Michael Kors and André Leon Talley Think the World Needs More Sparkle
No one in fashion can tell a story quite like Michael Kors, with the exception, that is, of André Leon Talley. The champion of jet-set style and the legendary fashion journalist—and longtime editor at Vogue—both embody a gregarious, dishy mirth that harkens back to the pinnacle of American glamour, when New York nightlife was a glittery, gregarious melting pot of socialites and Hollywood sirens. It makes sense, then, that Kors’s latest collection was inspired by Studio 54—the storied institution where he and Talley were both regulars and where their dreams of being in fashion were calcified. From his retail beginnings at Lothar’s, the trendsetting boutique on 57th Street, to his stint as one of the first Americans in Paris at Céline, and now his reign as one of the most well-known designers of our time—boasting more than 850 namesake stores across the globe—Kors has certainly made good on his youthful aspirations. Early on a morning in Midtown Manhattan, Kors and Talley met up to chat about the lost energy of the disco scene and why the world is in dire need of some sparkle.
ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY: I recently saw an extraordinary photograph that said so much about you. It was in Tonne Goodman’s book Point of View. It was Michelle Obama in the Red Room in the White House. She had on this sweater—cashmere, I assume—and a belt on this huge, extraordinary, long dinner skirt with a bustle and taffeta. I said,“Oh my god, what is that?” Tonne said,“It’s Michael Kors.” I think it’s one of the most extraordinary images of what you can do.
MICHAEL KORS: When Mrs. Obama did her first official portrait, she wore a Michael Kors dress. Black, very sleek, sleeveless, no jacket, no frills. We had no idea she was going to wear it. We made the dress for her, but I didn’t know what it was for. When Annie [Leibovitz] shot that picture of Mrs. Obama, I thought,“How can you be both regal and extravagant, but at the same time modern and laid back?” We all talk about global and international and all of that, but what did we invent in America?
TALLEY: Simplicity. American comfort. Natural elegance.
KORS: That picture sums it up.
TALLEY: It’s extraordinary. Do you sit at home and watch Big Little Lies?
KORS: Are you kidding? I’m obsessed. I just got back from Big Sur. I kept thinking, “Are people having Big Little Lies parties? Are you Celeste?” My husband is definitely Bonnie. He’s going to be a yoga instructor, and I’m a little afraid that I could be Madeline. I’m a little high strung. None of us are Meryl.
TALLEY: Oh, no, no one wants to be Meryl.
KORS: Nicole is wearing Michael Kors for her big courtroom scene.
TALLEY: Laura Dern could be better dressed. I don’t really like her suits.
KORS: There are no women wearing power clothes in that part of California. They would never.
TALLEY: Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?
KORS: I had dinner with Andy.
TALLEY: Tell us about that.
KORS: We had dinner at Le Colonial. I had a woman working for me at the time who was very attractive and came from a sort of old-guard family. Andy sat next to me at dinner and he said,“That woman who works for you, she’s really great looking.” He said, “She’s very stylish. Is her family very rich?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Why does she work?” I said, “I think she enjoys it.”
TALLEY: That’s so Andy.
KORS: All he wanted to know was if I could recommend any good lesbian bars, and if I trusted Diana Ross. I said yes to both. I think we sent him to the Cubbyhole. I said, “Andy, go to the Cubbyhole.” He said, “I don’t want to go. I just want to know.” He had vitamins for dinner.
TALLEY: On a plate?
KORS: He had vitamins on a plate. That’s what he got.
TALLEY: Just the pills? I’ve never heard of that. Did you know he had a whole wardrobe of wigs? I never knew he had wigs until he died.
KORS: You didn’t realize there was a different wig for every moment?
TALLEY: No, I just thought that was his hair.
KORS: You do know that I went to Bette Midler’s Hulaween benefit dressed as Andy.
TALLEY: I’m sure you did a very good Andy. Who is your favorite drag queen?
KORS: Give me Divine. Give me Lady Bunny.
TALLEY: I love Divine because she was in those great John Waters films.
KORS: I remember being a teenager and seeing those movies and being at once repelled, and then I couldn’t stop looking.
TALLEY: How many days of the week did you go to Studio 54?
KORS: Too many. We used to have this theory. We thought the best nights to go were work nights. That’s when the best people went.
TALLEY: That’s exactly right. Not the weekends, with the Tunnel crowd.
KORS: Listen, I’m a Long Island boy.
TALLEY: The Tunnel crowd is only New Jersey.
