“Holy crap,” says Michael Kors. “That was my reaction.”
It’s how Kors felt upon learning that tonight he’ll receive the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. But for the last three decades, “holy crap” has been a refrain in the designer’s life, a frequent reaction to the remarkable collisions of talent and luck that have propelled him through a staggering career.
Click the Image to See Michael Kors’ 15 Favorites From His Fashion Career
After starting his own label at the age of 19, holy crap, Kors sold his first collection at Bergdorf Goodman (hand-delivered from the backseat of his aunt’s Mercedes). In 1997, the legendary French fashion house Ce line wanted the sunny Long Island boy to take over its creative direction. In 2004, after every major fashion designer including Kors himself turned down an invitation to be the host of Project Runway, and after he finally reconsidered and took a risk on the show, reality television made Michael Kors an international superstar.
And now, at age of 50, he’ll be the youngest-ever designer to win the CFDA’s lifetime achievement award. “Holy crap!”
“I still feel like a kid,” he says. “But at the same time, when the dust settles, I realize that as of next year, I’ll have been doing this for 30 years now.”
We spoke while Kors was in transit—he is seemingly always in transit, between the glorious tropical hotspots where he vacations and the major world metropolises where he does business—and, as always, the designer was energetic, charming and sweetly funny; never negative, never unkind. A self-described “beach boy at heart,” he virtually radiates sunshine.
In the course of his career, Kors has subscribed to a simple design philosophy: Make people feel confident and comfortable; help women look beautiful. This governing ethos has led to wardrobe upon wardrobe of timeless fashions, to dresses worn by Jessica Simpson, Michelle Obama, and every famous or glamorous woman in between. From his first muse, his mother, on down, women have worn Kors because he designs for them. There will never be giant spikes or unflattering poufs on a Michael Kors dress. It will never land you on the worst-dressed list.
“What keeps me kind of going is, number one, I’m a little ADD, quite frankly,” he says. “I get bored quickly so even though I’m consistent and opinionated and I know what I like, I’m always ready for the next thing. Once you get into that cycle, it’s exhausting but at the same time, your adrenaline is pumped.”
• View our gallery of the nominees and honorees of the CFDA AwardsAnd then, a few times a year, it all comes crashing down. “When I collapse, I collapse,” Kors says. “I have no ‘gray’ time. I’m either in full mojo warrior mode or I want to be somewhere where it’s all about recharging myself.” Kors and his partner, who is the creative director of womenswear for his eponymous label, jet off to Capri, Thailand, Bali, Big Sur.
Kors’ work, alongside that of Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and the other greats, helped turn “American sportswear” into the category we know today—not as jeans and T-shirts but as a major driver of global fashion.
In the last five years, “full mojo warrior mode” has come to encompass not just designing clothes but also judging young designers on the smash-hit reality show Project Runway. Kors took a risk when he joined the show for its first season, when reality television was populated by Real World housemates and women who wanted to marry millionaires. The show could have turned into an embarrassing cheese-fest, but, in part from the heft and levity of Kors’ presence, became a blockbuster instead.
“He’s our secret weapon on the show,” says executive producer Desiree Gruber. “His design aesthetic is so incredible, and he also has a kindness to him, so the contestants know he’s honestly there to help.” While his critiques may be as brutal as Simon Cowell’s, they are delivered with wit and compassion, not cruelty.
News of his CFDA award has put Kors in a reflective mood of late, sending him off to comb through his past collections (among other reasons, to help pull together that highlight reel). Taking in the sweep of his career, the designer was surprised by the clarity of vision demonstrated throughout. “I was consistently inconsistent” is his modest way of putting it. “I didn’t wince once.”
Kors’ proudest moments came from an era when many other designers might wince at some of the clothes they produced. Avoiding the decade’s wildest turns—neon colors, asymmetric cuts, avant-garde styling—Kors maintained his commitment to wearable, flattering, well-tailored clothes, adding in a shoulder pad here or there but mostly making pants, dresses and blazers that flattered the female form. “I was not particularly fond of a lot of things that were happening in the '80s, so I kind of swam in the other direction,” he says. “When I look at them now, I think, ‘Man, I was pretty ballsy. I kind of just stuck to my guns.’”
The biggest change between now and then—in fashion and in every other business—is sheer velocity, Kors says. A native of Long Island, he went off on his own in 1981, after studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. He took over as creative director of Celine in 1987 and stayed in the job until 2003. How would the arc of his career been different now, when designers are in Barneys before they’re out of Parsons and tween bloggers fill out the front rows?
“In today’s world, I think there’s too much attention too quick,” he says. “It was nice that I kind of really was able to slowly build. I waited three years before I had my first show. Today you’re expected to have your first show right out of college. If I were staring out today, I would probably want to have more experience working for other people. When I opened my own business, I didn’t even know there was UPS.”
And how have men and women changed over the last three decades?
The truth is, they haven’t—not really. The biggest difference Kors sees is that women are much less concerned with dressing their age. “You don’t hear anyone say, ‘Oh well, that’s great for a girl in her 20s or 30s.’ ‘That would look good on a woman in her 50s,’” he says. “Now those rules are gone. Blake Lively and Blaine Trump will go out wearing the same dress.” Beyond that, a woman is a woman is a woman, he says, (and a man a man). They want to feel confident and look good. And for another lifetime or so, give or take, Kors plans to keep on dressing them.
“I think fashion is traditionally about society, worshipping youth,” he says. “But I think the best combination is youth and experience. So right now is a wonderful moment for me. I still feel curious. I still feel excited about what’s next.”
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.