Why Isn't He Calvin Klein?

WHEN MICHAEL KORS WAS GROWING up on Long Island, his mother -- like every good suburban mom -- took her 6-year-old son to see "'The Sound of Music.'' Amid the nuns, nannies and Nazis, there was one thing the future fashion designer couldn't understand: ""Why is the guy marrying a woman in a tweed suit with a bad haircut?'' If Kors had been Captain Von Trapp, he would have picked the Baroness over Maria. She was nasty, but at least she was chic. To Kors, looking rich was better than anything. Even Julie Andrews.

Today, he is still rooting for the Baroness, and polished women like her. Tan lines on models, and chunky gold watches, Manolo Blahniks and alpaca swatches -- these are a few of his favorite things. For 15 years, Kors hasn't varied from this esthetic, turning out moneyed looks even when his own finances weren't so flush. A 1993 bankruptcy almost tanked him, but this month he relaunches Kors by Michael Kors, a moderately priced line to complement his upper-priced signature collection. His timing is as impeccable as his double-faced cashmere suits. This summer, fashion finally OD'd on downscale anorexia and ""heroin chic.'' For fall, rich-girl clothes aren't just Kors's personal passion; they're touted as the next great objects of consumer lust.

To Kors, 37, modern opulence means leather wrap skirts, mock-crocodile tops, slightly flared pants in plush crepe and the thickest cashmere sweaters. ""It's very American, but it's not Muffy on the golf course. It's slicker and sharper than that,'' he says. That formula has recently earned him some of his best reviews ever. ""All straightforward sumptuousness,'' raved The New York Times, while the July Vogue dubbed Kors a "'household name'' for the '90s.

But, for all his gushy reviews, his quick wit and blond good looks, Kors has never been a megastar. While others with less talent get boldface mentions and big bucks, his has remained a boutique business. It makes you wonder, Why isn't this guy Calvin Klein?

The prevailing theory is that with more money, he could be. "'He hasn't exploited his name with licenses [for sheets, underwear, perfume] as aggressively as he could have,'' says Rose Marie Bravo, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. "'Michael does very little advertising and doesn't have a big public-relations organization,'' notes Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf Goodman. But Amy Spindler, chief fashion critic of The New York Times, thinks it's something else. "'I don't think I've ever seen anything unexpected in a Michael Kors show,'' she says. "'Everything is perfect to a fault. This is someone who is afraid to do something risky.''

If he's afraid, he has a right to be. Seven years ago his first bridge line made him instantly popular. But when the Italian firm that produced the line went out of business, it almost took Kors with it. In July 1993 he filed for Chapter 11. Kors continued to produce his upper-priced collection, but "'some stores stopped doing business with us,'' admits John Orchulli, Kors's business partner. They survived; stores started buying again.

The relaunched Kors by Michael Kors is produced by the well-regarded Japanese company Onward Kashiyama. Prices for jackets average $500; dresses, about $350. Bergdorf Goodman reports "'enormous'' early success with it. Kors knew they would. ""A lot of designers have made it seem like good taste is unhip. But "pretty' is not such a horrible word,'' he says. ""No matter what happens in fashion, women want to look tall, thin, powerful, sexy and rich.'' Just like the Baroness.

Why Isn't He Calvin Klein? | News