Return to Transcripts main page


Michael Kors Brings Luxury to the Masses

Aired July 8, 2014 - 05:30   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): It's Friday night in Shanghai. Glitterati from across the globe arrive to see the latest collection from

American fashion designer Michael Kors and to celebrate the expansion of his brand into the Chinese market.

While he's still gaining attention in Asia, in the U.S., Michael Kors is already a household name.

MICHAEL KORS, FASHION DESIGNER (voice-over): Whatever you buy today, it's got to do it all. When it's the right one, people open their wallets.

RAJPAL (voice-over): A long-time staple for America's A-listers, his designs are also a regular choice of first lady Michelle Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Michael is bags, watches, personality, energy, talent, gorgeous clothes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Michael is a constant reminder that fashion's supposed to make you happy.

RAJPAL (voice-over): With his clean, pragmatic, glamorous designs, he successfully tapped into a niche of consumers hungry for easy-to-wear,

accessible luxury at a lower cost.

KORS (voice-over): I see no correlation between the two.

RAJPAL (voice-over): Despite being at the helm of his namesake brand for more than three decades, it wasn't until his appearance as a judge on the

reality TV series, "Project Runway," that he reached new heights in popularity, a far cry from the 21-year-old fashion school dropout who began

his career designing for a small shop in Manhattan.

And despite filing for bankruptcy in 1993, the Michael Kors brand has endured, saved by two Hong Kong-based investors.

Today Kors' clothing, bags and watches are sold in 300 outlets across 85 countries. And since listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011,

Michael Kors has become a billion-dollar company and made the man a billionaire in his own right.

This month on TALK ASIA, we're in Shanghai to meet Michael Kors as he opens up about expanding evolution and his emergence from Long Island to become

the man behind an American luxury fashion staple.


RAJPAL (voice-over): Michael Kors, welcome to TALK ASIA.

KORS: Thank you.

RAJPAL: What I understand -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- this is your first trip to Shanghai.

KORS: It's my first trip to mainland China.


KORS: Yes, I know. It's kind of crazy. We're just always on the road and I've been in Hong Kong more times than I could count and I love it there.

But there hasn't been the opportunity.

So to be here at, you know, now for the first time, it's an amazing city.

RAJPAL: This is a country particularly of cities like Shanghai, Beijing, these first-tier cities, they are very well versed in their luxury brands.

But this term that we're hearing a lot more these days is the term "accessible luxury."

What do you -- what do you make of that?

KORS: Well, I think there was something in the past, when you thought about luxury, it was sort of only for special occasions. It was that piece

that you had that you were taking out once a year for the big party. And I think that in today's world, we live fast-paced, travel-oriented lives.

And we're casual most of the time.

So to me accessible luxury means that it's luxury that you use every day. It's not necessarily only based on price. It's the idea of a handbag that

you want to wear when you go to the gym. It's the watch that you want to wear when you jump on the plane and you're wearing a pair of jeans.

It's the whole idea that everyday luxury.

RAJPAL: Is there a danger of perhaps redefining your brand or defining your brand in such a way where you are available to everyone? So you're

not necessarily just the luxury and high end and people who can afford that, but you're all over the map?

Is there a danger of that?

KORS: No, actually, I think it's the opposite. I think that I have to think about myself. I'm traveling and I'm busy. And I'm wearing a T-

shirt, crocodile shoes, a gold watch. You mix everything up today. And I think that that's how everyone lives and dresses. And I think the reality

also in today's world, it kind of seems old-fashioned to be basing how you dress and how you put yourself together strictly based on price.

So we're dressing someone for the subway or the red carpet. We're dressing someone for a private plane or we're dressing someone for the Academy


And in fact, I think it all coexists.

RAJPAL: How have you had to change the way you think about your brand in today's world?

KORS: Well, of course, I think the huge change -- when I first started in my business, our idea of global was Canada. The U.K. And now we certainly

never thought that it would be Michael Kors stores everywhere from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, to here in Shanghai.

But what happened is the borders really have followed all around the world as far as fashion, as far as me changing my process, well, we live in a

world now where the weather is inconsistent. In a warm city like Hong Kong, it's overly air conditioned. So you need a cashmere cardigan even in

the heat.

