The designer Michael Kors, right and Danny Meyer at the Modern, one of Mr. Meyer’s places. Have they built empires or collections?
Michael Kors and Danny Meyer looked a little rattled when told, at the beginning of their recent lunch, that they had been paired up because they had each built empires — one in fashion and the other in restaurants — through persistence and hard work.
“Empire?” Mr. Kors said in disbelief. “It’s like that ‘icon’ word everyone throws around these days.”
Mr. Meyer suggested an alternative.
“I like ‘collection,’ ” he said. “There’s a grabby quality to ‘empire,’ and it’s usually at someone else’s expense. That’s not what we do.”
But like it or not, Mr. Kors, 54, is both icon and empire builder. His namesake company, which he founded in 1981, has evolved into a juggernaut, reporting revenue of $3.3 billion in its last fiscal year. He has also won three CFDA Fashion Awards and fame for his stint as a judge on “Project Runway.”
The same goes for Mr. Meyer, 56, who has spent 30 years building a collection of 11 fine-dining restaurants in New York City, including the Modern in Midtown, where they met, as well as the Shake Shack bonanza, with 50 global outposts; a catering arm; and a consulting group. He is also the author of a business book, “Setting the Table,” published in 2006.
Padma Lakshmi and Danny Meyer in an episode of “Top Chef.” Mr. Meyer has been a judge on the show.Credit NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images
‘For the first 10 years of my career, I only had one restaurant, Union Square Cafe, because I was certain that expansion equals failure.’ Danny Meyer Credit Robert Caplin for The New York Times
Over lobster salad and salmon (for Mr. Kors) and foie gras tart and scallops (for Mr. Meyer), they spoke about balancing the new with the familiar in their work, the lure of reality television and the need to unplug.
Philip Galanes: Michael, what do you think of these waiters’ uniforms?
Danny Meyer: It doesn’t matter. They’re about to go.
Michael Kors: You’re redoing them?
DM: Oh, my God, are we redoing them.
MK: Every time I get onto a plane, some poor flight attendant points to her uniform and says, “Won’t you help us?”
PG: Like Halston did with Braniff. So, have you?
MK: We’ve only done uniforms once, and it was a nightmare. They have to be machine washable and basically able to go through seven world wars.
DM: They’re very hard. They have to feel good for men and women. And can’t go out of fashion after a year — —
MK: They have to fit any sized person.
DM: And stay in production. You’ll laugh, but the only enduring uniforms we’ve ever had came from Brooks Brothers or J. Crew.
MK: Sure, they produce them forever because there’s less fashion involved.
PG: Are you wearing your uniforms today?
MK: I am. Black Michael Kors T-shirt, black jacket [from Kilgour in London], black Michael Kors jeans. Always sockless, and a driving loafer or sneaker.
PG: Never mix, never worry.
DM: I’m often in a suit. This is Zegna. But I almost never wear a tie, unless I’m at the Modern or Gramercy Tavern. But even here, you’ll find someone in shorts or tennis shoes.
MK: That’s one of the things I love about your restaurants. I like indulgence, but I like it laid back. I want my caviar, and I want my pizza. And when you opened Union Square downtown, where I live, it was the first time someone was speaking to me.
DM: Thirty years ago, if you wanted to eat well — —
MK: You had to be in Midtown, and you had to be dressed.
PG: I want to take you back even further. Every Michael Kors article opens with you designing your mother’s wedding dress when you were 5. Was she crazy?
MK: True tale: My mom got remarried when I was 5. She hadn’t had a gown or a big wedding the first time, so she went all out for the second one. My grandparents were thrilled. She ordered this gown from Priscilla of Boston. At the fitting, my mother comes out, and the dress is covered with a zillion bows. My grandmother says it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. And I’m in the corner, shaking my head no. I don’t like the bows. So, my mother calls the tailor in, and he starts snipping them off. My grandmother is like: “What are you doing?!” And I say: “Keep going.” And the next thing you know, there were none.
DM: So you edited the dress.
MK: We ended up with this simple, chic, timeless piece. It was the first time I saw I had the power to convince people to go my way.
PG: Parent stories tell so much. I was moved by the way you wrote about your father, Danny. How his overexpansion of his business affected the way you ran yours.
Michael Kors takes applause at his show during New York Fashion Week in February. Credit Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz
‘I watched my mother get married three times as a kid. I saw the roller coaster of life.’ Michael Kors CreditRobert Caplin for The New York Times
DM: I watched him go through two different bankruptcies. It was awful. To this day, I remember the family sitting in the den, and my father explaining, through tears, what a bankruptcy was, and that he was having one. He was my hero! I thought: Heroes don’t have failures. And then I saw it a second time. But it worked to my benefit professionally. For the first 10 years of my career, I only had one restaurant, Union Square Cafe, because I was certain that expansion equals failure.
