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Michael Kors: America’s jet-set king

The fashion world is tough to keep up with. Is normcore still ‘in’? Are fanny packs ‘out’? But it’s unexpected that the fashion fraternity would be hard to keep track of, too. Even as artistic director Kim Jones announces his exit from Louis Vuitton after seven years, Céline has picked Hedi Slimane to take over, merely a month after Phoebe Philo ended her 10-year stint. A recent New York Times article referred to this as the “managerial musical chairs” being played by the heads of fashion houses. The world has barely been able to keep up; 2017 saw at least one major change of guard at maisons every single month.

In the midst of this whirlwind, Michael Kors has managed to retain its eponymous creative head and gone from strength to strength. In the 37 years since it was founded, the designer has been the aviator-flaunting face — and heart and soul — of the company. Incidentally, Kors was behind Céline’s turnaround in 1997 (when he helmed it); his introduction of ready-to-wear is credited with reviving the legacy brand. From its mainstay of handbags and womenswear to ranking #2 on the digital presence ladder today, Michael Kors has managed to keep up with the times and even become a template for a successful brand. So much so that Oliver Lapidus, who took over from Bouchra Jarrar as head of fashion maison Lanvin in July last year, announced his plans to turn Lanvin into “the French Michael Kors”.

Michael Kors: America’s jet-set king

Aspirational and affordable

To many Indians, the 58-year-old designer has instant recall as the witty judge of reality show Project Runway (seasons 1 to 10) or as one of the first to dress actress Priyanka Chopra in her Hollywood stint. Before MK opened its first store in Delhi’s Emporio in 2013 — with its instantly-recognisable monogrammed bags and chunky rose gold watches — it was aspirational to the upper middle class, but only accessible at malls and airports abroad. Today, the brand has six stores across India, with a seventh opening soon in Chennai. But, according to a blog on Euromonitor, with disposable incomes seeing an 11% growth in India over the last year, and thanks to steady advertising campaigns, it’s as ‘affordable luxury’ that handbag brands Michael Kors and Coach (MK’s closest rival) are gaining ground.

In his home country, however, Michael Kors is a red carpet staple and White House favourite (Michelle Obama wore a black jersey dress from the brand for her official portrait, a floral number on election night 2012, followed by countless other occasions.) Every awards season will have an actress or two sporting an MK creation — this year, we’ve already seen Kerry Washington, Saoirse Ronan and Viola Davis donning MK — but his stronghold is, and has always been, classic American sportswear (the sleek, post-war, working woman’s clothes, pioneered in the 1940s, based on the usefulness of sporting gear).

Clothes designed for ease of movement, in simple, flattering patterns, but with luxurious material became Kor’s signature, and, to date, it’s his camel-coloured overcoats, cable-knit sweaters and separates that are his trademark. A 2006 article on called it “American, self-possessed, no-brainer chic”, and he has continued to play to those strengths.

Claire Metallic Embossed-Leather Pump

Claire Metallic Embossed-Leather Pump   | Photo Credit: MK

Keeping up with millennials

For a brand that started in 1981 — Kors, a drop-out from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, launched his label at Bergdorf Goodman — his astute social media strategy doesn’t miss a beat with millennials. The New York-based digital impact measurement brand L2 has ranked MK #2, just behind Gucci, in the top 10 fashion brands in digital, crediting its “unbranded SEO performance and strong email marketing campaigns”, as well as its utilisation of Instagram shopping tools, for MK’s digital IQ of 143. If, as L2 suggests, 70% of luxury purchases are influenced by online interactions, and 6% of their revenues come from online sales, then Michael Kors seems to be on the right track.

While it has maintained its position as the top handbag brand in the US, with 24.8% of the market (to Coach’s 13.9%) to its name, MK has had its share of bumps in the road, too. It lost a bit of its sheen when consistent discounts offered by outlet stores pushed the brand a little towards the “mass end of the market”, and, last year, Kors announced it would close about 100 of its retail outlets. But it has made waves as well, with its takeover of shoe brand Jimmy Choo, the pop culture icon (thanks to Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City), for $1.35 billion, in a bid to diversify from its bread-and-butter staple of handbags.

