He was the odd man out among Bernard Arnault’s string of sea changes; having put McQueen in at Givenchy, Galliano at Christian Dior, and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, shaking up his collection of venerable French luxury brands by handing them over to some of the most irreverent designers of the time. Though just as compelling, Kors’ appointment to Celine lacked the sensationalism those other designers could command. He had no grunge collection, no bumster pants, no theatrical displays of London street energy. He was not, as those designers were then, at the forefront of defining a post-modernist attitude towards luxury. He only had his clothes: well designed and well made, clothes that worked for the wearer and that, in their lush fabrics and exquisite detail, oozed luxury from every seam and stitch rather than by lofty suggestion or subversive association. It’s a focused idea of luxury based on the tenets of simplicity and classicism, an idea of luxury that about 14 years later is perhaps even more compelling as the whole market becomes besieged by the bright and effusive allure of fashion and spectacle.
Kors hesitantly cites the 1970’s as an inspriation but what he really means are the ’30s. It’s an easy enough mistake as the ’70s mined its long lean line, relaxed volumes, and easy casual spirit from that post-depression, inter-war period, and so the two are not all that different. But as it was reprised in the early ’90s, in the form of minimalist luxurious sportswear, the essence is more true to that earlier decade. For Kors and Lauren it served as a refreshing inspiration, especially after a decade of excess, but they aren’t the first to realize it, Armani had known all along.
Explaining his latest collection to Elsa Klensch, Michael Kors speaks with a charming candor that would eventually serve him well in his second career as a fashion critic. You can certainly appreciate the unabashed frankness and lack of pretension as Kors cites country clubs, Newport beach, and Esther Williams as points of reference for his all-American creations. It’s a very matter-of-fact approach to designing; addressing the sometimes deadening reality rather than outlandish ego. How else can you achieve such gems like a trench coat in silk shantung, the T-shirt at night, or swarthy meters of tulle worn merely as an accessory? It’s not Kors’ modernist approach to American sobriety or his unapologetic homage to sportswear that endears you to him, it’s his tireless conviction and complete and utter lack of irony that nabs you. He’s not a designer trying to be something he’s not, and as simple as that sounds, it actually makes out to be one of the rarest qualities in fashion. His mission is to give glamour to women in the easiest way possible and once you get to realizing this it can lead to a wealth of interpretations of his work .
Michael Kors’ fall 1991 campaign starring Christy Turlington and the legendary Polly Mellen
“Not even a chunk of ceiling falling into the middle of the runway could break the concentration at the Michael Kors show at a loft at 119 West 24th Street. Suzy Menkes was clipped on the head by a piece of it, but she moved down the row and accepted a seat from Mr. Neimark. Anna Bayle, who was modeling a camel-hair polo coat, said later that she thought it was a gunshot, but she continued to show the coat. The debris was cleaned up and the show went on.
A fine show it was, as the clothes exuded a light, youthful vigor, in attractive shapes and colors. It began with camel-hair coats and jackets mated with gold tulle skirts and dresses or gold sweaters. These combinations not only blurred the lines between daytime and dress-up clothes, but they had enough insouciance to win a serious place in the fall fashion agenda. Black sequined leggings with camel jackets, and black lace skirts or pants with gold leather coats were other unpredictable juxtapositions.
The basic idea throughout the show was to clothe the body snugly in T-shirts or tights and to throw something loose and fetching over the top. A dirndl-style skirt could be tied over the tights for a bit of fluff.
The clothes had a lot of energy and zip, so the audience overlooked the stunning heat and the collapsing ceiling. It brought into consideration how much they were willing to suffer for fashion.”
– Bernadine Morris for the New York Times, April 11, 1991
Top: Kors and model exude the American ease which would define the designer’s career, photo by Tony Palmieri. Bottom: A look from Kors’ fall 1989 collection, highlighting the designer’s propensity for uncontrived glamour, photo by Thomas Iannaccone.
Like many prominent American designers, Kors executed sportswear with a high level of skill and a fresh perspective, and along with Mizrahi, helped push the genre into the 90’s with a startling relevance. Lauded for his “witty minimalism” and a heavy focus on practicality, Kors took a cue from Calvin Klein’s cleanliness and the bourgeois glamour of Ralph Lauren but sans the former’s relentless starkness and the latter’s sometimes overbearing historicism. You could characterize Kors’work at this time as both intellectual and populist, with his minimalist tendencies hinting at an impressive conceptual and commercial insight. For Kors, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive and they would never escape his work, even if only one of those qualities would seem to leave a lasting mark.