How Michael Kors was Discovered
From the Archives
In 1975, Bergdorf Goodman’s chairman Ira Neimark was facing a serious operation. He wanted to integrate the era’s new fashion zeitgeist onto the sales floor and attract a new generation of customers, but he also needed to retain the trust of his core clientele, who had long relied on Bergdorf’s sales floors to provide their furs, gloves and cashmeres, unruffled by the more eyebrow-raising trends of the Me Generation.
For this delicate mission, he hired as Bergdorf’s fashion director the stylish and formidable Dawn Mello. Ms. Mello had been known for her peerless taste since she’d been hired for the same position at the May Company, at the prodigious age of twenty-two.
Mr. Neimark’s instincts proved impeccable. Dawn Mello possessed a remarkable instinct for predicting trends and a gift for editing that proved legendary. (She would eventually become Bergdorf Goodman’s president.) One of the greatest talents Mello brought to the project was an uncanny gift for catching and mentoring stars on the rise; she had a way of nurturing young designers that inspired their devotion (and made them agree to serve as exclusive BG attractions).
Among the young designers that Ms. Mello plucked from obscurity and groomed for stardom was twenty-three-year-old Michael Kors—who maintains that when they first met thirty-one years ago, he was “an FIT dropout with legwarmers, Peter Frampton hair and a mouthful of bar-pins.”
The sphinxlike Ms. Mello seems, at first, to be an odd match for Mr. Kors, who tends to explode into a room like a giant champagne cork, but sitting in the Bergdorf Goodman restaurant for this interview, it was immediately clear that there is an abiding affection and coziness between them. Within a minute they were finishing each other’s sentences, and by the end of the interview, they were leaning on each other, laughing, clinging to each other’s knees.
Ms. Mello recalled her first glimpse of Mr. Kors.
DAWN MELLO: I was just walking across 57th Street. I looked in a window and saw a mannequin with this wonderful outfit, and a young man was standing on a ladder, working on the mannequin. So I knocked on the window, and he came down. I said, “Can you please tell me the name of the designer that did these clothes?” And he said, “I did.”
“Oh, you designed the clothes?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Is the manager here?”
“No, I’m the manager, I’m selling.”
“You designed the clothes, and you’re selling, and you’re running the store?”
So I said, “Well, what else can you show me? I work in the store across the street. Do you think you could come by and bring your line, maybe show it to our buyers?” And he said, “Well, okay.”
MICHAEL KORS: Quite honestly, I didn’t have a line!
DM: That’s the point: He had no line!
MK: I had no line! It was all one-offs! The minute I met Dawn, I thought, I’ve got to get a line together! I put a fall collection together very quickly—the entire thing was chocolate and black—and I threw it all into a garment bag.
DM: . . . And you came with your mother!
MK: My mom dropped me off. I brought one model with me. I made Dawn and her team sit through what could have been a very long fashion show, with one model changing. By the fourth look, you asked me to excuse myself—I think they got the drift.
DM: I looked at the clothes . . . and they were very much the way they are today, really! It was sportswear, but it had an elegance to it, a refinement that one did not see in sportswear. Michael has a point of view, and of course it broadens and so forth, but it is still very much his look.
The looks were a supreme success; Ms. Mello asked Mr. Kors to supply his line exclusively to Bergdorf Goodman.
DM: We didn’t know, of course, that he didn’t really have a line! We didn’t know he was making the clothes in his apartment.
MK: I called Dawn back. I said, “Well, all of this sounds great, I’m very excited. It’s my dream to be at Bergdorf’s . . . but I want to have a trunk show.” I didn’t really know what a trunk show was! I remember just reading that Bill Blass and Oscar [de la Renta] did these trunk shows. Dawn said, “Well, we’d love to have you do a trunk show, and we’d love to do windows for you.” I didn’t mention that we were going to literally have each piece individually sewn, hand-cut in my apartment on 23rd Street.
DM: I remember we would say, “How is he going to handle this? Could he really have a trunk show? How will he know how to do this?”
