Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Fashion designer Michael Kors knows what women want

What makes the New York fashion designer the success he is? He says: 'I love people'

SPH Brightcove Video
The Straits Times Executive Editor Sumiko Tan has lunch with designer Michael Kors and finds out about his own personal sense of style.

When Michael Kors meets Michael Kors, a flicker of recognition crosses his face.

I am heading to the Raffles Hotel's Raffles Grill for lunch with the American fashion designer. I am, of course, wearing a Michael Kors dress. It is white, knitted, and fits me perfectly.

As I walk past the hotel's courtyard, I spot him talking to a woman.

Kors is wearing his trademark black T-shirt and black jacket, with dark blue jeans. He doesn't have his signature aviator shades on and, from a few metres away, I notice how startlingly blue his eyes are.

He sees me, or at least my - his - dress. From the way he raises an eyebrow, I know he has recognised it. I wonder if I should smile, but would he think it weird? I walk away quickly.

Five minutes later, we meet outside the restaurant. As the PR people introduce us, he tells me "you look great".

As we make our way to our table, I ask if he recognises every piece of his creations. Oh yes, he says, every single one. "They are my babies."

SPH Brightcove Video
The Straits Times Executive Editor Sumiko Tan has lunch with designer Michael Kors and finds out about his own personal sense of style.
Michael Kors and Michael Kors the orchid, whose delicate purple blooms adorn the top of the floral display. The American fashion icon says his clothes appeal to busy women who want to look good. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MICHAEL KORS

In 2011, his company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and became one of the largest and most successful fashion IPOs. The Michael Kors name was valued at US$3.8 billion (S$5.4 billion), and his brands now make more than US$4 billion a year. Forbes lists his personal fortune at about US$1 billion.

Including licensed locations, there are 905 Michael Kors stores worldwide. He was in town at the end of last year for the official opening of his South-east Asian flagship at Mandarin Gallery in Orchard Road.

His clothes are stylish yet practical, but it is his handbags - with their distinct MK logo chains - that most women know him for. His bags are in the "affordable luxury" category - expensive enough so not everyone can buy them, but not as out of reach as a Chanel or Fendi.

He also has menswear and shoes, and accessories such as sunglasses and watches.

We sit in an alcove of the Raffles Grill, an elegant French restaurant with a high ceiling. We are joined by Ms Lisa Pomerantz, the brand's senior vice-president of global communications and marketing.

Kors is a reporter's dream. He has a warm manner, is generous with his time, tells stories in which he relates entire conversations in a calm, soothing voice, and is patient with questions he must have heard a hundred times.

I hand them my name card and, I suspect to make me feel at ease, he remarks self-deprecatingly that he doesn't have any with him and that the last time he gave out name cards was in Japan. (Michael Kors needs name cards?)

How does it describe you, Ms Pomerantz asks, a tad wryly. What's your title? He laughs and says, actually, he doesn't know what it says.

He's no stranger to Singapore and has been here at least a dozen times. Raffles is a favourite because he loves heritage hotels.

He travels a lot to South-east Asia and always stops in Singapore.

"A lot of people always say to me, especially Americans: 'Such a big trip. Why are you going so far? Just go to Florida.' And I'm always like, 'no, it's magical. And I'm happy to be here'. "

He offers: "I like Singapore's Chinatown much better than New York's."

I ask if he eats local food and he says he does but "I'm not Anthony Bourdain... I have to know what I'm eating. I like something simple."

The waitress appears and he asks for iced tea. I tell him I've read that he drinks only iced tea. Yes, he says, he doesn't drink hot tea or coffee. Even in winter, he'll have iced tea. In fact, he lets on: "I don't wear winter clothes either. I never wear socks. I don't wear scarves. I don't wear hats. I like tropical. That's why I like Singapore. It works for me."

Kors glances through the menu but declares he'll be "very American" and get a club sandwich instead. He turns to the waitress and adds: "Could I have no egg on it? And white toast. And could I have some French fries? And some mayonnaise on the side and ketchup. Thank you."

Ms Pomerantz says she'll have a club sandwich too, and hers will be with egg but no bacon. I wonder if I should join them but opt instead for the two-course set: roasted scallops with artichoke risotto, and tuna steak with orzo.

Kors ruminates that New Yorkers always ask for something different from what's on the menu.

But no one minds, says Ms Pomerantz.

Oh, they do mind, he says. He then recounts how he was told that the reason there aren't many great restaurants in New York City's Upper East Side is that the customers are so difficult.

I congratulate Kors on having had an orchid named after him at the Botanic Gardens the day before. The Dendrobium Michael Kors features delicate purple blooms. He's chuffed by the floral tribute. He says he has received many awards including a little gold hanger from comedian Joan Rivers. "I have one that's a shoe. I have all these but I've never had a living beautiful plant before."

He lets us know that singer Elton John also had an orchid named after him in Singapore and says "I'm happy, we're in good company".

The bread arrives and the waitress rattles off what's in the basket - French mini baguettes and pine nuts with rye bread. Ms Pomerantz confirms that there is no hazelnut. Kors is allergic to it.