Keeping up with Kors
  • Fur-free and fabulous: After numerous PETA protests, brand Michael Kors pledged to go fur-free last December, and promised to phase out their fur products by the end of 2018. If you’re worried about never owning a fox fur vest from MK though, don’t fret. The designer has said he will continue with his signature “luxe aesthetic using non-animal fur”.
  • Philanthropy on trend: Kors has been a great contributor to a range of charities and was even honoured for distinguished service in advancing cancer research in 2010. His biggest contribution though has been towards ending world hunger — his Watch Hunger Stop campaign donates 50 meals to the World Food Program every time someone posts a picture wearing the WHS T-shirt with the hashtag, #WATCHHUNGERSTOP.
  • Scent of Sexy: MK’s latest fragrance, Sexy Ruby ($112 for 3.4 oz), is the designer’s attempt to redefine ‘sexy’ in his unique way, combining notes of apricot, raspberry, rose and jasmine. What’s significant though is the marketing acumen behind it — with a sizeable budget and social media skills to impress a Kardashian, it had an Instagrammable launch party (with a life-sized ruby room) and roped in social media stars to push the product digitally.
  • Choosing Choo: Michael Kors bought shoe brand Jimmy Choo last year, a consolidation that showed it is looking to grow and diversify. NASDAQ rated it #6 in their top 15 acquisitions of 2017, one spot above Coach’s takeover of Kate Spade.

Few legacy brands have managed to stay relevant over three decades the way Michael Kors has. With about 827 sales outlets worldwide now, and the number set to increase as the brand expands, there’s every chance the next luxury conglomerate could be a homegrown, all-American brand like this. Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with Weekend:

Michael Kors

Michael Kors   | Photo Credit: Norman Wong

How do you find design inspiration each season?

I’m a big believer that if you are out there in the world, really living and engaging, there is never a lack of inspiration. I find it everywhere, from movies and plays to the women in my office to someone I see walking down the street.

You have been a big proponent of diversity, getting everyone from 43-year-old Carolyn Murphy to size 16 Ashley Graham to walk the runway for you last year. What is the Michael Kors Girl like?

She’s smart, sophisticated, strong and successful. She can juggle a million things at once and still look chic every step of the way.

Tell us about your foray into smartwatches, with the Access touchscreen timepieces.

I think it’s definitely a big part of the future. Fashion and technology are merging in all sorts of ways, and as a designer it’s exciting for me to be a part of that evolution. I’ve always felt that part of my job is to help make people’s lives easier, and a smartwatch certainly does that.

MK has launched a personalised app as well.

The app is for our Michael Kors Access smartwatch — it connects the timepiece to your phone, allows you to control the settings, save custom watch faces and more. As the world continues to embrace technology, we’ll continue to find new ways to make it look great for everyday life.

You’re known as the quintessential American designer, with your trademark black aviators. What’s your personal style mantra?

Keep it simple. I live a busy life, so I stick to a uniform that can work in most occasions — a black T-shirt, a cashmere pullover or blazer depending on how formal I need to be that day, white or dark wash jeans, and a pair of aviators.

‘Practical luxury’ is a term that recurs when describing your most popular product, the tote bags.

Not everyone knows this about me, but I’m a very pragmatic person. When I’m designing a tote, I’m making sure that it opens wide enough, that it has enough pockets, that the leather and hardware don’t make it too heavy. Because the bags you reach for day in and day out are the ones that make your life easier and still look great.

What does the future of fashion look like to you?

The world is changing so quickly, especially the fashion world, that I could never answer that. But whatever it is, I’ll be ready.

You love to travel, and a lot of creations are inspired by it. What’s the next destination on your list?

Ayer’s Rock in Australia. Bora Bora was at the top of my list for a long time, but we finally made it there last year.

Michael Kors will open its store in Chennai on February 7

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 11:56:17 PM |

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