MK: I didn’t know that anyone in the store would press or steam things—no one had told me about UPS—so I put each garment in a zippered garment bag—style number one, style number two, style number three—laid them flat on the backseat of my aunt’s Mercedes-Benz, and delivered them to receiving on 58th Street.
Did Ms. Mello ever anticipate that Michael Kors would become the fashion and media mogul that he has become?
DM: Never! He was a guy changing a window at Lothar’s. It wasn’t until we saw how he related to the customer. He wanted to come in every Saturday and sell. It was very unusual to have a young designer come into the store and do a trunk show and open himself up. . . . His little boutique was about the size of these four tables.
MK: It was small, but it was a boutique! It was my spot on 5th Avenue—but before I moved in that department was called ‘Country Casual’, which is kind of genius. [They erupt in laughter.]
DM: He was there every day to wait on the customers, and that wasn’t common—it was a much more formal time. He was really part of the team, and really why it was so successful. Joan Rivers would come in—really well-known personalities . . . Mrs. Kennedy.
MK: Yes, Mrs. Kennedy. She was not a trunk show customer, she was a discreet, regular client.
DM: She’d come in a ragged raincoat, so that nobody would recognize her.
MK: Yeah, super low-key. I think I met Nan Kempner for the first time here.
DM: Nan Kempner was a society lady, very important at that time.
MK: I remember thinking to myself: If you can dress a woman like Nan Kempner, who’s worn it all, seen it all, done it all, and she’s still excited by what you do, then you’re doing something right.
When I started doing trunk shows here, literally, I’d casually throw the clothes all along the floor. We’d have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of samples, and we’d sit there and I’d say, “No, I’d skip the tank top, I’d go with the turtleneck.” I learned from Bergdorf customers that just because something was indulgent, or glamorous, or luxurious, didn’t mean—and shouldn’t mean—that it’s precious. There’s something called everyday luxury. It was the greatest education. I don’t care how successful a designer is: When you lose a connection to real life, and real people, and how they live, you’re designing in a vacuum. There was an understanding from seeing how the customer lived . . . a real camaraderie. I was always interested to hear: Where are you going? Where do you go on vacation? How you live? Do you work? Do you not work?
DM: And “Does your husband know you’re here?”
MK: New York women, especially Bergdorf women, are very forthcoming. They’ll tell you everything . . . sometimes too much! In the 80s, pantyhose with no underwear seemed to be a trend. I was kind of shocked that women would come out of the fitting room bare-bottomed! Now I realize maybe they thought I was a rock star, you know, that this was all acceptable.
DM: We had a problem keeping him exclusively, because of course all the stores wanted to have a Michael Kors boutique. And the rest is history. I just saw the latest show that Michael did, and I was so moved by it, because it reminded me so much of the first show he ever did. It’s very beautiful, and I think it was the best collection shown in the last New York collections. It was beautifully presented—the way it was put together was just the same as it was in those days. When you think how many years ago that was, and still to have the same point of view—! Most designers change point of view several times through a career. His work is very up to date, but still it’s sportswear, it’s for women of all ages, whether you are sixteen or sixty, it’s clothes that you want to have in your closet forever.
MK: I think the greatest thing I learned from Dawn and her team, and the customers in Bergdorf’s who expect the best, was to aim high. Don’t settle. She’s a stickler for things really being beautifully done. When you’re young, you’re impatient—but she taught me, It’s okay, you don’t have to rush. Slow and steady will win the race. And, here I am, thirty-one years later. When Dawn and her team came, Bergdorf’s was about luxury and wonderful service, but there was no energy in the store. I think the store today has heritage and energy, and if you can balance those two things, that’s the magic in fashion. BG
CINTRA WILSON is a culture critic, author and frequent contributor to The New York Times. Her books include A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease, the novel Colors Insulting to Nature, Caligula for President: Better American Living through Tyranny and the upcoming Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America’s Fashion Destiny, which will be released by W.W. Norton in 2012.