KORS: Sunday night was always fun because it was the hairdressers’ night off. It was a wild night, always. At the time, revolved around Interview, WWD, Vogue, and The New York Times. The socialites were everything to me. I remember the first time I saw Nan Kempner. She was sitting on the banquette.
TALLEY: Wearing what?
KORS: I don’t even remember what she was wearing, because what ended up happening was so crazy. I saw her with her group and they were kind of looking in the banquette, like they had lost something. My friend was a jewelry designer, and he said, “Oh, she really looks upset. She’s lost something.” Then we were on the dance floor and we saw someone pick up something shiny. We walked over and said, “Did you just find apiece of jewelry?” he said, “Yes, I found this.” He held up a David Webb rock crystal lion’s head bracelet.
TALLEY: And it was Nan Kempner’s.
KORS: Of course, we knew it was Nan’s. We went over and said, “Mrs. Kempner, did you lose a piece of jewelry?” She said, “I did.” We showed her the bracelet and she said, “You darling boys. Sit down and have champagne. I love you more than life.”
TALLEY: That’s just wonderful.
KORS: At Studio 54, you had college students, high school kids, and drag queens, sitting with Nan Kempner. That’s what was so amazing.
TALLEY: You can’t recreate that kind of energy.
KORS: The phone has ruined it. We all felt free to do whatever we wanted and dress however we wanted.
TALLEY: And be whatever we wanted.
KORS: Because none of it was recorded.
TALLEY: What was the most shocking thing you ever saw at 54? People were having sex in the balcony.
KORS: Everyone was having sex in the balcony. The most shocking thing, when you think about it, is that… A lot of people were so high on quaaludes that you would see them fall down the stairs and go directly onto the dance floor, and not even consider that they had just fallen down two flights of steps. People were rubber.
TALLEY: Was it not the most liberating experience to go to Studio 54?
KORS: Instead of going to my high school prom, I went to Studio 54. When I walked in, I thought, “I’m Dorothy and this is Oz.”
TALLEY: It gave you the incentive to be part of that life. You wanted that world. You wanted to be in the same place with Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Martha Graham. You just had this wonderful fall show and you did this marvelous puffer coat with the Studio 54 logo.
KORS: We wanted the boys to look like they were off-duty dancers. I always loved the logo. I have the invitation from opening night. But you know what? They were rough times when you think about it. New York was really in the toilet. We had the heat, the blackout, Son of Sam, the economy collapsed. And here we are now. To me, you have to fight back with glamour. What else can you do?
TALLEY: The suburban woman has a Michael Kors bag. I don’t care what restaurant you go to, I don’t care where you go in the city, there is a Michael Kors handbag. How many handbags a week do they make in your factory?
KORS: Oh my god, it’s uncountable. I’m a bad mathematician. I just moved into a new apartment, and we found my high school yearbook. I hadn’t seen it in forever. Every girl I went to school with wrote, “When you have a store on Fifth Avenue, can I come and get a Michael Kors handbag?”
TALLEY: In high school you were already thinking about fashion?
KORS: Fashion and theater were the obsessions.
TALLEY: And you chose fashion.
KORS: I can’t sing, I’m a shitty dancer, and I can never remember my lines. Fashion it is.
TALLEY: I’m going to say some names and you’re going to give one word to describe them. Bette Midler.
TALLEY: Carole Lombard.
TALLEY: Marlene Dietrich.
TALLEY: Nancy Pelosi.
KORS: Michael Kors wearer.
TALLEY: Nicole Kidman.
TALLEY: Of all your collections, which is your favorite?
KORS: The last one, always.
TALLEY: After you have that day of showing your collection, what do you do to unwind? Where do you go?
KORS: I’m a beach bum. Get me to Capri. Get me to our house in Florida. Get me somewhere warm where I can put my phone down. I don’t want to look at anything.
TALLEY: Do you cook at the beach?
KORS: I grill. You don’t want me to do more than that. I can grill a steak. I can boil a lobster. I can grill corn, and I actually make a good Caesar salad, because I’m very American.
TALLEY: If you could design a dress for any famous person, who would it be?
KORS: I want to design the inaugural look for our first female president.
TALLEY: That would be fabulous.
KORS: It’s overdue. That, to me, is the dream commission.
TALLEY: That’s where we’re moving.
KORS: I’ve spent almost 40 years dressing women of every age, every nationality, size, and color, from Zendaya to Nancy Pelosi. We run the gamut. Whoever it might be, as long as she’s smart and talented, which I know she will be, I want to be there. I drop my hat in the ring.
This article appears in the fall 2019 50th anniversary issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.