In a city like Moscow, you walk into a club and women are wearing sandals. So all of that has made me readjust to thinking about seasonless things

that pack well and things that have versatility.

RAJPAL: 2011 happened, big year for you.

What was that time like for you, going for the brand company, going public and then you getting this association of billionaire status?

KORS: It was an interesting thing. I -- as I said before, I thought global was Toronto. And --

RAJPAL: For a Toronto audience, that's actually quite interesting.

KORS: And then suddenly we were thinking about the world at large. We were thinking also that now this history that I had built up at that point

30 years in, that people could really take part in the Michael Kors world as far as being shareholders.

And every day I have to say I'm incredibly fortunate that I knew what I wanted to do when I was quite young. I've had an amazing path, met

unbelievable people and then to be successful finally doing it, I mean, it's the cherry on the cake. I mean, how could you beat that? It's




RAJPAL: Give me an idea what the thinking was, the context was behind this store here in China.

KORS: This is our flagship in China. It's our largest store in Asia and we just wanted the whole experience to feel the world of Michael Kors.


RAJPAL (voice-over): Did you feel that when you were putting together the store and the collection that would go into it, that there has to be

specifics that would appeal to the Chinese market?

KORS (voice-over): I have to say in today's world, what we find, our customer really is subject to what's going on in the world. So she really

is very similar. I mean, if that bag is a hit here in Shanghai, the same bag is a big hit in Sao Paulo or New York or Los Angeles or Sydney --


RAJPAL (voice-over): And you're also hearing the term "jet set" a lot.

KORS (voice-over): Very much jet set, whether you're jumping on an airplane or you're just getting on the subway, you want clothes that work

in many situations, many different climates. So jet set is something that every season is going to be a huge part of my design ethos.

Well, here we start -- we talk about the ultimate jet setter, you think about Kate Middleton and when you have a tour around Australia-New Zealand

like that, this particular coat she wore in many instances on the trip.

RAJPAL (voice-over): How did you react when you saw that, that she was wearing it?

KORS (voice-over): I have to say it was --


RAJPAL (voice-over): I mean, you've always had celebrity --

KORS (voice-over): -- celebrities always have been fans of the brand. But it was a surprise, quite honestly.

RAJPAL: Yes, it's nice. Nice to wake up to that, isn't it?

KORS (voice-over): Yes, absolutely.


KORS (voice-over): I remember being 22 years old and watching the Michael Kors windows my first season in business, go into the windows at Bergdorf




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): I knocked on a window and he came down and I said, "Could you please tell me the name of the designer that did

these clothes?

And he said, "I did."

"Oh." I said, "You designed the clothes and you're selling and you're running the store?"


So I said, "Well, I work in the store across the street. You think you could come by and bring your line and maybe show it to our buyers?"

And he said, "Well, OK."

KORS (voice-over): I didn't have a line.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Well, that's the point. He had no line.

KORS (voice-over): I had no line.

KORS: I remember being 22 years old and standing on 5th Avenue at 2 o'clock in the morning and watching the Michael Kors windows my first

season in business go into the windows at Bergdorf Goodman. And it was something that I dreamed of when I was a teenager and when I was in school.

But that it happened that quickly was pretty amazing.

So and I kind of shot out of the cannon with such excitement because this is something that I had always wanted to do.

So even though I was 22, I'd been thinking about it for a long time.

RAJPAL: Is it true that you were I guess what would be considered one of your first fashion shows, was that you're on the subway, carrying all these

garment bags, on your way to see Anna Wintour at her desk at "New York" magazine, that there you were, looking and excited about what you had to

offer, but also perhaps even being a bit vulnerable because this is what you do?

KORS: Well, I have to say I remember at the time I had no office. I didn't even have a rolling rack. I mean, I just took my collection and I

popped it into a garment bag and off I went to show Anna the collection. She was the fashion editor at "New York" magazine. This is well before

"Vogue." And then she chose me as her pick of the fall season.

And at the time, it was truly -- I was involved with -- down to the last piece. I mean, I remember delivering the clothes to the stores myself. I

was afraid they'd crush. So I'd bring them in the back of a taxi.

Anything to keep it perfect. But I think that attention to detail and that involvement, no matter how big we get, that's something that I relish.

