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What’s It All About, Michael Kors?

© Francois Dischinger

The king of American jet-set fashion is flying high.

Fresh from his vacation in Palm Springs, where he stays at Frank Sinatra’s old midcentury modern estate, with its piano-shaped pool, Michael Kors looks especially trim and seems ebullient and extra tan. “Michael,” he says by way of explanation and with a pitch-perfect Karl Lagerfeld accent, imitating the Chanel designer’s response to seeing him, “you take too many vacations!” Kors, who could best be described as a comedic teddy bear with a Protestant work ethic on speed, is a prolific traveler with inexhaustible curiosity. Now he’s in London, and we’re walking the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Tate Modern. Tonight he’ll see The Bodyguard. “I do love a mix of high and lowbrow culture,” he jokes.

Spend time with Kors and you’ll see he’s a unique combination of impulsive and pragmatic. By his own admission he’s a “black-belt shopper,” purchasing what he loves with abandon. But he will also, according to insiders, fiddle for hours with the pockets on a dress or the clasp on a purse. “I spend a lot of time making sure it all works; I’m a creative problem solver,” he says, conceding that he’s not the most talented designer. “I don’t design to make a statement. If I make something no one wears, then it’s dead. Commerce has always been part of the equation.”

The irony is, of course, that Kors—branded standard-bearer of American sportswear on Time’s latest 100 Most Influential People in the World list—has long been about outfitting the wealthy in the ultimate jet-set wardrobe. With his clothes worn by a coterie of women most designers only dream of attracting—Jackie O., Nan Kempner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama—Kors is an American sartorial success story turned must-buy stock. And he’s reaping the benefits: According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, he’s worth $925 million. Billionaire status is within reach; in fact, he’d have the title had he not reduced his ownership to 2.4 percent from almost 12 percent through a number of secondary offerings. But that’s beside the point.

To ask how Kors, 53, got here when plenty of others in his field have not is to ignore a number of factors. First, he has design chops: He created his luxury line in 1981, at age 21, after the legendary Dawn Mello of Bergdorf Goodman discovered his simple, elegantly tailored clothes in a tiny boutique opposite the tony department store. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1993 forced him to rethink his brand, but he stayed true to his point of view. By 1997 he was creative director of French luxury house Céline. Two years later he outfitted Rene Russo for her role in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, creating a blueprint for what many women hovering around the 40-year watershed still regard as the benchmark for how to dress.

Then there’s what advertisers call household penetration. In 2004 he became a judge on the Emmy-winning Project Runway, securing exactly the right kind of broad exposure for his name and more affordable line, MICHAEL Michael Kors, which also launched in 2004. “Everyone thinks designers are creative only, but you can’t get where Michael is on creativity alone,” says designer Vera Wang, who’s known Kors since she was a Vogue editor in the ’80s. “He’s also a realist. His success lies in that he’s both left-brained and right-brained.”

He’s also had great help by way of Hong Kong businessman Silas Chou and Canadian fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll. The powerful partnership behind Ralph Lauren’s global success during the ’80s bought a majority interest in Kors’s company in 2003, nakedly targeting it as a billion-dollar proposition and vowing to go public within the decade. (The IPO—the biggest in fashion history—came eight years later.) “Where most designers have a building-block approach to expansion and IPO,” says retail legend Howard Davidowitz of Davidowitz & Associates, “Kors has done everything in multiples and in record time. It’s been a brilliant approach.”

While Kors says that he’s not into aha moments, “because you can’t let your success separate you from the world,” he didn’t expect to ring the opening bell on Wall Street in 2011. “But then again, I never thought there would be a Michael Kors Kuala Lumpur, either,” he says. “Early on, my idea of global was Toronto.”

At his flagship store on Madison Avenue, women of all ages, shapes and sizes wait with jersey dresses, dip-dye tanks and silk pants for the next available register. In the small-leather-goods section, totes (starting at $200) and clutches (from $200) are reached for three at a time. Repeat the scene in each of his 388 stores in 85 countries, not to mention 2,946 department stores around the world. There’s room for plenty more global expansion, too. And consider: Worth $283 billion in 2012, the world luxury goods market, says Bloomberg retail analyst Poonam Goyal, is expected to grow to as much as $333 billion in 2015. Roughly one third of this figure—$76.4 billion—is accessories. Eighty percent of Kors’s sales is accessories.

“There are things in your wardrobe you always grab for,” he says, explaining his phenomenally successful modus operandi. “If I’m doing my job properly, you’ll always want to grab for me.” Amen to that.

The Sinatra House is available to anyone, not just Michael Kors, for $2,600 a night in season; 877-318-2090; beaumondevillas.com.