Optimism is in the spring air, at least as far as the fashion world is concerned. And few manage to encapsulate the current zeitgeist as well as American designer Michael Kors, who's currently celebrating three successful decades in the business. The luxe sportswear king, who always has a profound understanding of just how his customers aspire to live, has a lot going on these days: Besides the fact that his label is "on fire," as Holt Renfrew president Mark Derbyshire recently put it, Kors has a new lifestyle emporium in the works for Toronto's tony Bloor Street West and has just opened a swish new Paris store on Rue Saint-Honoré. I caught up with the designer at the new shop in the City of Light, where, among the crocodile bags and rubber flip-flops, he talked about Paris, the thrill of shopping and the importance of being authentic.
JEANNE BEKER: This [store]is a fantasy come true, not only for you, but for me, who has witnessed your incredible rise. I've watched you over the years, nose to the grindstone. This is it, baby! You've arrived!
Michael Kors: Listen, when I first started thirty years ago … and I think we met back then in the eighties ... I thought that Toronto was a [prize]nternational destination for an American designer! The last thing I thought when I first started was that we'd not only have stores in the States, but a store in Paris, of this calibre. And it's so personal for me, to be here on the Rue Saint-Honoré. You know I spent eight years here [as head designer]at Céline! So this is kind of a homecoming for me. And you know, it is the centre of fashion.
JB: Was it a fantasy in the back of your mind even as a young designer starting out: One day I'll take Paris?
MK: As a movie buff and the kind of pop-culture kid that I was, I had seen Funny Face about 15 times by the time I was 10. And when you see Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson arrive and say 'Bonjour Paris!' … well, you know, there's always been the glamour and the romance of Paris. So, yeah, I always thought, 'Maybe some day,' but I never planned it. I've always been one of those slow and steady guys. I would concentrate on what I was working on at that minute. And I look around today and this is our largest store in the world. And it's the only store where we have the kind of mix of product that I've designed all under one roof.
JB: That must feel good, a holistic kind of vision.
MK: Oh, yeah. We have everything in this store, from a rubber flip-flop to a crocodile handbag to a hand-beaded evening gown to a cute dress for someone who's going to work.
JB: With all that's available now online and with all the people saying that the way we shop is really changing, there's still something to be said about a great retail environment.
MK: I call it the rush of the tissue, the rush of the bag, the touching. I love to shop online, which I think is great, but, in a weird way, it's the way I look at the magazine world. I certainly love to look at things on my iPad, but I still like to have it in my hand. I think shopping is the same thing. You get to enjoy the discovery of shopping in person, which is very different than shopping online.
JB: Style really has a such a global nature these days. Those international borders have dissipated for the most part. But still, is there the feeling of being an American in Paris - having an American sensibility - or is there such a thing in Paris?
MK: I think there's the cliché that if you don't spend a lot of time in Paris, people think, "Oh, it's Paris and it's perfumed madames with dogs and jewels." And in fact I think the French women I got to know very well while I was working here during the time I spent at Céline are in fact very sporty. So when you say 'American sportswear designer,' well, I think you think about playing with separates and the idea of something casual and you think of nautical and you think of all of these things. And sometimes people think that's very American. But actually most French women I know like sportswear because they can put their own spin on it. So I actually think Paris is sportier than Texas, let's say, but I think that the fun thing for me about being a designer in this city is everywhere you look you are always inspired. The architecture, the shopping is unparalleled, but it also provides the greatest people watching. That's what I love about Paris. There are grande dames with poodles and I love them. There are fabulous, trendy young girls; there are the fashion folk. It's a city where if you could you would just say, "Alright, this is the greatest fashion film in the world! Just pull up a chair and watch!"
JB: The sidewalks are the ultimate catwalks. Meanwhile, in this shop, there's such a spirit of optimism, really emblematic of what you stand for and who you are and the way you see the world.
MK: It's very personal, I have to say. I think that to be successful in fashion you have to be authentic to who you are as a designer and as a person. I think women are so smart. So when something seems inauthentic, I think that she skips it. And I have always believed you can be chic and have a sense of humour. You can be sexy and be comfortable. I actually feel incredibly amazed after all these years that I've been so lucky and fortunate to do what I love and do well at it. And I think it's a wonderful thing to be able to know when you're 14 what you want to do. And to be successful at it. And to be doing it now for 30 years is amazing.
JB: Well, I think your mother raised you well. I think that's the answer.
MK: That's what it is! There you go. You know what, my mom, who was always encouraging and supportive of me when I was growing up, always said, 'Do what you love.' It's very hard to find the energy to work that hard if you don't love it. I don't think of it as work. It's just the life I live.
Jeanne Beker is the host of FashionTelevision.
This interview has been edited and condensed.