Michael Kors’s love affair with New York City runs deep. He grew up in Merrick, Long Island, and would make regular treks into Manhattan as a teen. He later moved into the city to attend both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Studio 54. Kors became a regular at the latter after dropping out of the former to work at Lothar’s, a high-end boutique on 57th Street in Midtown. There, he waited on the shop’s glittery clientele, which included people like Rudolf Nureyev and Cher, and soon began designing the in-house line. One day, the late Dawn Mello, the legendary fashion director credited with reviving the nearby fashion mecca Bergdorf Goodman in the 1970s, spied Kors tending to the windows at Lothar’s in an outfit she found intriguing. Mello approached Kors and asked him where he got his clothes; he replied that he’d designed them himself. And thus, in 1981, Michael Kors Collection debuted, launching the career of a designer who now leads a global fashion empire—and who continues to be inspired by the ever-changing cultures and rhythms of New York.
This year, Kors celebrates his 40th year in business. He marked the occasion this past April by staging a blockbuster runway show in Times Square. An international, multigenerational mix of ur-supermodels—Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Paloma Elsesser, Karen Elson, Bella Hadid, Shalom Harlow, Liya Kebede, Precious Lee—paraded down Broadway in looks from Kors’s fall collection. Among them was Russian-born Irina Shayk, now herself a New Yorker of more than a decade. For Shayk, the idea of working in fashion—and living in New York—wasn’t even a pipe dream when she was growing up in the village of Yemanzhelinsk, near the border with Kazakhstan. But after arriving in New York, she discovered what Kors has always found so optimistic about both the city and the industry: For all of their quirks and curveballs, there’s always room for new people and ideas, and anyone from anywhere can rise to the top.
MICHAEL KORS: I grew up in the suburbs, and when we would drive into Manhattan, the minute I saw the skyline it was like The Wizard of Oz. To me, New York was a place where anything was possible. You could reinvent yourself. You could follow your dreams. You could meet people from around the world. And I still think that’s what New York brings you.
IRINA SHAYK: New York always represents life for me. I lived in Los Angeles for two years. I had my daughter there. I mean, L.A. is beautiful, but New York just gives you this energy. If you’re single in New York, you never feel alone. You walk outside of your apartment and there is this community, this feeling like people came from all over the world to try to make it here. It just gives you the motivation to do something.
MK: I mean, you grew up in a little village.
IS: My village was super tiny. My father was a coal miner. My mother was a pianist, but because she followed my father to this coal-mining village, she ended up working at the kindergarten for 25 years. When we grew up in Russia, there was no hot water for June, July, and August. I remember when I came to New York, I was like, “They have hot water for three months during the summertime!” But I had nothing to do with fashion. I never even knew that modeling was a real job.
MK: By the time I was 18, I was fashion obsessed. I got this part-time job selling clothes in this store, Lothar’s, where you had every famous person in the world shopping. I’d come back to school and everyone would say, “What happened at work?” And I’d be like,“Well, Rudolf Nureyev bought some jeans today—and he left the curtain open so we could look in!” I met Jackie Kennedy at Lothar’s. Diana Ross. Cher. Gianni Agnelli and his wife would come in. I think I learned early on that because people have money, it doesn’t mean that they’re lying on a couch eating grapes. They’re busy. They’re moving. They want to be comfortable. They want to be glamorous. And at the same time, everyone has their insecurities.
IS: That’s for sure.
MK: I don’t care who you are, there is something that makes you feel better about yourself. Working in a store and interacting with people instead of being in a designer’s atelier or studio totally shaped my way of designing.
IS: I grew up in a family of women. I lost my father when I was 14, and I never met my grandfathers, so I grew up with my two grandmas, my sister, and my mom. My icon was for sure my grandmother, my father’s mother. When she was 19, she was sent to World War II and she worked in the special services. She lost her husband and raised my father as a single mom, and then she lost my dad. But she was the most positive, down-to-earth woman. Every time you called her, she would be so happy about waking up and having water in her sink. She always set an example that happiness is not about the apartment where you live, how much money you have. It’s about the real people in your life—your family, your friends. She was a beauty icon for me too because her beauty was inside out.
