Beauty Boss: The Tough Lessons Michael Kors Learned on His Way to the Top

Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they've learned on the job.

Michael Kors
Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty

You don't get to be an in-demand fashion designer and beauty guru without learning some hard lessons. Here, Michael Kors (who is celebrating the launch of his newest fragrance, Sexy Ruby) shares his inspiration, his best advice to budding fashionistas, and the must-have style items you need in life.

You once shared with InStyle that as a child you drew your own MK logo. When did you first know that you wanted to pursue a career in fashion and beauty?
I always liked to draw and sketch–and not just fashion but everything from cars to buildings. As for the logo, in junior high and high school I was one of those kids who was constantly sketching and doodling rather than paying attention in my science classes. I always loved the idea of graphics. I covered a blue spiral binder with a herringbone motif that on closer inspection was an MK logo. I did this at 15, when I started thinking about having my own brand and label. I took acting lessons as a teenager (I’ve always been a big theater buff), but by the time I was 15 it became very apparent that fashion and beauty were my true calling. I grew up in a family that loved fashion, and clothes, and shopping. But I also knew early on that being stylish was about more than just clothes and accessories, it was how you wore them. And that beauty was the ultimate enhancer. And everyone from my grandfather to my mom and my grandmother always wore a signature fragrance.

What advice do you give anyone who wants to be in the business of fashion?

I tell young designers to spend as much time in a retail store as possible. It’s the best way to get to know your customer and understand their needs. When the opportunity came to expand into beauty and fragrance, it was the perfect way for me to be able to complete the story of how people express themselves. Not having the right fragrance to express your mood, or the right beauty statement, is like wearing a great dress with a terrible shoe. I love that beauty and fragrance are the quickest way for a woman to convey her mood.

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Michael Kors Sexy Ruby Eau de Parfum Spray

Where did you learn the most—at school, on your first job, or perhaps when you opened your first store?
Every designer is different and has to find [his or her] own path.For me, the retail environment is where it all came together. Working at Lothar’s, a boutique on 57th Street in New York City, I designed the clothes, did the windows, merchandised the store, and worked directly with the customers. I learned how women shop, what they look for, and what they like and dislike. I got to know my customers, and that’s key for any designer. You have to understand their lifestyle and you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes to anticipate their needs and wants from season to season.

What’s the toughest lesson you’ve had to learn?
There will always be criticism. Let’s be honest, you can’t please everyone. But fashion is always moving forward and it’s about what’s next.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
My mother told me early on to stick to my guns, follow my gut, and always look forward.

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That’s great advice! Okay, if you had to pick just five fashion and beauty items that every woman should own, what would they be?

A great saddle-colored leather bag that’s big enough to fit your life in. Then a sleek pair of white jeans; a glamorous statement watch; a pair of aviators, and of course, a fragrance that people will remember. Sexy Ruby (Eau de Parfum Spray, $112/3.4 fl. oz.; is certainly that kind of fragrance.

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