No Nutella for you then, I say.

Yes, no Nutella, he echoes.

Bread, he adds, is "my weakness".

THE interview takes place not long after the American elections, and I'm itching to know his views about fellow New Yorkers Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. On the Internet, I've seen photos of Kors with both the Clintons and the Trumps. Mrs Melania Trump wore a white Michael Kors dress when she went to cast her vote.

But while he is happy to talk about most things, politics is not one of them, I discover.

Were you surprised by the United States election results, I ask?

"I think many people were surprised, yes," he says, picking his words carefully.

I say both Hillary and Melania have worn his designs, but he's not to be lured.

Instead, he tells me that females from age 12 to 80 wear his designs. "We have women who are petite, we have women who are tall, every nationality. So I think that people who are busy and have a busy life and want to look good, I think they come to Michael Kors," he says.

"So I don't think it matters if it's Mrs Clinton or Melania Trump or Ivanka Trump or Mrs Obama. I think they are all busy women, and they want to look good. And we think about how things feel on the body, how they travel, how things photograph.

"So I think all of that has no party line."

I turn to his creative process.

Each new Michael Kors collection, he says, is about adding layers to what people already have and love in their closets .

He's inspired by his travels, pop culture and new fabric technology.

He points to Ms Pomerantz' blue and white dress, which is made of cotton poplin with stretch in it.

"I said to her: 'In this humidity, how did it arrive when you took it out of your suitcase?' And she said: 'Well, I took it out of my bag and I didn't touch it.' And I said: 'Well, that's when I know I did my job well.' Because in today's world, you arrive after travelling, you don't want to sit and iron it... and you want to look good at the end of the day."

The Michael Kors look is polished but casual. "What I do is always a little bit of a contradiction," he says. "We can't deny that in today's world, life is more casual, it's faster, so comfort is important but, at the same time, do you want to see the world in yoga clothes? No."

Their sandwiches - towering creations - have arrived. He pronounces his good but messy to eat and asks for more napkins. My dishes are delicious.

I ask if there are essential items from his brand that a woman should have. "Oh god, yes," he says and proceeds to name eight.

One, get a glamorous tote bag that will take you from gym to plane. It should be in a colour that goes with everything. He likes pale grey.

Two, an oversized watch "allows you the personality of jewellery but it functions".

Three, white shirts because "everyone looks great with white next to their face. It has no season, you can dress it up, you can dress it down".

Four, a pair of metallic sandals will match jeans or evening gowns.

Five, a knitted dress - "like the dress you're wearing" - will stretch and move on the body, travel well and hide small weight gains.

Six, aviator shades because "everyone wants to have an Angelina Jolie moment".

Seven, a black raincoat or trenchcoat that you can wear over anything, anytime, and "suddenly you have this kind of sense of mystery".

And eight, dresses because "you don't have to think about it" and with a change of shoes they can take you from day to night.

The best advice he can give women is "knowing yourself and knowing what works".

"You have to show what you like and cover what you don't," he says. "No one loves everything. So if you love your legs, then you wear short clothes. If you don't, you don't care if short is being shown on the runway. You wear something longer, you wear trousers."

Another tip: Make sure your clothes fit. "No one goes to the tailor anymore," he laments. "I go to the tailor even for jeans."

Kors has been involved with fashion practically all his life. He was born in Long Island to a fashion model and studied for a while at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

In 1981, he launched his womenswear line. He was also creative director of French high-fashion house Celine from 1998 to 2004, and there was a detour as a judge on reality TV show Project Runway.

I ask what it feels like to be so famous. "Fashion fame is the nicest kind of fame," he says. "It is so much better than Hollywood fame. I'm treated nicely, people will compliment me. They will show me what they are wearing but no one's chasing me down the streets."

But while fashion is his life, he doesn't always hang out with fashion folk because they "can live in a bubble".

"My idea of a perfect night is not walking on a red carpet. My idea of a perfect night is, honestly, to stay at home with my husband, with my cats asleep on me, watching a great movie and, you know, having a casual dinner." In 2011, he married his partner, Lance LePere.

Charity is also a big feature of his life. He has donated millions of dollars to a New York charity called God's Love We Deliver, which cooks and delivers meals to sick people.

In 2013, he launched Watch Hunger Stop to raise funds for the United Nations World Food Programme's School Meals project. In 2015, he was named a Global Ambassador Against Hunger by the UN for his efforts.

"I've been so fortunate. I get to do what I love, I am successful doing it, and I think everyone can feel better when they give back," he says. I feel he means it.

I remark that he comes across nice and friendly. He looks taken aback by this and says: "I like people. Honestly I do. I love people. It's why I do what I do. I can't imagine anyone having success in fashion for a long period of time if you genuinely don't like people."

He's finished his sandwich and asks for another iced tea and some cookies. The waitress also brings a plate of petit fours. Regrettably, we just pick at them as he has another meeting to rush to. But he spares some time for photos at the lobby.

And so there we are - me in my Michael Kors dress, next to Michael Kors himself, standing in front of a flower display with purple sprigs of Michael Kors the orchid.

Twitter @STsumikotan

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