Michael Kors on How L.A. Shaped His Aesthetic and American Fashion

“Oh my god, they transformed this place,” said Mindy Kaling, walking into Los Angeles icon Canter’s Deli, which Michael Kors took over Tuesday night for the ultimate high-low dinner party catered by Spago, naturally.

“I don’t think I’ve been here in the daylight,” she said of the spot, beloved for nearly 100 years for its pastrami and since the ’60s for its after-hours Kibitz Room, where Joni Mitchell, Slash, the Wallflowers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more have performed — and where DJ Kitty Ca$h got the after party going on Tuesday.

“This is my vibe,” said Olivia Wilde, looking very Michael Kors in a white tank top, slinky skirt and double leather belt.

Friends new and old spanning the designer’s 40-year love affair with L.A., including Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union-Wade, Dwyane Wade, Marisa Tomei, Quinta Brunson and Shailene Woodley, came out to dine on Wolfgang Puck smoked salmon pizza, wagyu steak and MKC black and white cookies — and to celebrate Kors’ return to Rodeo Drive with a new store that opened last month.

“You bring what I do to life,” Kors said, toasting his guests and explaining the one-night-only Canter’s/Spago mash-up. “This is L.A., this is hot dogs in evening gowns.”

As ever, the designer charmed everyone, including next gen up-and-comers Alexandra Shipp, Kaitlyn Dever, Zoey Deutch and writer/actress Rose Gilroy, whose mother Rene Russo starred in the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” wearing clothing by Michael Kors for Celine.

Alexandra Shipp and Rose Gilroy

Alexandra Shipp and Rose Gilroy

Roger Kisby/WWD

“Your mother said to me, ‘I’m finally making a movie where I can actually be beautiful. I always avoided doing films where I’d be perceived as a model,’” Kors told Gilroy, sharing that one of his VIP clients was so taken with Russo in the role, she ordered everything she wore onscreen, and dyed her hair to look like her.

Although Kors is synonymous with New York City, both his parents and grandparents lived in L.A. for years. He also credits L.A. with helping to develop his aesthetic as a designer, he said over iced tea at the Polo Lounge Tuesday morning, where he was wearing jeans and a “Summerland” T-shirt from the Montecito, Calif., suburb where he often spends time in August.

The High-low L.A. Look

“I think back to the ’80s before I had my own retail stores, and I was here doing a trunk show probably at Neiman Marcus and every woman when they came in looked at a great jacket or they looked at a great coat or a great shirt and said, ‘I love it, but if it doesn’t work with jeans, I don’t do it,’” he said.

“Everyone is so fixated on New York in American fashion, but the reality is California is where the rules broke. This is where people wear sneakers with dresses. This is the global epicenter of high low.…So when we were going to do this dinner, I said, ‘What are the quintessential Los Angeles experiences?’”

Kors is an enthusiastic supporter of quintessential experiences in every city, whether it’s Broadway, Sardi’s, Tavern on the Green and E.A.T. in New York, where he’s drawn inspiration and hosted shows and events, or Lucy’s El Adobe, Pink’s and Canter’s in L.A., where he often took his late mom, Joan Kors.

“I was trying to explain to my team how the Kibitz Room was this weird, punk rock, post-club place, and then the next day you’d see people on walkers going to get a cookie,” Kors said of the spot on Fairfax Avenue in a neighborhood known locally as L.A.’s bagel belt. “And then Spago, when you think about the Vanity Fair Oscars parties, Wolfgang Puck and Swifty Lazar…if we can merge these two, I thought that is the ultimate high-low L.A.”

Over the years, the Hollywood jet set, Cher, Lauren Bacall and Tony Duquette’s “Dawnridge” have been among the L.A. inspirations for Kors collections. And he’s still got the fever, heading straight from the plane Monday night to have dinner at the newly revived Art Deco gem The Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica. (The John Waters exhibition at the Academy Museum is also on his to-do list, along with furniture shopping.)

