You wouldn’t necessarily think that the architect who is most famous for designing Studio 54 in the late seventies would be the go-to guy for the ideal twenty-first-century beach house on Long Island, but then again, you’re not Michael Kors. It’s the start of the Fourth of July weekend, and he and his husband, Lance Le Pere, are standing on a long, narrow pier that runs away from their house, through the dunes, all the way to the ocean. “If you want a beach-bum life,” says Kors, “you have to find beach bums. And the architect, Scott Bromley—his idea of getting dressed up is if his shorts are clean.” It’s a blustery, overcast day, and Kors himself is wearing khaki shorts with a navy-blue Penn State sweatshirt and Birkenstocks. When I first arrived in a blazer, Kors gently mocked me. “I think that’s the first blazer I’ve ever seen in this house,” he said, laughing. “You can’t have a jacket out here. It kills the Big Sur–barefoot vibe.”
As we move inside—phew, it’s hot, I say, and quickly slip out of my jacket—the first thing I notice is Joni Mitchell’s ethereal soprano wafting out of the sound system. It reminds me that when I first met Kors and Le Pere, a few weeks earlier, Le Pere asked if I was wearing patchouli, and when I said yes, Kors’s response was “Oh, we looooove patchouli!,” speaking with a level of enthusiasm one usually reserves for Britney’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. “No one believes me,” he said then, “but I am such a hippie at heart. My joke about it is that we are such a contradiction: We love caviar with potato chips while listening to Joni Mitchell in Capri in flip-flops, wearing ten-ply cashmere. Everything we love is laid-back but indulgent.”
Hippie was not the first word that sprang to mind when I thought of the designer, especially knowing that when Michael Kors Holdings went public in 2011, it was one of the most successful initial public offerings in fashion history, making him “big-time rich,” as his friend Blaine Trump puts it. The Long Island boy who landed on the World’s Billionaires list in Forbes magazine last year has finally become a character from one of his Mario Testino ad campaigns: the well-traveled rich guy, with tall, blond spouse trailing, disembarking from a private jet while discussing Ischia vs. Capri.
Or has he? A friend of mine used to live next door to Kors at this very same beach in the late nineties—back when he was merely a successful (and not yet Project Runway–famous) designer—and Kors once told him his clothes were “too neat” and suggested that he start sleeping in them. Perhaps the 56-year-old designer hasn’t changed? Testino doesn’t think so: “I haven’t seen anything change in him since he’s made hundreds of millions. And that is why he says he’s a hippie. Because what he treasures isn’t the limousine; it’s intimacy, it’s the home.” Or, as his friend Blake Lively puts it, “When you have a conversation with him, it’s not about helicopters and yachts. He talks about real-world things like not wanting to go on vacation because he doesn’t want to leave his cats, Bunny and Viola.”
As we make our way through the house, which is a triumph in streamlined beach modern—Nakashima furniture, ropy Scandinavian chairs, with an enormous paper lantern trembling above it all—Kors suddenly looks out through one of the many vast sheets of glass that frame the ocean and says, “Oh, my. There’s a naked person walking on the beach.” Pause. Is he himself a nudist? “Oh, please. I showerin a caftan.”
Eventually we find ourselves in the master-bedroom suite—an entire floor, really—where at last I spy a few tchotchkes: a small cluster of framed photographs on a shelf next to the bed. One is of Kors with long curly hair, and his two best friends, Tim and Lauren, from his brief tenure at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was taken in Montauk, Long Island, in 1981—the year Kors started his company. “Still my two best friends,” he says. “We think this picture looks like an album cover and I look like Peter Frampton.” There’s also a photograph, from the early sixties, of Kors, a towheaded toddler, with his mother and grandmother, taken at the Lawrence Beach Club, not far from here. A lot has been written over the years about the influence these two women have had on him, particularly his mother, Joan, who lives in Los Angeles, and is, according to Kors’s friend Bette Midler, “over-the-top, a true character. She loves clothes and she loves being beautiful—you know, the bella figura, that Italian thing of showing your best face to the world.”