MK: I was similar. I wanted a foundation. I didn’t have a fashion show for the first three years. I wanted to know I had a real business to back it up. I watched my mother get married three times as a kid. I saw the roller coaster of life.
DM: Instead of expanding, which everybody else was doing, and spreading less of me further, I went deeper into that one place.
PG: You both started your businesses without much practical experience.
MK: I had none. I went to F.I.T. for two semesters and worked for a few years. That was it.
DM: I was in restaurants for less than a year.
PG: Didn’t your family stomp their feet when you wanted to strike out so young?
MK: My family is so fashion obsessed that they thought: Oh, great, free clothes.
DM: No one tried to talk you out of it?
MK: My mother said: “You’re smart enough to know what you want in life, but you’d better tell your grandparents that you’re dropping out of school.” They were more traditional: Finish school, work for another designer. But I never worked for anybody.
PG: That seems so brave, but a little crazy.
DM: But if you’re entrepreneurial — and I define that as someone who is so unabashedly in love with a topic that they have no choice but to share it with other people — you are naturally blind to potential downsides. It’s not brave. We only see forward and up.
MK: When I started out, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how you shipped clothes to a store. I didn’t know there was U.P.S. I just knew: This is what I have to do.
DM: My grandfather was the biggest naysayer. But my dad didn’t have a leg to stand on. He’d bought a hotel with a restaurant. And eating around France with him and his business partner got me smitten with opening my own restaurant. He wasn’t really a restaurateur. He opened one so he could have the corner table. But I don’t enjoy sitting in my restaurants.
MK: That’s like me. When we take a fashion show on the road, nothing freaks me out more than sitting in the audience.
DM: Are you watching the audience or the models?
MK: The clothes! I look at them and think: God, we could have made that a little narrower. I just start tweaking, and it’s very uncomfortable for me.
PG: Here’s something else you have in common: tremendous empathy with your customers. The first time I saw Michael was at a trunk show. And he was having a knock-down, drag-out with my mother. She was determined that a woman with an olive complexion could not wear camel, and you were determined that she could.
DM: Do you remember this?
MK: It’s happened eight zillion times.
PG: And in the end, she walked out of the store with a shopping bag and a smile.
MK: So I converted her. Listen, everyone works differently. But I genuinely like people, and I love the whole theater of shopping. But I understand both sides of the coin. I love fashion. But I’m also empathetic to how real people live. I love going to Chicago to see how people dress there. Most fashion people live in their own little box. But I get it when real people say: Sorry, I’m not wearing moon boots to work.
PG: That sounds like you, Danny: popping into one of your restaurants, making sure people are happy. It looks like you enjoy it.
DM: You can’t fake that. The thing I enjoy more than anything is watching people eating happily. And what Michael was saying about “both sides of the coin” is exactly the same with restaurants. Every single restaurant we have is playing this game where we try to trick you into not knowing whether you went out to eat or came home. The more a restaurant feels like you went out — like this place — we have to dial up the yummy factor, so you feel the hug of home. And at a place like Union Square Cafe
MK: Which is homey — —
DM: We need to stop your conversation a couple times with the food: Why is that salmon so damn good?
MK: That’s my world. Always trying to figure out how to make something that’s familiar and unexpected.
DM: That’s it!
MK: Because if it’s fully familiar, you’re bored to tears. Why would you buy it? And if it’s so unexpected it takes you hours to figure it out, you’ll wear it once and never come back. I want to make that thing you always reach for.
DM: We’re both selling a pretty emotional product. The thing you put on yourself, the thing you trust to put in your body. Yes, you need to eat and drink, but you don’t need to do it here.
MK: It’s like this lobster salad. When it first came out with the sliced potato on top, I was like: What? Potato gratin? But then I tasted it and thought: Why doesn’t everyone do this? Clothes are the same. When you try on the right thing, you think: I feel tall in this, I feel thin in this, I feel young in this. Why doesn’t everyone do this? Well, it’s my job to figure that out.
PG: What’s the “fashion math” — to use a Kors-ism? Me, plus the right cashmere coat, equals what?
MK: I’ve seen women try on five things, and when you put the right one on her, her posture changes, her attitude changes. There’s a mood elevation.
PG: Same with restaurants?
DM: Yes, it’s how we make you feel. People confuse the word “service” with “hospitality.” They talk about a restaurant having good service, which means the food gets delivered to the right person in time. But hospitality is more. It’s the server reading that we want to be left alone, we don’t want her to describe what kind of breads those are. Great hospitality is taking however we three felt before we came here and making us feel a little better when we leave. I like happy endings. And helping people work through problems.
