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Designer Michael Kors makes clothes with style and comfort

Fashion designer Michael Kors believes in clothes that are easy to throw on, make one look fabulous and yet are comfortable

In the world of fashion designer Michael Kors, there are no seasons. Only aeroplanes, unlimited Wi-Fi, italicised words and people getting from here to there, looking and feeling good.

"The rules in the world have disappeared. There's no day, there's no night. There's no season. Particularly when you get to Singapore," he proclaims with a pizzazz and flourish, all white teeth and clean-cut dazzle.

Sporting a fitted black - "always black!" - T-shirt, Kors lounges casually - "always casual!" - on a wingbacked chair at the Claridges Hotel - "always Claridges!" - in London.

He is here to prep journalists about his latest store openings in London and Singapore and, separately, lifestyle partnership with race-car brand McLaren-Honda.

"I've been to Singapore many, many times. You get the problem of two extremes. When you're outside, it's so hot and humid. But then when you're inside, you're so freezing. Because the AC is insane," Kors, 57, explains.


Natural Kirk fur/leather backpack; camel hair sherpa hoodie; Banker tropical tech wool utility pants; luggage Lance Vachetta hiking boots. The hoodie and boots are available in Singapore. PHOTO: MICHAEL KORS MEN

"The reality is that you need to be able to layer and peel things off. Quite honestly, when I'm in a place like Singapore, I might be in very thin cotton trousers, but then suddenly, I know I'll need a cashmere hoodie. Because when I go into the restaurant, I'm gonna be frozen.

"Also..." he pauses briefly, as if mentally checking off a list, but making sure his point is carefully underlined, "the weather is changing around the world. We sell boots in Miami now. I sell sandals in Moscow. Because the weather is crazy and everyone travels around the world.

"These are the people who are interested in Michael Kors.

"These are the people who make their own rules," he adds.

LOOKING FAB FOR GROCERY RUN

Born in a suburb in Long Island, New York, to a 20-year-old model of Swedish descent, Kors is best known today as the billionaire name behind posh handbags. The story goes that one in every third woman in London, New York, Tokyo or Singapore is carrying one of his fabled totes, most probably in the form of the Selma, Greenwich or Jet Set.


Black/red colour-block cashmere ribbed pullover; black stretch cotton ski pants; black cashmere ribbed scarf; black cashmere ribbed beanie; black Joaquin sunglasses; black Bryant leather backpack; black Lance Vachetta hiking boots (available in Singapore). All items from Michael Kors Men Fall 2016 collection. PHOTO: MICHAEL KORS MEN

Next week, the designer's first flagship store in South-east Asia opens at the Mandarin Gallery in Singapore with 7,000 sq ft of browsing space.

This adds another store to the brand's stable of 881 retail stores worldwide.

Michael Kors Holdings, which is publicly listed, turned a total revenue of US$987.9 million (S$1.34 billion) between April and June this year. Up from US$986 million the same period last year.

The saleability and adaptability of his brand has kept Kors' Singaporean backers Valiram confident about launching a flagship outlet in the midst of economic uncertainty.

Mr Mukesh Valiram, Valiram Group's executive director, says that the launch of Michael Kors' largest flagship in South-east Asia "marks Valiram Group's confidence in the brand and market".

"(It) is a statement of the brand's strength in the region... The new store enables us to enhance the Michael Kors shopping experience, making it as luxurious and welcoming as possible to reflect the effortless sophistication and jet-set lifestyle of our customers."


White/silver sequin/feather tweed organza shirtdress; white Goldie French calf shoulder bag; and white Lorraine Spazzolato pumps from Michael Kors Collection Fall 2016. Only the bag is available in Singapore. PHOTO: MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION

Indeed, Kors' New York glamour-meets-practicality style translates well into aspirationally cosmopolitan Singapore, where "smart-casual" at the office can quickly turn into a dressy evening out at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts followed by midnight snacking in Geylang. The important thing, Kors says, is to feel comfortable but look great.

A cliche? Not if you are the brains who is engineering the clothes and - more strategically - accessories that make you forget about having to dress up in the first place.