Kors picks up the frame. “OK, this is full Flamingo Kid. I was an only child, so I was always the only kid at the cabana, surrounded by women. I think all they did, basically, was eat cantaloupe and play cards. Lunch was really just the discussion of where you were going to have dinner.” Clearly he’s been training to be a beach bum his whole life. (He’s preparing to be one for the rest of his life, too, having almost finished building a house on the Gulf Coast near Tampa. “Commutable barefoot luxury—that’s my idea of perfect,” he says, sounding like he’s describing his latest resort collection.)
We make our way over to the guesthouse. The bedrooms on the second floor here are subtly themed; one has a safari motif, with photographs the couple took in Africa. Another has pictures taken in the seventies at Studio 54, bought at the Steve Rubell estate sale several years ago: There’s a shot of Bianca Jagger and Halston, on the night when she infamously rode through the disco on a white horse. As luck would have it, Kors, eighteen at the time, was there, so thrilled by his luck that he stayed until 7:00 a.m. The next day, he walked into class an hour late. “I have big Porsche sunglasses on, and the teacher says, ‘Well, thank you so much for joining us.’ Of course, the arrogance of eighteen, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I was out at Bianca’s birthday party.’ And all the kids in the class looked at me and were like, Ugh, you’re gross.” Perhaps it was at this moment that Kors, who is unpretentious to a fault, learned the valuable lesson that being a name drop–y douche bag gets you exactly nowhere in life.
As we meander through the compound, I realize that I have not seen a single dollop of color. “I have this weird thing that people are the color in the room,” says Kors. “Also, if you travel the way we travel, you kind of end up buying things everywhere. So how do you make them work? We slap our hands and never buy anything colorful. It’s not that I wouldn’t love bright-green pottery from Thailand, but it would take too long to figure out where to put it.” He does the same thing with his wardrobe, sticking almost exclusively to black. “By mistake, I grabbed one of Lance’s navy T-shirts and wore it to the office, and all of the kids who work for us were like, ‘I love you in color!’ The lesson there is, If you have a system that never veers, you can knock people off their feet by turning the dial just a little.”
He actually remembers the last colorful piece of clothing he ever bought. He was on vacation in St. Barth’s. “We walked into the Hermès store, and they have this bright-mint cashmere sweater. I hold it up, I’m really tan, and I’m like, ‘I have to have it!’ And then I look over and I see a matching cashmere scarf. The next morning I try the whole rig on, and I look like a York Peppermint Pattie.” Most people think of Kors as a quiptastic one-liner machine, but he also knows how to spool out a yarn—and the punch line is almost always at his own expense.
Le Pere offers a quiet, even-keeled Midwestern ballast to what Midler calls Kors’s “tremendous presence.” As Kors says, “He calms me down; I rev him up.” In all of the time that I spend with them, there is only about five minutes when I am with Kors by himself: Le Pere is always at his side. One gets the sense that theirs is a deep and very private relationship, one that they protect by keeping their sanctuaries—this house, the trips to Greece or Big Sur—just for the two of them. “Certainly when one of us leaves the room,” Le Pere says, “I think we miss each other; we miss that energy.”
The couple, who got married four years ago, met in 1990, when Le Pere was a junior at Parsons and interned at Michael Kors. When Le Pere graduated, he went to work for the company, but it wasn’t until Kors began designing for Céline in 1997, flying back and forth to Paris several times a year with a few people from his team, that the romance really began. “Listen,” says Kors, “fashion’s not a nine-to-five job. We work around the clock, and you get close to the people you work with.” In Paris, says Le Pere, “I think our guard came down, and we were like, Wait a minute: There’s more to this than just working together.”
Their differences were apparent when Kors first met Le Pere’s parents. “I walk into the Parsons graduation ceremony in black Harley motorcycle boots, fully shredded jeans, a white football jersey, with a black sequined blazer. Full South Beach insanity.”
“But that was the era,” Le Pere says and then starts to say, “My parents were like——” when Kors suddenly cuts him off and shrieks, “You thought I was EXOTIC!
