Sex and money are what clothes are all about,” the fashion designer Michael Kors proclaimed, lighting a cigarette in his sun-drenched office on Seventh Avenue. “Do I feel sexy in this? Do I feel rich in this?” he asked rhetorically, in the voice of a typical client.
“If I do my job right, I should be able to dress everyone and make them look better,” he declared. “From Aretha Franklin,” who recently acquired a yellow leather Michael Kors dress and cashmere coat, “to Sherry Lansing, for whom a V-neck sweater is racy. My customers run the gamut. Courtney Love was up here shopping recently, and she paid me a big compliment. ‘All the right people wear your clothes,’ she told me. ‘All the people behind the scenes who pull the strings.'”
According to Mr. Kors, it was another customer, Sharon Stone, who recommended him to Ms. Love. “Sharon helped Courtney out when she had to pick something to wear to the Golden Globe Awards. Sharon always said Faye Dunaway helped her out. All three are Michael Kors customers. They’re three different ages, but they’re connected. They’re strong, sexy, intriguing.”
At age 38, Mr. Kors has been in the biz for 16 years. Mostly, it’s been one bright, shining season for the designer, excepting the year he was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy after his Italian backers went bust. He came out of it in 1992. These days, Mr. Kors’ fashions-pure, lean, unencumbered luxury clothing for women on the move-seem just the right speed. “For five years, since grunge, fashion lost the idea of being aspirational,” Mr. Kors said. “The whole heroin chic thing? I never went there. Who would have thought Bill Clinton would be a fashion oracle? Go figure. But his speech about heroin chic last spring really reverberated. Everyone in the fashion business tried to pooh-pooh what he said, but if you photograph a girl passing out on the hood of a Rambler in a gas station … hello. You’re doing it.
“For my spring collection,” which Mr. Kors will show at the Chelsea Piers Nov. 5 during New York’s fashion week, “she’s on a yacht.” The Kors woman, that is. “She’s not at a gas station.
“Everyone is talking about how the 80’s are back as a look. Forget it as just look. The 80’s are back as an attitude. The rich aren’t embarrassed about being rich anymore. All of a sudden, not only do you have a mature customer buying clothes at luxury prices”-about $1,500 for a Michael Kors dress, $2,300 for a suit, $3,000 for a coat-“you have girls in their 20’s buying at these prices. She was a little girl in the 80’s. She watched Dynasty on TV. It registered. Then for the past, I don’t know, 10 years, she was told she should be embarrassed if she wanted to be pretty. Now it’s the revenge. ‘Really, Army boots? I don’t think so.’ She wants a five-inch heel; cleavage down to there. The jewelry is out … She wants croc,” he said, meaning crocodile, “and cashmere for days. These girls want fur.”
These days, everything is high or low, rich or poor, rack or ruin and rarely anything in between. A particularly green day for news about the high-end shopping styles of the famously rich was Oct. 1. A front-page story in The New York Times reported the return of fur as a popular retail and fashion attraction. Meanwhile, Women’s Wear Daily on Oct. 1 published a story called “Tracking the New Affluents.” (Duly noted is the word “Affluents,” certainly a polite term for the rich.) The lowdown: People are spending more on better-quality clothing.
Mr. Kors sees the boom as “a recovery period” in fashion this fall. “One day you wear an oversized slouchy suit with brogues and overeat at lunch. The next day you repent in a fitted suit and six-inch heels, and you don’t eat. This fall, there are suits galore. And short skirts. She wants short skirts because she works out. She’s fit. She’s thin. These rich girls have the bodies. She got tired of pants. Everyone said black was over, black is back. She loves wearing black. And structure. Unless you’re 19 years old, you need a little structure in your clothes. It’s a fact. And maybe a little bit of color. But red is like another neutral. You’re not really stepping out if you wear red.”
Mr. Kors suggested yellow.
This summer, Mr. Kors had occasion to acquaint himself, or reacquaint himself, as the case may be, with what might be called the core of his customer base. The fashion designer attended the 20th reunion of his Merrick, L.I., high school class. “When I got to the reunion,” a dinner dance held at the St. Moritz Hotel in Manhattan, “I saw exactly how I ended up doing what I do. Almost instantly, I was surrounded by the same pack of girls who were my friends in high school. These girls were fashion-obsessed.”
Close at hand was a snapshot from the evening: Mr. Kors, in a khaki Helmut Lang suit, surrounded by four tan, bejeweled 38-year-old women wearing short, sleeveless black dresses. “Like a demented version of Robert Palmer’s video ‘Addicted to Love,'” Mr. Kors laughed. “And, you know, they didn’t call each other first to ask what each one was wearing. The girls I grew up with always wanted to look pretty, sexy, affluent, thin and tall whether they were or were not.”
It’s Mr. Kors’ feeling that “simple clothes are not for wallflowers. But by simple I mean pragmatic, not minimalist, that’s a pretentious word. So we were standing around, smoking, not eating, and in came this one girl we knew and we were like, What is she wearing? It was this multicolored beaded cocktail dress with matching beaded shoes and her hair whipped into a frenzy. All you noticed was the outfit. She was a good-looking woman, but you couldn’t see her. Perfect for a wallflower.”
Toward the end of the evening, Mr. Kors’ circle of women grew considerably. The talk was about all clothes. “Even if I’d graduated and gone on to find the cure for cancer, I don’t know if it would elicit the same amount of glee as a jacket at Bergdorf’s.”