"My clothes help you function a little bit better. But at the same time, it's not only functionality. I love something that's beautiful and glamorous.

"If we can help people find something that can help them with their busy life, but at the same time be glamorous, that's exactly what we want," he adds.

He fishes for an example from his own life, demonstrating the ethos of a "statement piece".


Indigo houndstooth tweed jacket; powder blue floral silk georgette bow blouse; indigo ostrich feather embroidered denim skirt; black Julie large quilted leather camera bag; and black Lucie Spazzolato slingbacks. All items are not available in Singapore. PHOTO: MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION

"Ugh. I'm in the house. Oh. I have no milk. Or I need a lemon. So I run to the corner store just to buy milk or a lemon," he says.

"And I'm sitting in the house in sweat pants. And I don't feel like getting dressed. But in New York, I know that the minute you get out, you're gonna see someone. So I throw on my fab jacket. I know I'm glamorous getting my lemon now."

BOUNCING BACK FROM BANKRUPTCY

One might point out that Kors has always been glamorous, even in his sworn-by uniform of all-black, ever since he grew up watching his mother pick through her modelling clothes in New York's suburbs. When she remarried five years after giving birth to him, he made his first fashion decision by telling her to remove the fussy bows on her wedding dress.

Since then, he has never looked back. There was an experimental period when - as a blond cherub with tight ringlets on his head - he tried satin pants, platform shoes and hippie cut-offs on himself. As a teenager, he also sold homemade friendship bands out of the basement of his house.


Gold floral embroidered metallic brocade dress and gold Gigi brocade/metallic nappa pumps. All items not available in Singapore. PHOTO: MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION

My customers are very busy, live a very fast active life and I think they love glamour and they love indulgence, but they also like practicality. They like comfort. They dress for speed.

MICHAEL KORS

But by the age of 19, Kors decided he was going to make his name properly - setting out on attending a coveted course at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

The young fashionista lasted all but nine months in school, finding it more lucrative to work as a male model and, later, a window-dresser at a trendy boutique, Lothar. There, he was allowed to showcase his own creations in a small store front. His work caught the eye of a buyer at department store Bergdorf Goodman and, in 1981, Kors officially launched his womenswear line.

Things have changed since.

"I remember when I started. My idea of international was Canada. I thought Toronto was international. Wow. In 1981," he recalls.

Things have not always been up, however.

Eleven years into his first foray, Kors' business ran into troubled waters and he was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1993. He bounced back in four years, however, relaunching in 1997 and very quickly also landing a job as the director of French fashion house Celine.

"When I first arrived in Paris, I thought… Oh, I'm so American. What's gonna happen? What's gonna happen? Paris! So formal," he remembers.

"At the same time, the Internet arrived and the walls started crumbling. And I think we learn from each culture. We see different things."

In 2004, Kors graduated from simply being a fashion designer to a cult TV personality, when he was invited to become one of the judges on the hit fashion TV competition, Project Runway. Today, his one-liner slayings of teary contestants remain one of the top-visited fashion compilation videos on YouTube.

For who would not cry at being accused of originating a "Flintstone disco patch", a "voodoo princess from hell", a "Victorian cocktail waitress in Las Vegas", or "something a Teletubby would wear to a party"?

CLOTHES FOR THE BIG AND SMALL

But words alone or indeed a well-honed sense of style was not the only making of Michael Kors. Learning from his planning and financial mistakes of the early 1990s, Kors first began by identifying a gap in the fashion market: the mid-priced range for high-end products.

Today, his bags retail for around $400 to $600 which, while not exactly cheap, do not compare with Chanel items that cut into the wallet by the thousands.

Second, Kors zoned in on blending Internet-savvy browsing with bricks-and-mortar-store- based shopping.

"We see something, we want it. I want it now, I don't wanna plan ahead," he explains.

"But then I still believe that as human beings, we love anticipation. We like waiting. We like both. So what? You have to wait and you have to dream and you have to think about it," he adds.

"But some of it: you see it on your phone. Oh, I want something now. It's a kind of blend of the two things. I think about how we shop now. We go to the store, but we shop online. And we research online. My clients often walk into the store and they know what they want. I saw these two shoes, these three bags, these dresses. Pah. And then they look at other things."