PG: That brings me, oddly, to reality TV. Michael’s long stint on “Project Runway” brought him huge exposure. But at root, you were just helping young designers solve problems.
MK: For years, people came to me with TV projects, but I thought: What could a reality show about fashion be? Designers on a desert island eating bugs? But I had been a critic for fashion students at F.I.T. and Parsons for years. And when I understood the show would be like that, I got more comfortable. We ended up showing the alchemy of fashion, like baking a cake: starting with ingredients that look like nothing and transforming them into something else.
PG: And the cracks that made America fall in love with you: “She looks like an Amish cocktail waitress” and “She’s like a flamenco dancer at a funeral.”
MK: Honestly, I just blurted out whatever came to mind. And I think a lot of people in the audience thought: He’s right. They started connecting with me through humor, but then they saw how I think about fashion. We’d always had a huge range of customers, but suddenly, we had 12-year-olds. They watch TV, and when they walked into a store with their parents, they knew me.
PG: Danny, you must get seven million calls a week to do a reality show.
DM: Not quite seven million.
MK: But a lot, I bet.
DM: I’ve judged a couple of times on “Top Chef.” But I resisted it for the first six or seven seasons because I couldn’t see how the viewers would taste what the judges were tasting. And most of the food shows were bringing out the worst part of the business: the flame-throwing, cursing chef doing nasty things to your food. And I didn’t want to be a part of that.
[The server brings the main courses.]
DM: Bon appétit! You realize how hard it is for me to just sit here and ...
MK: It’s delicious. And by the way, kind of amazing we’ve never met. I’m an unbridled fan of everything you touch.
DM: That feels great. I’ve touched you.
MK: My mother’s maiden name was Hamburger. When I was a kid, they used to call me Wimpy.
DM: Better than what I was called: Oscar Meyer Weiner.
PG: OK, Oscar and Wimpy, back to work. Is Shake Shack the reason you don’t think about a reality show? You’ve reached your huge audience that way.
DM: No one has to think about a reality show. It’s opportunistic. Listen, Michael on “Project Runway” was brilliant. And Tom Colicchio on “Top Chef” is perfect. I have nothing against reality TV, but I’m not the guy you want. I’m not melodramatic.
MK: That’s why I was so reluctant. I kept saying: I understand humor, but I don’t like a joke.
PG: Let me try again: Are the millions of people who walk into your Shake Shacks getting an experience that makes them more likely to try [Mr. Meyer’s restaurant] Maialino? Same with Michael’s diffusion line. Does it make people more likely to buy from the collection?
MK: We are full high and low. I could never quite grasp why companies thought that if a person wasn’t wealthy or didn’t choose to spend a lot of money, why would we talk down to them?
DM: What I love about Shake Shack is you can give somebody the opportunity to splurge, if they’ve only had a hamburger at a fast-food place. Or you can give somebody who owns a yacht the opportunity to put on their culinary bluejeans.
MK: I see girls walk into the store who are just entering the work force, and it’s a stretch for them to buy a piece of Michael Michael Kors. It’s a serious purchase. Then I see a woman who owns five houses, and who wears Michael Kors Collection, buy five pairs of the same trousers to leave in all her houses.
DM: That’s what I do.
PG: Let’s switch gears for a second. We all have setbacks; we all get bad reviews. How do they affect you?
DM: The thing that a bad review can do — the thing that I lose sleep over — is that it can really hurt the morale of your team. So if we get a bad review, I know what lies in store is a huge amount of Danny as therapist, as coach, as cheerleader for the next year.
MK: When I was 25, and just started having shows, if I got a review that was less than favorable, I thought: Oh, no, this could end my dream! And strangely, when I got good reviews back then, I thought they weren’t amazing enough. Because I was thinking: Isn’t this the greatest thing you’ve ever seen?
DM: There are some critics who go to work because they’re looking out for the consumer, and they can be helpful to us. But there are others who are just competing with one another, and their reviews end up being more about their big voice within their reviewer community.
MK: They just want to be noticed.
PG: Last note: It’s summer. I know you’re swamped, but will you make time to unplug?
DM: Have to.
MK: Same here. I have to make time to daydream and change my eye.
DM: Change your eye? I like that. What does it mean?
MK: Mrs. Vreeland was right: “The eye must travel.” You have to see something different, even if it’s just finding a new way to walk home. Or taking an extra day on a work trip. If I’m in San Francisco, trust me, I’m going to Big Sur.
DM: I like to go short and sweet. Two days, one night. San Francisco is fun for that.
MK: Or going to a concert in Philadelphia. We’ll see the Stones in Philadelphia, even though they’re playing in New York.
DM: Don’t you get good ideas when you do things like that?
MK: Absolutely. You’re seeing something different.
DM: And connecting dots you never could at your desk.
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