MICHAEL KORS–The Billionaire Designer who makes everyday happy

Michael Kors is in constant motion. His arms, his legs, his mind, his creativity are a blur of abundance that need to be viewed in slow motion to really appreciate the incredible amount of activity that is taking place simultaneously, for Michael Kors is undeniably a person, a husband, a fashion icon, a businessman, a reality star, a role model, an advocate, and a philanthropist–all wrapped in inertia from some source unknown to mere mortal men. 

For all those who only know Kors from his international fashion house or as a judge on Project Runaway, it will come as a surprise that he is actually the honorary chairman and chief creative officer and director of Capri Holdings Ltd., a company few have heard of outside of the financial world. The “holdings” part of the enterprise includes not only Kors’ own couture Michael Kors Collection but also his retail brands MICHAEL Michael Kors and Michael Kors Mens labels. Kors now has his label on not only every type of men’s and women’s clothing, but also handbags, shoes, wallets, watches, fragrance, luggage, eyeglasses, sunglasses, birthstones, and jewelry.  

And then there is Jimmy Choo, as in the legendary shoe and handbag firm. (Kors bought the company in 2017 for $1.2 billion). Oh–and Versace. Yes, that Versace. (Kors bought that company as well, in 2018 for a cool $2.1 billion.) Taken together, they became Capri Holdings Ltd. with over 600 stores and 1,500 in-store boutiques. Not bad for a boy from Merrick, New York, who got bullied in grade school for being flamboyant. Ya think?

Michael Kors, who is half-Swedish and half-Jewish, was actually born Karl Anderson Jr. in 1959, and apparently got his love of design from his mother, Joan, a one-time model for Revlon. Karl Anderson, Sr. wasn’t in the picture for very long; but by the time his mother married Bill Kors, Karl was five and already showing signs of his creative soul. It is said that he redesigned his mother’s wedding gown by suggesting she remove the excessively bowed frufru. She listened, and she thanked him. Clever mom.

She also encouraged him to pick a new name at the same time she was receiving hers. It was then that Michael David Kors became a reality, an invention of fate and natural talent. While Kors may now say that fashion was always baked into his genetic coding, he initially was attracted to acting as his calling. His first professional role was at the age of four when he appeared in a commercial for General Mills’ Lucky Charms cereal and later Procter & Gamble’s Charmin toilet tissue (“Please don’t squeeze the Charmin”). 

By his early teens, his parents were sending him on a train into Manhattan to take acting classes with his friends who nicknamed him Cooch. Joan and Bill staked their son with cab fare and meal money. According to Kors, the cash eventually found its way on to his back. He said he nixed the cab and never ate, and “eventually I’d pop into Bendel’s and buy a little something.” By the age of 14, he stopped taking the classes and began designing and selling fashion from his parent’s basement naming the boutique The Iron Butterfly. You could say, the rest is history. But, of course, nothing is that simple.

After graduating from high school in 1977, Kors moved to New York, ostensibly to take classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. That incentive lasted all of nine months. With his evenings exclusively reserved for dancing with the who’s who at the newly opened Studio 54, he earned his keep by taking a job as a retail clerk at a 57th St. clothing boutique called Lothar’s. It wasn’t long before Lothar’s asked Kors to design an exclusive line of women’s fashions for the boutique that had its origins in St. Tropez, France. And for the next three years, Kors did just that; only to be eventually discovered by Dawn Mello, the vice president of fashion for Bergdorf-Goodman. The iconic department store was located across the street from Lothar’s, and in 1981 Mello saw Kors setting up a window display, dressed to the hilt as only Kors can–double leggings, luggage straps used as belts, flowing scarves, bejeweled cap. She knocked on the window and introduced herself, ultimately offering him space within Bergdorf’s to sell his fashions. He was a “pop-up” store before such things even existed. 

And thus the Michael Kors line was born. At age 22, Kors self-promoted himself into business by essentially moving his old clientele across the street. “I knew all these women who shopped at Lothar’s,” he later explained to Gentlemen’s Quarterly. “I told all of them, ‘You know, I’m leaving, but I’m starting my own line.’” 

Sometimes, fairy tales do come true, especially in Manhattan. “So all these women came, and we basically sold everything that was in the store. Like totally cleared the racks. It was like locusts,” Kors said with dramatic aplomb. Vogue’s Anna Wintour, writing a blurb for New York magazine about the experience, gave her stamp of approval with two sentences. “Michael Kors, 22, feels that fashion should be evolutionary, not revolutionary. He plans to keep his collections small and interchangeable, stressing pared-down luxury.”

What began as a shotgun fired blindly into the air quickly became an extremely lucrative business venture with Kors exclusive designs selling out completely each year. In fact, he became so popular that, in 1990, Kors licensed his name to an Italian clothing manufacturer to release his dresses under the name KORS Michael Kors in stores that leaped at the opportunity. It was an exciting moment for the one-time retail clerk who nevertheless found himself declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1993, courtesy of his Italian manufacturer which went belly-up. 

“It was a domino effect,” he said. “And then the next thing you knew, it was all about nose rings and ugly. I mean, it was a trifecta of a nightmare for me,” he later told ABC News. But with failure comes inspiration, Kors is fond of saying. He bounced back with a lower-priced line of fashions for women, barely missing a beat.

Within months he swept into Paris to become the first ready-to-wear designer for the house of Céline, which had just been acquired as part of the LVMH group–as in Louis Vuitton, Moet & Chandon, and Hennessy. By accepting the challenge, Kors got a taste of what it was like to become a “designing businessman,” charged with revitalizing a line that had been around for years but was stagnating. 

