Michael Kors

He’s a great Project Runway judge. But is he a great American designer?

Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Heidi Klum

Some 4 million people watch Project Runway, Bravo’s fashion reality show, and when they tune in tonight for the season finale, they’ll have a chance to observe a designer catapulted to new fame. No, not Uli or Michael, or whichever contestant wins, but Michael Kors, the established pro who has served as a biting, witty judge on the program for its first three seasons. Thanks to Project Runway, Kors has achieved a strange prominence: He is now more visible than Marc Jacobs, America’s coolest designer, and Ralph Lauren, its fashion king. Kors’$2 25-year-old company is counting on his unprecedented visibility to kick-start its ambitious plans for expansion. The question is whether Kors’ vision can keep pace with his celebrity.

Kors faces challenges that eager Runway contestants can only imagine. To take on profitable giants like Ralph Lauren, Kors must devise a look that seems essential and current. Today, Kors makes uncomplicated, classy sportswear—the industry term for coordinating blazers, pants, shirts, skirts, and knits—and to succeed financially and creatively, he must find an inventive way to make these classics new, as other great American designers have.

Sportswear is America’s indigenous fashion vernacular, but few designers still use it. Until World War II, American fashion was driven by the dream factories of Paris and Hollywood. Upscale retailers sold haughty suits and evening gowns based on patterns bought from the couturiers of Paris. Hollywood costumers like Adrian designed collections that made high glamour available across the country. But none of these dreamy clothes had anything to do with the practicalities of real life.

Then, in the 1940s, as American women joined the workforce, the visionary designer Claire McCardell made practicality the hallmark of a new, sleek American style that was based on the usefulness of sporting gear. McCardell and other New York designers offered a wardrobe of “sportswear”: elegant mix-and-match items that had all the ease and logic of a baseball jersey. Seventh Avenue, which had previously been a center for manufacturing, became a center of influential design. These were clothes built for movement and convenience, but they were also designed with an intelligent simplicity for women who didn’t want to dress like figurines.

Kors not only works in this Seventh Avenue tradition; he is, remarkably, the only major designer who still does. Ralph Lauren’s to-the-manor-born look expresses far more about American aspirations than it does any love for practical American style. Jacobs, who made his name in sportswear more than 20 years ago, now makes wonderfully strange garments inspired by European demimondes and the artful clothes of the Japanese. Isaac Mizrahi, once the hot ticket during New York Fashion Week, now designs a sportswear collection for Target, but no longer shows a runway collection.

Kors is, in fact, the last man standing. Calvin Klein, once a cornerstone of the designer sportswear market, now produces arch collections under Creative Director Francisco Costa that many insiders find pretentious. Donna Karan reinvented utilitarian American sportswear with her sensuous jerseys in 1984 but has since abandoned her Seventh Avenue roots for a moody exoticism that draws mixed reviews from editors and clients alike.

Sportswear’s other great stars are dead, but that does not mean Kors is free of their legacy. The innovative Anne Klein, who died in 1978, opened one of the first houses aimed at working women, offering clothes that were at once suitable for the office and exuberant. Perry Ellis, who died in 1986, created a new, slouchy American look in response to European designers’ hard-edged futurism. These designers changed the way women dress with innovations that were completely of their time.

Michael Kors has never been as inventive as these designers, but he still proudly waves the American sportswear flag. Now 47, Kors has been devoted to luxurious, mix-and-match clothes since he was 19, when he dropped out of Fashion Institute of Technology and started designing for a small boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. His first collection under his own name, in 1981, was cut entirely in sleek, easy-to-wear black and brown jersey. His clothes have never lost that clarity, that versatility, that American, self-possessed, no-brainer chic.

Kors can slip into unfortunate clichés—his spring collection played on a hackneyed Broadway dancer theme, complete with A Chorus Line schmaltz—but at his best, he does the classy American look like no one else can. You’ll find no gaudy flourishes, no sly cultural references, no radical silhouettes, and not even much color in his give-me-Park-Avenue world. He relies on a subdued palette of beige, brown, gray, and black. His clothes for women—cashmere coats; luxurious cable-knit sweaters; skirts and trousers—are cut with enough care to become more than basic. In his able hands, what are essentially staples become classics, elevated by luxurious fabrics and sexy shapes that Brooks Brothers would never attempt. His clothes for men—peacoats and cashmere sweatshirts—play Spencer Tracy to the toned-down glamour of this runway Katharine Hepburn.

Fans of Project Runway—even those who don’t know his work—know what Kors stands for. When the designer asks a contestant in his now famously bitchy tone, “Where is she wearing that!?,” he is voicing a question that has echoed in Seventh Avenue design studios for decades. Michael Kors style (call it great American style; he would) means good sense, glamorized. The sparkling blond models in his advertising campaign—exiting private jets with rolling suitcases and styled to the hilt—make magic of everyday occurrences like wheeling luggage around an airport. Wear my clothes now, Kors says, and you can live the practical, fawn-colored, great American dream.

In the absence of much choice, Kors’ many die-hard customers—well-heeled women who work and well-heeled women who don’t, but want to convey the efficient independence of those who do—rely on his easy way with chic. But in order to expand the business, the company must attract a larger pool of clients. In 2003, industry veterans Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll bought a controlling interest in the Michael Kors brand, and in August they announced plans to open 100 stores worldwide. The company is banking on a cross-merchandising strategy aimed at drawing big spenders and budget-conscious shoppers into the same stores. Each will sell clothes at several price points: The Collection—or runway—label will hang alongside two accessibly priced “diffusion” labels: Kors Michael Kors at the “bridge” price and Michael Michael Kors at the lower tier. The plan also calls for expansion of the men’s offerings and the potentially lucrative accessory collections.

The partners clearly mean business: Company President John Idol spoke of the brand’s $1 billion potential. But it’s not clear that Kors’ newfound TV stardom will make this effort more successful than earlier, failed strategies. The house filed for bankruptcy in 1991 after its initial push into diffusion lines, and all three of the current collections have suffered setbacks. Idol told WWD in August that performance on the runway collection has been “pretty good”—executive-speak for “weak.” Here’s where the situation gets sticky for Michael Kors: If megabrands like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Zara sell what is essentially the same well-made, well-priced, cable-knit sweater that he sells, what makes his more enticing?

On Project Runway, Kors asks the questions that have consistently led American designers to create great clothes: What do real women wear? What makes simple clothes look new? The Michael Kors look feels nostalgic, not innovative; classy, but uninspired. It is possible that Kors’ time has finally come. Consider once again those ads that show rich people doing what rich people do: These days, celebrity is the ultimate American dream. But does anyone other than Paris Hilton get all dolled up to board a private jet? Who’s on the tarmac to see? If Claire McCardell were designing today, you can bet she’d have a newer idea about what looking American means right now.