“Actually,” Kors continues, “I thought Lance’s being from the Midwest was exotic. I hate to generalize, but with Midwesterners, there’s a sense of politeness and decorum. When we spend time with his family, they all get along really well. I grew up with women who would argue over the color of a shoe: ‘It is not taupe! It’s mushroom!’ ”
“And now,” Le Pere says, “that’s what you do for a living.”
In some ways, Michael Kors’s entire design philosophy might be described as a blend of preppy Midwestern refinement with a dash of gutsy New York glamour. It’s an aesthetic that appeals to everyone from stylish young beauties—“You feel very rich and sexy and feminine when you’re wearing his clothes,” says model Lily Aldridge—to modern American moguls. And indeed, when I ask Kors for suggestions of people to interview, someone in his office forwards me a list of nearly 40 people, mostly women, including the First Lady and Hillary Clinton.
“I love wearing his clothes,” says Oprah Winfrey. “In a few days I’m meeting some friends on their boat in Spain, and my clothes are all Kors separates and that fabulous, fabulous linen skirt that he did this year. They’re like play clothes, but they’ve got a little zhoozh. I like clothes with zhoozh.”
One of the things that distinguish the man whom Iman calls “the true quintessential American designer” from other designers of his generation—particularly those men who, like Kors, also worked in Paris to reimagine a storied French house; e.g., Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano—is that there is nothing dark about him. He admits that the last time he staged something spiky was for his fall ’93 collection. “We were playing, like, Astor Piazzolla,” says Kors, “and the girls were scowling and they had, like, dirty braids and stomper boots. Carla Bruni, the second girl out, came back and said, ‘There’s a fistfight in the photographers’ pit!’ I remember thinking, Maybe this kind of anger and sadness isn’t really appropriate for Michael Kors.”
It’s no wonder Mario Testino feels such a kinship to Kors. “When Michael first started out,” says Testino, “some people would criticize him for being too commercial, too normal, not edgy or intellectual enough. I suffered the same thing.” Here he quotes a line from a magazine that he’s never forgotten: “ ‘Mario Testino with his happy snappy shots has managed to stay relevant.’ There’s a certain snobbism in the fashion world that positive, up, sunny things are banal. And I like that Michael hasn’t ever fallen victim to that.”
Part of his outlook can be explained by that fact that Kors is pragmatic to the core—a “problem solver,” as he is fond of saying. When he talks about the thrill he gets out of helping a woman put together a wardrobe, he can often sound less like a fashion designer than a stylist or personal shopper. He seems constitutionally suspicious of fashion as pure fantasy. “I think fantasy works for someone going to the Met ball,” he says. “I don’t want to be the clothes you admire, I want to be the ones that you wear.”
At one point, we get to talking about the danger of becoming ridiculous or pretentious in this business. “Fashion is about reinvention,” he says, “so fashion people are also full of self-reinvention. They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not that person anymore! I am royalty from Albania, and my mother wore couture!’ ” We both laugh, but then he rethinks it a bit. “But, you know, for some designers, it isn’t pretentiousness, exactly, because I think they believe their own makeover!”
This was never a danger for Kors, whose inner teenager is just under the surface. “I’m a suburban boy who, like, got a rush walking into the mall. I remember being fourteen years old and saving up for something: the tissue paper, the shopping bag, the whole thing. I still get it.”
You might think that being the head of a publicly traded global empire that now includes 774 stores around the world, from Romania to Dubai, would feel like a very different life from the one he had pre-IPO. “It feels the same as it was when it was this teeny little thing in the beginning,” he says. “It’s just faster. But life is faster.” He does concede that he is overscheduled—“The calendar is a nightmare!”—which is why his time with Le Pere to unplug and pad around barefoot is now more crucial than ever.
