Is Michael Kors a great designer?

The language of style.
Oct. 18 2006 5:32 PM

Michael Kors

He's a great Project Runway judge. But is he a great American designer?

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In the absence of much choice, Kors' many die-hard customers—well-heeled women who work and well-heeled women who don't, but want to convey the efficient independence of those who do—rely on his easy way with chic. But in order to expand the business, the company must attract a larger pool of clients. In 2003, industry veterans Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll bought a controlling interest in the Michael Kors brand, and in August they announced plans to open 100 stores worldwide. The company is banking on a cross-merchandising strategy aimed at drawing big spenders and budget-conscious shoppers into the same stores. Each will sell clothes at several price points: The Collection—or runway—label will hang alongside two accessibly priced "diffusion" labels: Kors Michael Kors at the "bridge" price and Michael Michael Kors at the lower tier. The plan also calls for expansion of the men's offerings and the potentially lucrative accessory collections.

The partners clearly mean business: Company President John Idol spoke of the brand's $1 billion potential. But it's not clear that Kors' newfound TV stardom will make this effort more successful than earlier, failed strategies. The house filed for bankruptcy in 1991 after its initial push into diffusion lines, and all three of the current collections have suffered setbacks. Idol told WWD in August that performance on the runway collection has been "pretty good"—executive-speak for "weak." Here's where the situation gets sticky for Michael Kors: If megabrands like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Zara sell what is essentially the same well-made, well-priced, cable-knit sweater that he sells, what makes his more enticing?

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On Project Runway, Kors asks the questions that have consistently led American designers to create great clothes: What do real women wear? What makes simple clothes look new? The Michael Kors look feels nostalgic, not innovative; classy, but uninspired. It is possible that Kors' time has finally come. Consider once again those ads that show rich people doing what rich people do: These days, celebrity is the ultimate American dream. But does anyone other than Paris Hilton get all dolled up to board a private jet? Who's on the tarmac to see? If Claire McCardell were designing today, you can bet she'd have a newer idea about what looking American means right now.

Josh Patner has written about fashion for Slate, the New York TimesBritish Vogue, Glamour, Elle, and Harper's Bazaar.