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The Big Easy Does It

Michael Kors swings open the door to his cottage at the Hotel Maison de Ville in New Orleans. Located around a muggy French Quarter corner from the main hotel, Cottage One was once the residence of the naturalist John James Audubon. Another kind of American naturalist, playwright Tennessee Williams, found the hotel proper over on Rue Toulouse more conducive to his fevered work. "You can never be too thin or Toulouse," he once, it is said, drunkenly paraphrased the Duchess of Windsor to the appalled delight of a society matron who was escorting him home to room No. 9, where he completed A Streetcar Named Desire. "Whenever people were making a movie in New Orleans in the old days, these cottages were where they stayed," Kors says, leading me toward a silver service brimming with the chicory concoction that so deliciously passes for coffee down here. "I like to imagine Liz and Dick running around naked out in the garden, fighting and drinking. I mean, I can't imaginebeing in New Orleans and not having a cocktail and being a bit passionate and throwing at least a shoe."

Michael Kors has had a flair for the dramatic ever since he was a child actor who traveled from his native Long Island into New York City to audition for commercials. It is the same flair he put to use at the age of 19 when he designed and marketed his first collection for Lothar's, a midtown Manhattan boutique frequented by 1970's fashion mavens. Withflair muted now by maturity and a master's exquisite eye, Kors has combined a love of luxe materials and historic travel references (St.-Tropez, Sun Valley) to create a company that is well on its way to becoming a billion-dollar brand.

"More than most designers," New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote, in her rave of Kors's 2004 fall line, he "showed how to get the mix of luxury and boho camp right." It is just such a mixture that attracts the designer to this sybaritic American destination. When some vacationers think of New Orleans, images of Mardi Gras and its Girls Gone Wild debauchery come to mind. For others, the two favored weeks are when Jazz Fest sets up its stages out on the grounds of the city's horse-racing track. Conventioneers tend to spend their time hopped up on the honky-tonk vibe of Bourbon Street. But for a sophisticated traveler like Kors, New Orleans is at its most enticing when he can simply show up during one of its downtimes (say, that first week of Lent, here in America's most Catholic of towns) and get into the sultry rhythm of the place by lazily tasting its myriad Creole culinary creations or getting to know its marvelously eccentric characters, who populate the porches as well as the private well-appointed recesses of the French Quarter and the Garden District. Kors has been coming to New Orleans for so long that he is treated like the prodigal tourist by many of the town's dowagers, its debutantes, its mischief-makers, its merchants.

Kors works overtime to create a personal connection with his devotees. Unlike many of his peers, he actually enjoys presiding over trunk shows, the small gatherings that a designer conjures in selected cities so he can get to know his best customers. Indeed, New Orleans has always been one of Kors's favorite stops. "When you start traveling to do trunk shows you get sort of jaded," he admits. "You think, 'Every city is the same. Everything is homogenized.' Well, when I came here I realized that was not the case at all." Kors started out some 20 years ago selling his designs in this city at an old-guard ladies' specialty store on Canal Street called Kreeger's. These days, he shows his Michael Kors line at Mimi, an Uptown boutique. "The women in this city are not only warm and funny and ingratiating, but they are also very honest," he insists. "They'll say, 'Honey, you can't wear that coat in New Orleans. It's too hot. You're gonna have a heart attack if you put that on.'"

Kors rhapsodizes about Banana Reily, a client of his who is an heir to the Tabasco fortune and used to drive a yellow Mercedes. "She's one of a kind," he says. "Banana is the person who pointed out to me that women down here—contrary to what you might believe—don't like to wear linen. That goes back to Tennessee Williams. His men always had on linen suits. Women here have always thought of linen as masculine. The ultimate test of femininity and style in a city this humid and hot is to stay crisp and neat."

Outside, through the cottage's opened French doors, the hiss from a gardener's hose accompanies Kors's conjecture. The hose's spray haloes the tropical foliage around the pool and lingers in stubborn clouds of steam in the morning light. A transistor radio the gardener keeps in his pocket blares a static-filled tribute to Ray Charles. Charles's gravelly plaint now hangs in the air along with the hose's spray. Kors pauses to soak up some Ray.

Every trip Kors takes to New Orleans includes a fashion stop at Mimi, where he has the longest retail history of any designer in the 34-year-old store. "I keep coming back to this town because of people like Mimi," he says. "She gives you the full magnolia. They're all so damn funny here. You have to learn how to do cocktail party chatter at a very early age in New Orleans." Mimi hears Kors's Long Island twang and sweeps in from the beauty salon located in the back, wearing vintage Michael Kors. "I've forgotten what Mimi's last name is, she's been married so many times," Kors says as he kisses her on both of her eerily smooth 60-year-old cheeks before attempting an introduction. "It's Robinson," Mimi says. "I went back to my original name. I told my third husband I wasn't changing it again. I've got four children by two different husbands and I'm too old to trade up anymore. I was born a Robinson and I'm going to be buried a Robinson."

Mimi's friend and shop manager, Rae Matthews, rushes in from the round of morning hospital tests she is required to undergo before her latest bits of plastic surgery can be performed at the end of the week. "Whew! What a relief! I'm not pregnant!" she laughingly tells them before going over the list of procedures she's scheduled to have: a tiny brow lift and a little liposuction here and there. "It's just maintenance," says the 43-year-old Matthews. Mimi adds: "We love our nips and tucks in New Orleans as much as we love our nips at the bourbon bottle."

Rae and Mimi spend the next hour reminiscing with Kors about their past exploits in New Orleans. "I did one of my trunk shows here at Mimi the day that Audrey Hepburn died. It was all anyone talked about. They kept saying, 'But she needed to eat mo-ah,'" Kors says, approximating that diphthongal sway of a Southern belle's belligerent sweetness. "Living in New Orleans, even Audrey would have been challenged to stay that chic and thin, drinking Sazeracs and eating rémoulade all the time."

A shipment of the Michael Kors fall 2004 collection has just arrived and is still stored in boxes in the back. Based on a kind of hippie élan—picture Carly Simon circa 1975, all floppy hats and paisley halter dresses swinging with silk fringe—it might prove to be one of Kors's most successful. Giggling, the three longtime friends open up a few boxes and inspect the goods: a black jersey miniskirt, a shearling coat in lavender, a poncho in lilac mink. "This is the way that people like to buy things," Mimi says. "Right out of the box."

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