The Business Proposals that Built a Billionaire: Michael Kors edition

blog_michael-korsIn February, fashion designer Michael Kors was added to the world’s billionaires. Since his company went public in late 2011, Kors’ personal fortune has been inching toward the one billion mark. At last, he has arrived.

Kors, you might say, was always destined for stardom. He starred in a Lucky Charms commercial in 1964 during a brief stint as a child actor (his mother, Joan, was a model with plenty of connections).

Kors has had a long and illustrious career in fashion, and reaching billionaire status is simply the latest in his long list of accomplishments. You see Kors is literally a man who has made a name for himself. Born Karl Anderson, Jr., at age five, with the arrival of his mother’s second marriage to a man by the name of “Kors,” young Karl was permitted to rechristen himself.

The name he chose: Michael David Kors. In a youthful act of foreshadowing, Kors designed his mother’s wedding dress. She, however, was but the first great lady to wear his threads.

An abbreviated list of Michael Kors’ celebrity clientele includes Catherine-Zeta Jones, Alicia Keys, Heidi Klum, and Jennifer Lopez. First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, donned a sleek black Kors number for her first official White House portrait.

Kors’ career stretches back to the late-1970s, when he dropped out of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and decided to go it alone, selling his designs in a tiny corner of the boutique where he worked. Since then, Kors has seen ups and down, but most recently, it’s all been clear sailing, landing the designer among the world’s billionaires.

Let’s take a look at the business proposals that made Michael Kors one of the newest billionaires of the fashion industry.

Billionaire Business Proposal Tip #1: When opportunity knocks…

After leaving FIT, Kors went took a job at New York boutique, Lothar’s. As part of the deal, Kors was allowed to showcase his own designs in a limited manner in the store. Kors accepted the modest business proposal, and doing so proved to be a fateful decision.

While setting up some clothes (of his own design) in the window of the shop, his work caught the eye of Dawn Mello, who was then employed by Bergdorf Goodman across the street. Mello knocked on the window to inquire as to the designer of the clothes going up in the window might. Mello’s interest spurred Kors to go ahead and start his own collection. Within a year, Kors’ collection was for sale in Bergdorf Goodman; a little later, Saks Fifth Avenue.

All it took to get his brand off the ground, was a little recognition. He noticed it, and took the actions necessary to follow through on it.

Billionaire Business Proposal Tip #2: The French Connection

Despite a string of successes in the first decade and a half of his career, Kors ran into problems in the early 1990s. He filed for bankruptcy in 1993.

To recover, he re-launched his brand shortly thereafter, with a new lower price point. Though the reinvigorated eponymously-named brand was slowly taking root, Kors’ real rebound came when he became ready-to-wear designer for French fashion house, Celine in 1997.

That year, the business proposal came from Celine. Kors accepted the proposal and would go on to spend the next six years at Celine, before leaving in 2003 to turn his attention to his own company once again.

At the time, Kors was quoted as stating that he was none too remiss about leaving the French label for bigger and better things.

“I feel like Carrie Bradshaw,” Kors said, referring to the Sex and the City character who left Paris in the series’ final episode. “I’m not sorry to leave Paris at all. I’ve done a great job, but it’s time to move on and do my own thing.”


Billionaire Business Proposal Tip #3: Think expansion, but keep it simple

Kors is of course primarily known for his classic American-styled women’s wear. Nevertheless, in 2002, Kors launched a full line of menswear. That business proposal also proved fruitful. The following year, Kors was awarded CDFA’s prestigious “Menswear Designer of the Year.”

Kors’ menswear collection reflects his minimalist ethos (though he rejects the descriptor “minimalist”). Kors’ designs are free from overly ornate trends which he says only serve to date his designs.

Back in 1985, Kors told The New York Times, “The basic concept has remained the same. It’s based on simple shapes, all of which can go together. There is no detail, including a button, that doesn’t have a reason for being there.”

Kors thus applied the minimalism and sensibility (the simplicity, you might say) that had made his women’s wear designs successful to menswear, with welcome results.

Entrepreneur Julio De Laffitte describes the kind of thing that Kors has done in getting into the menswear business as a logical “zig.” De Laffitte reminds us that the best way to expand is to pick the next most relevant thing and do that. If you make pencils, why not erasers? For Kors, it was menswear, the next logical zig, to women’s “zag.”

Billionaire Business Proposal Tip #4: Raise your profile

In 2004, Kors was invited to join the judges on the then fledgling Project Runway television fashion design competition. Accepting the business proposal, Kors once again found himself in front of the cameras.

The show became a success and brought Michael Kors into worldwide households on a weekly basis, elevating his profile. Though Kors left in advance of the 2013 season of Project Runway, Kors certainly enjoyed the boost given to him by judging the competition.

During the 2011 initial public offering (IPO) of his company, Kors capitalized on his elevated profile. The company is sold in 47.2 million shares at around $20 each. At the time, it was the largest fashion industry IPO in history. The stock eventually doubled to $47 per share.

What do you think about Michael Kors’ billion-dollar fashion empire?

Kors has made a succession of great moves – and admittedly, a mistake or two. There’s a lot to learn about seizing opportunities, making connections, expanding as appropriate, and elevating your profile.

These are all lessons that any entrepreneur can take something away from. What do you think Kors has done best? What could he have done better? We’d love to hear from you in the comment space below.


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