I had been curious to know what, besides more success and a huge payday, motivated Kors to go so big. “It’s just that the world is, at once, both bigger and smaller, so therefore the business is the same,” he says. “And my point of view is applicable to a much broader group of people now than just a handful of women in Beverly Hills and on the Upper East Side.” And in this new big/small world of fast, global fashion, Kors has become an accessory zealot, a true believer in the power of the handbag, which is, of course, what has propelled his brand into the stratosphere: “We live in a world where you can wear yoga clothes, but if you’ve got the right handbag, great sunglasses, and your watch is gorgeous, you’re ready to roll. An accessory cuts through all the barriers. No weather, no season, no age.” His eyes widen. “We have ten-year-old customers,” he says. “Ten! I am knocked out by ten!”
One rainy morning in early June, I meet Kors on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Spring Street for the dedication of the Michael Kors Building, the new headquarters of the New York charity God’s Love We Deliver. As I watch Kors work the rope line, I am struck by the fact that he comes by naturally the skills that most politicians have to work very hard at. It’s that Bill Clinton thing, the ability to meet hundreds of people in an hour and seem to take delight in every one of them. “He genuinely enjoys people,” says Midler. “People of any sort, any class, any rank—he has the ability to put them at ease.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio is here to perform the official dedication of the building, a gleaming, modern, six-floor facility with a state-of-the-art kitchen designed to turn out nearly one-and-a-half million meals a year for thousands of homebound New Yorkers suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses. It’s the crowning achievement of the designer’s 26-year involvement with the organization, a relationship that began back in 1989, when a close friend with AIDS was very sick at Beth Israel hospital. “Every night I’d leave work and rush over to the hospital to see him, and his parents and his brother and all of our friends would be there. He shared a room with a woman whom no one ever came to see. The head nurse told me that when her family found out she had AIDS, they stopped speaking to her. She was a pariah. It just hit me like thunder.” He had heard about God’s Love, which was just a small, grassroots organization then, and immediately went down to volunteer. “What really inspires me about God’s Love is that this is a very concrete thing: We sat down, we had dinner, I feel nourished. That’s something that we can actually roll up our sleeves and do.”
A quarter-century later, he is standing in front of a building with his name on it. Kors was coaxed by his friend Blaine Trump into making a generous donation to kick off the campaign, but she was gobsmacked when he decided to give $5 million. “That was the catalyst,” says Trump. “It got people saying, ‘Oh, well, if Michael Kors is donating this large sum, we’ll sign on, too.’ ” (Kors has also become an official ambassador to the U.N.’s World Food Programme, where he helps organize food delivery to schools in Africa and Central America. “It’s very similar to the work we do at God’s Love. It’s the instantaneous change in someone’s life.”)
After the dedication, I ask Kors how he feels. “New York has so imbued everything that I am,” he says. “That I am able at this point in life to give back, and to see the concrete results? I am bursting with pride.”
Later that night, I meet Kors and Le Pere at Joe Allen, the famous Broadway-theater haunt, where they are longtime regulars at table seven. They each order a bacon cheeseburger and a vodka as Kors tells me that he grew up in a family that was “ravenous for great theater.” He saw his first musical when he was five—Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says, laughing. As a teenager, he briefly thought of acting himself: “Took a few classes. Couldn’t act, couldn’t sing.” When the revival of Hair came to Central Park in 2008, Kors and Le Pere were there, front and center. “Lance is a fabulous dancer,” Kors says. “He moves like lightning. I am the worst dancer on the planet. But, of course, out of my seat and. . . .” He throws his hands in the air and sings, “ ‘Leeeeeet the suuuun shiiiiine. . . .’ I suddenly realize I am dancing in front of the entire Delacorte Theater! Fully uncoordinated!”
“Oh, they all loved it,” says Le Pere.
Theater is such a passion for the couple that Kors is contemplating another way to give back to New York City: by producing musicals. “Lance and I, we’ve seen a few things from the early workshop phase—no sets, nothing—and it reminds me of when we first start working on a collection and we have a few swatches, a piece of yarn, a piece of leather. I love seeing that whole process.” To that end, the couple are hoping to help bring to Broadway a new musical called wonder.land, which is opening in November at London’s National Theatre. “Do I think that I’m ever going to be David Merrick?” says Kors. “No. I’m very happy with the day job.”