Growing up in Merrick, Long Island, Michael Kors was surrounded by women who loved fashion: “My mother was a former Revlon model, my grandmother was obsessed with Bill Blass and beige and I had two midriff-bearing aunts who idolized Cher,” says the designer, who drew dresses in the sand at the family beach club, where he first observed the leisure-class glamour that would become his eponymous label’s signature. “Everyone would arrive to their cabanas wearing bikinis and leave for dinner in evening gowns,” Kors recalls. After high school, he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, but dropped out after two semesters to work as a window dresser and “sales boy” at Lothar’s clothing boutique on Fifth Avenue (a favorite of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Diana Ross) where he also began selling pieces — crisply tailored blazers, sporty sheaths and maxi skirts — of his own design.
Kors officially launched his label in 1981 when, at age 21, he debuted an 18-piece collection of white crepe de Chine dresses and streamlined leather separates made for the resort season. “New York in the early ’80s was like the wild, wild West; anything could happen, there was so much possibility,” says Kors. “Glamour in those days was everything. I would send my muses out at night wearing gold lamé gowns with cashmere.” Four decades later, he has over 650 stores worldwide. In 2010, he became the youngest designer in history to receive the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. But the Broadway fanatic and dedicated AIDS activist has never forgotten what women actually want to wear. Indeed, his famously loyal customers, including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Oprah, seem to be his greatest source of inspiration. As Kors puts it, “I have always thought that you are truly only as good as the people you dress.”
Here, Kors shares some of his many inspirations.
“Here I am with my Peter Frampton hair backstage at my 1984 show. In those days there were no underage models and always a lot of champagne and cigarettes.”
Left: “My F.I.T. roommate Phil Zowine was a jewelry designer and artist who tragically passed away from AIDS. I keep this bust he sculpted when he was just 19 in the entrance of my house. I often think about what he could have been doing today.” Right: “Me at age 4 with my mother. We spent so many summer days playing cards while eating cantaloupe and cottage cheese at our little seaside cabana on Long Island.”
Top left: “I’ve been in some sort of aviators since I was a teenager. When I was 15, I bought a pair of leather-wrapped Ray-Bans, which I loved more than anything, but I lost them. Recently, I was shopping on London’s Portobello Road and found the exact same ones.” Bottom left: “The second Broadway show I saw as a child was the 1967 production of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ with Betty Grable. Last year, I went to opening night of the revival starring my friend Bette Midler.” Right: “Seeing ‘A Chorus Line’ as a teenager was life changing. The dancers’ wardrobes and the drama of the grand finale knocked the wind out of me. I dreamed of auditioning, but I’m a terrible dancer.”
“Iman in a leather V-neck at my first runway show in the fall of 1984. It was at Tower Gallery in Chelsea, which was so damn grungy I didn’t think any fashion editors would dare show up. That space is a Bed Bath & Beyond now.”
Left: “I bought my first Bobby Short album when I was 14 at Henri Bendel. It was such a chic store, and it didn’t normally sell records, so I knew it had to be something fabulous. Two years later, I got to see Short perform for the first time at Café Carlyle.” Right: “This is a sweater from my 2018 pre-fall collection. It says ‘19’ on the front and ’81’ on the back, a nod to the year I founded my label and to the era that inspired my designs for the season.”
Left: “I went to Studio 54 instead of my senior prom wearing three silk shirts, one layered on top of another. When they opened the rope for me, it felt like my entree into New York City.” Top right: “Whenever anyone talks about disappearing New York, I say: Come with me for breakfast at Barney Greengrass. It never changes, from the electric-pink borscht to the wall murals of the antebellum South, which make no sense when you’re sitting there eating smoked salmon.” Bottom right: “I’ve gotten totally addicted to Ed Moulthrop’s earthy wooden bowls, which I discovered at Gump’s in San Francisco. I love that store. It makes me feel like I’m in a Hitchcock movie.”
Left: “I was such a shopaholic as a child. Any time we went to a museum, I’d always ask, ‘Is there a gift shop?’ I remember being at MoMA and begging my mother to buy me a set of white-on-white Christmas cards.” Right: “Heaven is eating vongole over a three-hour lunch at La Fontelina in Capri, where I travel every year with my husband Lance LePere. The setting is a feast for the senses — the rocks, the color of the water, the striped umbrellas and the boats going by.”
“My first collection was photographed for ￼a feature in Vogue in 1981. It was my big break.”