RAJPAL: You don't always get a -- you don't get a global perspective or a successful perspective in your career without having a few knocks. Filing

for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, that must have been a very difficult time.

How did you reconcile with that?

KORS: At first I blamed myself. I said, what did I do wrong? Am I taking the wrong direction? And I learned at the time two things.

Number one, you can fill yourself with self-doubt and you can try to kind of reinvent yourself. I remember thinking, well, maybe I should make

evening gowns. I'll make cocktail dresses.

And then when I really thought about it and I started spending time with the stores and our clients and our customers, I thought to myself, no,

actually, this has to make me more myself than ever.

So when the ground gets shaky, you have to stand firm. And that's really what happened.

We never stopped producing; we never stopped showing. It just made me focus and in a weird way become more Michael Kors. That's really what it

turned into.

RAJPAL: It's an interesting thing because when you see a lot of young designers coming up now, there are those who perhaps love it because they

want to be famous. They want to see their name everywhere.

But being a designer is more than creative, isn't it? It's about having the business know-how as well.

What advice do you give based on what you've gone through and what you -- your experience -- do you tell young designers?

KORS: Well, I think it's -- I think first off, you have to -- you have to be smart enough to know who your client is. So I think you've got to spend

time on the streets, in the stores, don't try to explode and be explosive quickly. Don't you want to have a long-term career? So you can build

slowly. Don't try to make an enormous collection your first time up at bat.

Focus on something.

And I think the other thing that's so important is to really -- when you realize what it is that you believe and what you love, it has to be

something that has longevity. You want it to be able to evolve but at the same time, you have to have fingerprints.

So if you change season in, season out, no one will have any idea who you are as a designer. And it's very confusing to the customer.


KORS: It's very commendable that you guys have this team effort going on. But I don't know if it'll work for you because I think it took some of you

down a notch and probably raised a few of you up a notch, too. But you just ended up with vanilla boring.


RAJPAL: Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to get beyond "Project Runway" as well, to kind of mold and notice and see what is out there?

KORS: You know what? People, number one, I think people were intrigued and they're intrigued to see the process. How does something start from

nothing and turn out to be the blouse that you're wearing to work that day?

And I have to say for me, as a designer, suddenly it put me in a different situation that I almost felt like the press. I was sitting at a fashion

show, which I normally wouldn't do on backstage, and I'm doing all of my work. So that whole process was very much of a learning curve. It was

interesting to be on the other side of the fence.

RAJPAL: One of the interesting things is after you left Zac Posen took your spot. And he wrote in "Time" magazine last year, he said, "It takes a

great deal of resilience and staying power to last for decades. And it's a testament to Michael's very clear vision."

What has been your vision all these years?

Has it stayed true to it?

KORS: Well, it's very funny. When I had my anniversary, my 30th anniversary in business, I won the CFTA Lifetime Achievement Award. So

suddenly I had to kind of look back at my career and I found the piece that Anna Wintour had written about me for "New York" magazine and it said, "He

plans on keeping his collections understated but glamorous, comfortable but opulent."

I mean, these had been things that have always been a part of my DNA. We've never made clothes that we've put down a runway that women wouldn't

want to wear. I'm most excited when I see it on the street. I came from a retail background. So I think I've been pretty consistent.

But certainly at the same time, times change. And you have to experiment, try new things, it's a new world.


KORS (voice-over): There were times when kids just did not understand, what are you doing? You're sitting and sketching women's clothes. You're

11 years old. What is that?



RAJPAL: Well, it appears you've always had a very strong vision about fashion, going back to even when you were a kid, designing your mom's

wedding dress.

KORS: Well, I thought --

RAJPAL: Having an opinion about what she chose --

KORS: -- well, I ended up -- I ended up switching things around a bit quite honestly. I had always sketched. I mean, from the time I was very

small and I just -- I loved designing things. But I was very opinionated and I think strangely enough, now when I look back, it's kind of shocking

to think that they were listening to a 5-year old for his opinion.

My mom tried on her dress; she was at her fitting.

RAJPAL: This is, again, emphasize the fact, you were 5.

KORS: I was 5. I was 5. I was 5 and she was -- she was getting remarried. And my grandmother and I were at the fitting and my mom tried

on her dress and it was covered with a zillion bows. And my grandmother said, oh, it's so beautiful. It's perfect.