MK: My mom is still in the back of my head. She is always going to be a muse. But then I think about how I grew up loving pop culture. I was glued to movies and books and magazines and television and theater. I grew up loving all of the social swans. Then the next thing you know, I’m 18 years old and I meet Nan Kempner at Studio 54, and I’m sitting with her, drinking champagne on a banquette. Meeting Muhammad Ali. He and his wife came shopping at Lothar’s. It was a riot on the streets. We had to lock the doors. And designers—when I met Bill Blass, I was so afraid. I met him at a trunk show in Oklahoma. But he was so funny, self-deprecating, and wonderful. I met Barbra Streisand at Lothar’s. I was so excited that I forgot to ask her to sign her credit-card slip, so I ran onto Fifth Avenue with the credit-card machine, screaming, “Ms. Streisand! Ms. Streisand!” She looked at me, and she was like, “I’m going to kill you.” Meeting President Obama the first time was just mind-blowing. But the thing I’ve learned over the years is that no matter how successful someone is or what they do, we’re all human. We’re all going through life’s ups and downs, and I always love when the people I admire turn out to have a sense of humor about themselves and the world. When we were putting together the 40th-anniversary show, I said, “This show is all about strong, confident women. Irina is perfect for it.” And then you came in and you were so funny. I’ve always believed that you can have a sense of humor and still look great, still be confident, have glamour.
IS: You should see me in my apartment. Not so glamorous.
MK: When we called you to come back for a second fitting, I think you were having a margarita.
IS: Yes. I was at a restaurant. I was at 4 Charles. Have you been?
MK: It’s one of my favorites.
IS: Finally, I’m getting a reservation there, right? And I’m sitting, having my margarita on the rocks like a Russian girl, and they’re calling me. They’re like, “Can you come back for the second fitting?” So I finished all my margaritas and I was like, “I’m not sure what condition I am in, but I’m sure I can try my outfit.”
MK: I love that you were at 4 Charles. It’s like the most impossible reservation to get.
IS: I finished my dinner.
MK: We’ll go back together.
IS: But I think it’s important to just be real. I’m a Capricorn. I take things very seriously. And I’m Russian, so I love to control things. But you have to let go. I’m lucky enough to have this job and to be able to help my family and live comfortably. Just be kind, treat people well, and be real, and the universe will give you back.
MK: I think the greatest thing I got out of the whole experience of the pandemic was to have a sense of appreciation about everything, like seeing friends and family and being able to travel. But even the smallest things, like taking a walk in your neighborhood or going to your favorite restaurant, and supporting them. How old is your daughter now?
IS: My daughter is four.
MK: When you get dressed, is she fully opinionated about what you’re wearing?
IS: She looks at me and she goes, “Mm-mm… Take it off.” In fact, for my birthday in January, I was in Florida and I wore this fluffy dress. I never celebrate my birthday, but I was like, okay, I’m going to put on a nice dress, couple friends came. I put on this beautiful black dress, kind of fluffy. And my daughter’s face—she looks at me and she goes, “Take it off.” I say, “Why? Mama doesn’t look pretty?” She said, “No. It’s too beautiful.” So she doesn’t want me to be more beautiful than her because her dress is not fluffy. It’s not a competition! I was like, no. And I explained to her, I was like, “Everyone is beautiful in their own way.” But she already has this. I was like, “That’s definitely not from me.”
MK: Does she pick out all of her own clothes?
IS: She does. She wants only princess stuff. Sparkles, gold, jewelry. I was a tomboy. I wanted to wear men’s stuff. She wants to be fluffy, and she has a lot of opinions.
MK: You and your daughter are the opposite of my mother and my grandmother. My mother was a tomboy. With my grandmother, it was glitter. It was glamour.
IS: This past year has made me want to prioritize more time with my family. Before sometimes I’d find myself like a robot, going from job to job to job. But to take a pause and reconnect, that is important.
MK: I think I’m very Type A. But this pandemic has proven to every Type A person in the world that you can’t control everything. I think the biggest lesson I hope everyone gets out of this experience is really this understanding of how interconnected we all are. We are unbelievably entwined as people. You can never say, “Oh, well, that’s happening there. But we’re fine here.” We’re connected. I hope the world doesn’t forget that.
Fashion Editor: Miguel Enamorado; Hair: Jacob Rozenberg for Harry Josh Pro Tools; Makeup: Tatyana Makarova for Pat Mcgrath Labs; Grooming: Candice Forness at Candice Forness Holistic Beauty and Wellness. Special Thanks to Eleven Madison Park.