Kors was enrolled at FIT, an experience that was short-lived, as the designer dropped-out before graduating. “I was going out a lot,” he said of the time. “I frankly thought that Bianca Jagger’s birthday party [at Studio 54] was a great lesson.” Kors found employment on the sales floor at a now-shuttered department store on 57th Street—a job that evolved into him designing the store’s entire in-house label. It was there that he met then-editor Vera Wang. “I was ringing her up and she was asking about the clothes,” he recalled. “And then she said, ‘Do you want to go to the Met [ball]?’” He dressed Wang in his designs for the gala, that year honoring Yves Saint Laurent. “I almost levitated,” Kors said of his YSL encounter.
When he left to start his own label, the designer would sew production samples on rented sewing machines in his Chelsea flat. “I only had two sizes—P and S,” Kors said. Bergdorf Goodman hosted his first trunk show at age 21, but it would be three years before Kors staged a fashion show.
In 1993, Kors encountered an infamous kink in the middle of his fashion show, held in an raw downtown space. ”I heard an explosion from backstage that sounded like gunfire,” he said. “Naomi Campbell came off of the runway and said that the ceiling had fallen down and that it had hit some people,” including well-regarded journalist, Suzy Menkes. “It was time for New York to get professional show spaces… Voila!” he said, gesturing at Mallis, who was responsible for establishing the first organized fashion week in New York.
By 2000, following a few minor roadblocks (including bankruptcy in 1993), Kors had begun to hit an indefinite stride, presenting his ‘Palm Bitch’ collection for Spring and designing the ‘Tahiti’ sandal that was regarded as the shoe of the season. “I called it my Park Avenue Jesus sandal,” he said. “It was a hippie sandal that you could wear at La Grenouille.” More recently, Kors has struck a footwear goldmine with his “consummate Bat Mitzvah shoe—it’s called the Berkley T-Strap. Now I have 12-year-old customers.”
The designer, who’s judged Project Runway for the last ten years, was originally hesitant to enroll in the reality TV formula, he revealed. “I kept thinking Survivor—like people were going to be eating the fabric or something.” Looking back now, Kors is impressed: “It was the first time that people saw how clothes come about and the interesting people that are involved in the process.”
Most recently, Kors rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, signaling his company’s initial public offering, which was valued at 3.5 billion dollars—the largest in fashion history. “It was better than my Bar Mitzvah,” he quipped. Noting his success has been thirty years in the making, to young designers he advised: “Keep your eye on the ball—do what you do, and do it well.”