And I sat in the corner, going, I don't know about that. And my mom said, what do you think? What's wrong? And I said, I think it's really busy. I

said you should clip those bows off.

And they started snipping the bows and I think at the time my grandmother thought she was nuts to listen to me. But somehow I guess I've had that

ability that people trust my vision, I guess. And what I have to say.

RAJPAL: But they were also very strong influence on you.

KORS: Oh, big time. You know, I grew up -- I grew up in a family of confirmed fashionistas, you know. I -- my grandfather was in the textile

business; I had an uncle who was a manufacturer. My aunts would all sit around the table and discuss whether camel was the best color or did you

like taupe. My mother modeled.

So it was really dinner table conversation in my family. And shopping for us, if you set me loose in a store, I was like Holly Golightly at

Tiffany's, nothing bad could happen.

RAJPAL: Did you ever feel like an outsider?

KORS: Certainly I knew I wasn't the average kid on the playground. Other people would be off playing baseball and I'd be sitting there with a

magazine, with my sweater rolled up and kind of laying in the sun leisurely, reading a magazine when I was 7 or 8.

But I have to tell you though, maybe perhaps growing up and being a little bit of the outsider in some respects, I think, makes you become very

observant. It's sort of what I always think about people who are great comedians. They notice the funny things that normal people don't notice.

So they're kind of on the outside looking in.

RAJPAL: Did you ever get bullied?

KORS: Yes, sure, absolutely. There were times when kids just did not understand. You know, what are you doing? You're sitting and sketching

women's clothes. You're 11 years old. What is that? You know.

And but at the same time, I was very confident. I know that this is what I loved and I knew who I was. And I was lucky. I had the support of a

family and friends who thought, you know, you just chase your dreams. Do what you want.

RAJPAL: Where did that strength come from, though? Because we looking at a young child going -- even going into adolescence and it's a difficult

time for anyone. And we all -- whether we're in our teens or in our 30s or 40s or 50s, confidence isn't necessarily something that we're born with.

Did you -- were you born with that? Or is that something that you developed and how did you listen to the good voices and not the bad ones?

KORS: That's funny. I have to say my mom always told me an interesting story. She said that when I was really small, everyone in my family

besides being fashion obsessed, they were all athletic. Everyone. And then along came Michael. And I could, you know, the last thing that I

could do was get onto a playing field with great finesse.

And my mom said that she would take me to the park when I was small and she'd try to have a catch with me. And she said and I would just kind of

watch the ball roll by.


KORS: She said I seemed totally unconcerned. And then she said, on the other hand, she said, if there was a pencil or a crayon in my hand, she

said she couldn't believe how excited I was. And she said she decided pretty early on I'm not going to try to force him to do what is not his

natural intent. And I'm going to just encourage you to do what you're great at.

RAJPAL: There are a lot of kids out there who are perhaps going through what you went through, but perhaps not as -- don't have that same kind of

support. And you're becoming a voice or you have been a voice for them in the It Gets Better Project.

Tell me about that. Tell me about why it was important for you to be a part of that.

KORS: I think that to let kids know that, you know what, there is someone else like you. Whatever it is that you're interested in, or however you

want to dress or whatever kind of music you want to listen to, guess what? You're not alone. You know, and in today's world, you can connect with

other kids who are like you.

You know, I kind of had to wait -- waited until I got to college, until I could be in this community of kids who were fashion and design obsessed. I

was the only one growing up. And I think that it's important for kids to know that there are other people just like you.

So it's great to be different. Everyone who's different turns out to be the one who success.

RAJPAL: Would you say the bowl of Lucky Charms that you had to take when you were filming a commercial for them, when you were 4?

KORS: Yes, that was 4.

RAJPAL: Those Lucky Charms worked.

KORS: Oh, I think definitely. I remember -- I remember when I went there and I had to film that commercial, I remember thinking to myself, I can't

believe I'm making a television commercial. What am I doing?

And my mother was like, you're going to be fine. This is all going to be good. And if you don't enjoy it, we'll move on. But magically delicious,

Lucky Charms. I think I've had some lucky charms.

RAJPAL: Michael Kors, thank you so much.

KORS: Thank you.