Kors was also quick to tailor his goods to the requirements of everyone - well, any size of woman. In the early 2000s, his housekeeper of 27 years casually mentioned that her daughter was a big fan and loved Kors' clothes, but was sparrow-sized and swam in his overcoats. For her, he created the petite range.

Today, Kors says his ideal customer lives by a particular ethic, but "she's honestly not an age. She's not a nationality. Quite frankly, she's not even a size".

"We have very petite customers. Very tall customers. What do they have in common? No. 1, they're all very confident. They know themselves. They know what works for them. They are very knowledgable," he continues.

"They love fashion, but don't want it to overtake their lives. They are jugglers. They do too many things. And they want to make it look easy. And my job is to help them."

While he could count the likes of actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow (who is on speed-dial), Jessica Chastain, Joan Collins, Bette Midler, politicians Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey among his clients, Kors is also committed to using his fame for the greater good. In October, he will work with actress Kate Hudson in a campaign for the UN World Food Programme, designing two health electronic trackers to sell in stores with the proviso that for every piece sold, the man will personally donate 100 meals to the UN.

Kors is also upfront about taking his wares to anyone walking the busy, urban life.

"The most fun thing would be, you know, in London they sell those walking sticks that turn into a little chair. I wanna buy that so that I can sit at a busy subway station and just watch everything - not just people that are wearing Michael Kors. You sit and watch, you learn things. You talk to everyone."

Today, Kors splits his "home" time between his apartment in New York's Greenwich Village and an all-white house in Long Beach, California. In 2011, as soon as it was legally possible to do so, he married his long-time partner Lance LePere, whom he met when the latter interned at his studio in 1990.

But travel, ultimately, is his greatest love. "The world is such a small place, such a different place now. Travel is a Huge inspiration. I travel for work, for pleasure. Diana Vreeland was right. I must travel. I like being on streets around the world. I like seeing what's happening on streets. It's different everywhere. That's a huge influence.

"My customers are very busy, live a very fast active life and I think they love glamour and they love indulgence, but they also like practicality. They like comfort. They dress for speed. We're all travelling today. Even when we're not moving, we're travelling on our phones. On the Internet. Travelling through information."

• TheMichael Kors flagship store opens at Mandarin Gallery next week. My customers are very busy, live a very fast active life and I think they love glamour and they love indulgence, but they also like practicality. They like comfort. They dress for speed.


Michael Kors' fashion rules

1 ALWAYS GO FOR COMFORT

"Sometimes we'll have an actress - she's going to a party or event and she can't decide. And I've actresses who are friends, they'll try two different things and ask: Which one should I wear? I'll call them and ask: Which one is more comfy? And they go: I don't know, oh, I don't know, this one will make a better picture. And I always say, go for the one you're more comfortable in because you'll always look better."

2 MAX OUT THE "LOOK-CHANGER"

"I love designing a complete collection. But my favourite things to design are look-changers. Accessories. Whether it's an amazing pair of glasses, a great shoe, a fab bag, a piece of jewellery. These can be casual clothes (points to self). But suddenly they look glamorous, polished.

"That's why I like jackets and coats. Because jackets and coats change everything. You could live in jeans and T-shirts. Even leggings and exercise clothes. But if the watch is great, if you have a fabulous coat or amazing shoes…

"It doesn't matter. The clothes are the background, ultimately. When you get off a flight, you feel delirious. And you think to yourself, okay, I might be wearing yoga pants. But then I put on a fabulous jacket, a great watch. Suddenly, I'm Brad and Angelina."

Here are some of Kors’ accessories.


1. Black Faye suede/fur sandals (available in Singapore); 2. Natural/walnut Sloan large shearling shoulder bag; 3. Black/gold stainless steel/acetate necklace (available in Singapore); 4. Coffee Quincy large suede shoulder tote (available in Singapore); 5. Black quilted-nylon duffel. All prices unavailable. PHOTOS: MICHAEL MICHAEL KORS, MICHAEL KORS MEN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Style & comfort'. Print Edition | Subscribe