“I could work off mood boards just from the Beverly Hills Hotel alone, the same with Venice and the Sunset Strip,” he said. “My first account in Los Angeles was a store that was on Rodeo Drive called Lina Lee and it was Judith Krantz ‘Scruples’ with ceiling fans and peacock chairs. And then we sold Maxfield early on, too.…I love Hollywood glamour. I love beach culture. I love the high low….I also love the whole idea of how the rules are broken about age. You know, it used to be like, no, you can’t wear that if you’re that age.…In L.A., never. You have a 20-year-old dressed like a doyenne and a 60-year-old dressed like a teenager.”

michael kors canters dinner RK 28

The scene at Canter’s Deli.

Roger Kisby/WWD

Hollywood Haunts

Ensconced in a booth under a heat lamp on the leafy patio of the Pink Palace, Kors recalled one of his first Beverly Hills Hotel celebrity sightings when he was at lunch by the pool with his grandparents. “I see this incredibly elegant woman dressed to the nines, full jewelry, hair done, and she’s with this man who is so old Hollywood with the pocket square and ascot. Everyone else is in a swimsuit,” he said. “It was Cyd Charisse and her husband Tony Martin. They were sitting and playing cards.”

He also loves Barney’s Beanery, newly discovered by Gen Z and the final spot Janis Joplin visited before she died. “It’s like a time capsule.”

Venice? “I remember when it first became an artist spot.…Everyone associates [Jean-Michel] Basquiat with New York but you have to remember that Larry [Gagosian] started everything here,” he said of the artist producing much of his early work in L.A., and the burgeoning art dealer opening his first gallery — a poster shop — in Westwood. “There are so many layers here that I don’t know if everyone sees. You get the grime and the glitz, and the cool thing is L.A. has always had both.”

Kors opened his first store on Rodeo Drive in 2004; it closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the new spot is smaller and closer to Wilshire. “The street feels alive again,” he said of Rodeo, noting that the store is for tourists, for locals and celebrity dressing.

The Celebrity Factor

“They bring it to life in a way that people who are not in the public eye get to look at a specific celebrity and say, ‘Oh, I kind of relate to her. I relate to him. If they could wear it maybe I could,’” Kors said. “Olivia Wilde, for instance. I’m a huge fan of her incredible talent, of course. But she’ll try different things. We did short shorts, we opened the runway show with them, and a lot of people over 30 would say I can’t wear that. But seeing Olivia in them, an adult wearing it, brings it to life.”

Olivia Wilde

Olivia Wilde

Roger Kisby/WWD

Kors is also a celebrity himself, of course, after 10 seasons of “Project Runway,” which was primarily shot in New York, with one season in L.A.

Immediately, everyone assumed he’d write his own script, do a story about his life. But no — at least not yet. For one, the business is in a sensitive position, with The Federal Trade Commission suing to block Tapestry Inc.’s $8.5 billion acquisition of Capri Holdings, parent company of Kors, which saw a decline in fourth-quarter sales in line with the broader fashion slowdown.

It’s a long way from his days packing and shipping boxes, or doodling MK logos in his school notebook. “Of course, business hopefully progresses and evolves and changes. And this is all part of the process.…Did I ever honestly think that I’d walk down the street in Paris, walk down the street in Tokyo, and we’d be there? No. But you’re in fashion so you better be ready for what’s going to change.”

What’s selling well now? “The dichotomy is what’s happening for spring. An explosion of femininity with all this lace or sharply tailored. No one is interested in the middle.”

Welcome to the world.

“What happens now is you have to be more thoughtful than ever as a designer.…The consumer is looking at it and saying, ‘I don’t want to just wear it once. I want it to have versatility. With the weather, it better transcend any season.’ What’s working and resonating is things that check all of those boxes. And then of course, if it’s too pragmatic, everyone’s like, I want joy. And then if it’s too joyous, it’s the one shot. I know after 43 years, when it’s shaky in the world at large you’ve got to stay your course,” he said. “It’s up to me and designers in general to do what makes you feel wonderful when you wear something but doesn’t make you feel stupid for spending the money.”

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