The Big Easy Does It
Fashion designer Michael Kors has been coming to New Orleans for longer than he can remember. Over the years, he has developed a fondness for the city's eccentric characters, its memorable Creole cuisine—and its very individual sense of style.
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."
Talk turns to future plans. Mimi has branched out into the restaurant business. Kors is launching a new accessories collection and Michael, a lower-priced line for men and women that will appear in department stores this fall at more than 350 locations. This will enable a completely different type of customer to buy into the Michael Kors aesthetic: an effortless, all-American chic. For ageless, well-heeled customers (who can, alas, live without a 10-ply Kors cashmere turtleneck in that rarefied social clime of unwrapped couture, undiluted dividends, and uneaten croissants ordered from Ritz room service), Kors will also be opening two stores this fall, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and at the Americana mall in Manhasset, New York. And he admits he's seriously considering creating a saloon-like restaurant in New York City. "But the smoking ban is hurting liquor sales in Manhattan at the kind of watering hole I'd like to open. I think New Orleans will be the last city in the country where you can still smoke at a bar," he says, holding one of his fall skirts against Mimi's perfect hips.
"Sugar, you can do anything in New Orleans," Mimi says. "Smoking is the least of it. As long as you're not hurting anybody else, people down here don't care what you do. Just don't scare the horses, as they say. We are the only city that doesn't close until the last customer goes home. And you know what?That customer ain't ever getting off that damn barstool."
"Now, this just might be my favorite store in all New Orleans," Kors says as he bounds into Meyer the Hatter, the South's largest and oldest hat store. The Charles Avenue shop was founded in 1894 and has been selling men's straw boaters ever since—though today Sam Meyer, the family's patriarch, sells more Kangol caps than Bailey straws. For more than 50 years Mr. Sam has been putting in an eight-hour workday, his conversation punctuated by snippets of whistled songs (some Satchmo, a little Lerner and Loewe) as he cajoles his loyal customers into just the right hat. He even persuades Kors to buy one, though the designer complains that the circumference of his head is just too big to fit under a chapeau of any kind.
"The best possibilities for me, really, are these floppy-brimmed fishing hats," he says. "But then I look like Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond." Kors plops one on and looks in the mirror, his voice taking on the wobbly contours of Hepburn's patented purr. "'Oh, Norman, ya' old poop,'" he says, mimicking the late actress before heading over to a hat tree of Borsalinos and striking up a conversation with a courtly Southern gentleman, lawyer T.C.W. "Tommy" Ellis.
Ellis has strolled over during his lunch hour to make a purchase. He tells Kors that his dermatologist has required him to get a new chapeau for the summer, going so far, he jokes, as to write Meyer the Hatter on a prescription pad. He and Kors compare white boaters. "My own dermatologist told me to take a mirror and look at the color of my ass," Kors tells a rather shocked Ellis, whose bristly gray eyebrows cock at such a curiously friendly Yankee boy. "Your face is supposed to be the color of your ass. Did you know that, Tommy?I said that if my face were the color of my ass, then people would be sending me flowers and making charitable contributions, because they would think I was dead. Staying out of the sun?Ain't gonna happen. I love a suntan. But I love a good hat, too. Don't you, Tommy?"
Ellis smiles at his new friend. Kors offers him some fashion tips as to the best hat to go with his lightweight suit. Mr. Sam whistles and readies the cash register.
Banana Reily, the New Orleans dowager to whom Kors is most devoted, is wearing a toffee-colored taffeta shell jacket first seen in Kors's collection 16 years ago. Her hair is styled in a golden pageboy, and she has attached a highly jeweled David Webb frog brooch to the front of her equally golden choker, resulting in an ornate necklace of her own design. The 77-year-old Banana looks like Bette Davis, if Davis had been decidedly taller and a glam-orous fashion model instead of a glowering diva of the soundstage. Banana enters Galatoire's this evening as if the restaurant were in fact her own personal runway. Galatoire's—a high-society favorite, though it possesses a distinctly egalitarian flavor—has been the city's culinary crown jewel since it first opened in 1905. Banana is with her oilman husband, Chuck, an 83-year-old decked out in a white linen suit and a custom-tailored shirt and tie. Heads turn at every table as the couple joins Kors and his other guests, Mimi and Rae.
In a town where the social order is constantly pecked at, Banana and Chuck have sat atop the heap for decades now. "I have a long history here at this place—longer even than I have with Chuck," Banana says as they take their seats. "And we've been married for fifty-seven years."
"Yeah, but the fun started fifty-eight years ago," Chuck says, winking at his beautiful wife, who overlooks this bit of nuanced ribaldry with a practiced wave of her hand.
