CHICAGO — On a recent “Project Runway” episode, judge and designer Michael Kors withered one of the contestants with what bloggers have called the quote of the season.
He had challenged the prospects to create ensembles inspired by some of his favorite places, including Santa Fe, Aspen and St. Tropez. Disappointed in one candidate’s effort, he declared, “They’re clothes. They’re not fashion.”
“Project Runway,” Kors elaborated later, needs to be about fashion, not about just clothes.
But, more than perhaps any American designer, he acknowledges in his own work — the most luxurious of which is shown at Collection stores — that every wardrobe needs both: The simple but beautiful clothes that get you from Point A to Point Z in your day.
And the wow fashion that makes you want to get there at all.
“Michael Kors is perhaps the consummate American designer. His entire approach is rooted in pragmatism,” said Bridget Foley, executive editor of W Magazine and fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily. “He never indulges in fashion trickery or artsiness for its own sake.”
Many among the affluent share his affinity for good taste and calculated risk. They’ve shopped his clothing and handbags at specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus as well as at his Michael Kors Lifestyle Stores. With an emphasis on accessories, the Lifestyle stores carry items from all of his lines, including the more affordable Michael Michael Kors.
Here, the designer who describes himself as a “camel and gray flannel kind of guy,” talks more about his affections.
Q: We know from “Runway” some of your favorite places. Is Chicago on the list?
A: I love that Chicago changes so much because of the weather. Chicago is still a city where a wardrobe needs variety, from clothes for the tundra to clothes for the spring monsoon to clothes for summer heat to clothes that are truly autumn clothes. As a designer, that’s fun to be able to deal with. My clothes have always had this kind of yin and yang that they’re indulgent but practical, which I think is very Chicago. The city has been full of fans for us, from the very beginning. And I think that’s because of the combination of restraint and glamour.
Q: One of the most famous Chicago fans is first lady Michelle Obama, who has worn, among other things, a black racer-back dress of yours for her first official White House portrait.
A: Everything I just said about Chicago, Mrs. Obama is very that. She enjoys fashion and is very stylish, but she doesn’t let it rule her life. ... When she wore Michael Kors for her official portrait, I was in London at the theater, and I came out, and my Blackberry was filled with about 200 e-mails. We had made the dress for her, and I thought it would be great for her. It’s understated, timeless but modern. The cut is classic but has an athletic feel, the way the dress is cut.
Q: What’s your favorite way to stay warm in Chicago?
A: The first thing for me is, I need a hood. Chicago is all about a hooded anorak. I am not a hat person. And, unfortunately, they might not be the most stylish, but if I were spending more time in Chicago I’d have to resort to Uggs. ... In the 1980s I said to Joan Weinstein (legendary founder of Ultimo), “What do women wear when there are these snowdrifts?” She said, “Patent leather becomes your friend.”
Q: What’s your favorite trend for fall?
A: I’m in love with all of these neon colors in luxurious fabrics because they’re an automatic pick-me-up on a gray day. A trapper hat in orange or a neon pink cashmere sweater, it’s the ultimate urban bright. When you think about a big city in winter, a floral can sometimes look a little ridiculous. Even if it’s just a neon belt or handbag, it lifts your spirits.