He learned his lessons well. The ever-changing European and Asian markets craved inspiration and constant change. And Kors was nothing if not full of creativity.  He moved the Céline line into the present, not only creating an au courant fashion line but also adding accessories that mix-and-matched with the collection. Year after year, he made sweeping changes–along with his signature grand hand gestures. “Ugh,” Karl Lagerfeld infamously sniffed, “with his big smile and gestures, he reminds me of a sales assistant in a Midwest department store.” Karl had a way with needles, pins and words. 

Nothing was about to stand in Kors way, however. Not even something as lanky as Lagerfeld. He simply talked around the criticism with a charismatic sparkle. He caught the attention of Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll, the two investors who had helped make Tommy Hilfiger into a household name, and used their cash and connections to bring Michael Kors back to his own brand, and the United States–complete with his personal magic wand. Michael Kors Menswear joined the original Michael Kors Collection in 2002, and the MICHAEL Michael Kors line launched in 2004. And while his name could only be arranged so many ways, none of it seemed to matter because everybody was talking–and buying.

He had his own boutiques in the all the right cities, and his line remained at Berdorf-Goodman while adding Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdales among others. It sounds every bit as good as it was–and is–for now the designer began being awarded for his talent.

In 2010, Kors was the youngest recipient of the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). At almost the same moment, he received the Fragrance Foundation’s FiFi Award for Lifetime Achievement as well as the Oliver R. Grace Award for Distinguished Service in Advancing Cancer Research, an annual honor bestowed by the Cancer Research Institute.

In 2012, he tearfully accepted the Golden Heart Lifetime Achievement Award by God’s Love We Deliver, a non-profit that distributes fresh meals to people living with HIV/AIDS and other diagnoses, an organization he had quietly been involved with for over 20 years. In 2013, his almost-alma mater, the Fashion Institute of Technology, gave him the Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion.

In 2013, Kors reached a milestone of sorts when he was named by no less than Time magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Not to be outdone, so to speak, Out magazine included Kors in its 2014 Power 50 List.

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any better, Kors had an entire building named in his honor in 2015. The new headquarters of God’s Love We Deliver, in SoHo at 166 Avenue of the Americas in New York, grew from its former two-story height and was revisioned as a 45,000 square foot centerpiece above the Pine Street/Avenue of the Americas subway station. The same year, he was named the Global Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations World Food Programme.

Then Vice-President Joe Biden presented Kors with the McGovern-Dole Leadership award presented by the World Food Program USA in 2016 at the elegant Organization of America States building in Washington, D.C.

Just three years earlier, Kors had created a philanthropic campaign titled Watch Hunger Stop in conjunction with the World Food Program. For his part, Kors pledged to donate 100 meals to children through WFP’s School Meals Program for every Michael Kors 100 Series watch purchased. In 2014, he upped his contribution by pledging to donate an additional 100 meals for every “selfless selfie” posted on social media that showed fans posing in a Michael Kors Watch Hunger Stop T-Shirt along with the hashtag #WatchHungerStop. By the night of the McGovern-Dole Leadership award, Kors’ contribution funded 10 million meals for children across the country.

The fact that Michael Kors is gay is not much of a subject around the designer who’s very first words were said to be “Barbra, Bette, Ann-Margret and Cher” (according to his mother). His early years at school were filled with mockery, which he related in a video he recorded for the It Gets Better Project.

“I heard every name called to me, and you know what, it wasn’t fun,” Kors said in the video. “Pansy, fag, fruit – name it, I heard it. I wasn’t the kid on the baseball team. I wasn’t the kid on the football team. I sat sketching in my room…and my idea of a fun afternoon was shopping. And you know what? You feel different; you don’t fit in. You ARE different. But, you know what. Different will turn out to be a great thing for you. If I wasn’t different when I was growing up, I couldn’t do what I do. I couldn’t be Michael Kors.”

In 2011, Kors married his long-time partner of 21 years, Lance LePere, on Dune Beach in Southampton, New York, officiated by Southampton mayor and friend Mark Epley. They met before Kors was forced into bankruptcy in 1993, and were already married three years when Kors was declared a billionaire in January 2014. Their primary residence is a Greenwich Village penthouse with views West across the Hudson River and South to where the World Trade Center once stood. 

They also share their beach house in the Hamptons not far from where they were married, and their newest digs–a 6,300 square-foot custom-designed home on the north end of Longboat Key in Manatee County, Florida. It is about as far away from civilization while still being in mainland America as you can get. 

Kors has donated tens of millions of dollars to God’s Love We Deliver, which has managed to increase its food service to now deliver nearly 2 million meals a year to clients in the New York area. He is also an ambassador to the World Food Programme which reaches 115 million people in over 80 countries. 

Kors is a major contributor to the New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler in 1995, to clean up and restore park spaces particularly in New York City’s underserved communities. He is a sponsor of the Golden Hat Foundation which works to improve the lives of people with autism around the world.

Kors was an early supporter of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), which is dedicated to the support of AIDS research, AIDS prevention, treatment, education and the advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy. The non-profit has raised $325 million in donations and funded more than 2,000 research teams worldwide. In 2011, Kors received amFAR’s Award of Courage.

Often called the oldest young designer in New York, Michael Kors is eternally optimistic and flagrantly unafraid to let others know it. While it appears from the outside that there is no self-control in his flamboyant outbursts of thought, it is all really a continuing conversation on varying subjects taking place at the same time, with completely different audiences. 

When asked about his legacy, Kors once said that it really comes down to having it all. “You don’t have to give up anything,” he said. “You can be chic but have a sense of humor, you can be sexy but comfortable, you can be timeless but fresh.” 

Or you can be Michael Kors, and make it all your own.

Richard Hack is an award-winning author and journalist. He Is LGBTQ Loyalty Holdings' Vice President of Content and Executive Editor of lgbtqloyalty.com.

Contact Richard

Comments

Recommended Stories