"Banana, do you know a man named Tommy Ellis?" asks Kors. "I met him this afternoon at Meyer the Hatter."
"Oh, Lord," Banana exclaims as Chuck orders the first of many Sazeracs for both of them. "I grew up dancing with Tommy Ellis. He was a wonderful dancer. The only man who could dance better than Tommy was Chuck, so he's the one who got me."
"Chuck's still the best dancer in town," Mimi chimes in as Kors compliments the old gentleman on his white linen suit.
"He wanted to wear his seersucker," says Banana dismissively. "But I told him he couldn't wear seersucker after seven-thirty. It's just not done."
Chuck ignores his wife and orders a round of appetizers for the table: shrimp rémoulade, crabmeat maison, oysters enbrochette, fried eggplant, and soufflé potatoes. The waiters treat him with the deference that a longtime customer commands. People joke that Chuck has his secretary stand at the window in his nearby office with a pair of binoculars during lunch hour in order to tell him when the line to get into the restaurant has shortened enough so it won't look bad when he strolls right in. Galatoire's is known for not taking reservations, though it now does in its newly refurbished upstairs room. Locals, however, prefer to stay on the raucous first floor.
"You know how these soufflé potatoes got invented?" Chuck asks, showing off his Galatoire's expertise. "Napoleon was out in the field and told his chef he'd be back at six o'clock, but he didn't make it back till eight. The chef had to figure out something to do with the potatoes he'd already made, so he threw 'em in the skillet again and they puffed up in the hot grease."
"Only in New Orleans did Napoleon reinvent the potato," Kors says.
"It wasn't Napoleon. It was his French chef," Banana says. "Get the story right."
And what's the right story on how Banana got such an interesting name?"My real name is Anne. But when I was three years old I was a tall, skinny little thing and my hair was yal-la," she says. "Been called Banana ever since."
"Tell you what, too: I slipped on her peel the first time I met her," says the ever-winking Chuck.
"I have a sister named Puddy," says Banana, as the potatoes and fried eggplant arrive. The Reilys instruct Kors on how best to eat them: first they spoon a bit of béarnaise sauce over them, then sprinkle powdered sugar atop that, a strangely delicious combination. "You can't be in New Orleans and not gain five pounds," Kors says. "It's illegal. It's against the law to leave this town without gaining weight."
Kors and Banana begin to recall the days when he'd come down to New Orleans to visit Kreeger's. "They said, 'One of our best customers is about to come in, and she's honestly one of the few women in town who can understand your clothes,'" Kors says. "It was Banana. She walked in, took one look, and said, 'I'll take the whole rack.'"
"And from that day onward I haven't worn anything but Michael Kors," Banana says. "That's been twenty years. Chuck and Michael—they are the two monogamous relationships in my life."
By the time our main courses arrive, Galatoire's has become a rollicking, table-hopping party. "You should be here for lunch on Fridays," the waiter whispers over the din as he serves me my oysters Rockefeller. "Anything can happen on Fridays. And I do mean anything," he says, his voice full of sexual innuendo. Just then, a buxom Southern female hurtles toward the designer and rubs his face in her décolletage. "I'm wearing your perfume!" she exclaims. "Smell me, Michael! Smell me!"
Kors comes up for air and Banana, rescuing him, says that he must meet a friend of hers over in another, much quieter corner of Galatoire's: Ella Brennan, the matriarch of the famed restaurant clan, who is at a table filled with several other Brennan women.
"You can see where we come to get good food," says the gracious Miss Ella. "I read about you all the time," she tells Kors. "You're doin' good, boy."
"You're not doing so bad yourself," Kors tells her. "That was like finding Sirio Maccioni eating at Da Silvano," Kors says, naming Le Cirque's owner and the downtown New York restaurant favored by pasta-loving powerbrokers, as he escorts Banana back to her seat.
"I prefer the '21' Club myself—particularly if I'm in the mood for steak tartare," says Banana, who grimaces good-naturedly as the waiters clink several water glasses to get the attention of everyone in the room. "Oh, God," she groans. "That means they're going to sing 'Happy Birthday' to some poor soul this evening."
"The lovely Sophie is celebrating her ninth birthday!" announces the overly dramatic waiter. Banana quickly melts when she sees the blushing child at the next table. "Oh, how precious," she says, and decides to sing louder than anybody else tonight. The room erupts in applause as Sophie blows out the candles on her birthday cake.
"She's fabulous," Kors pronounces. "But you know what I say?If she weren't pretty, we wouldn't sing as well."
After dinner, Kors insists the group head around the corner to the Bombay Club for a French Quarter nightcap. Banana and Chuck politely excuse themselves and head home, though Mimi and Rae are game for one more martini. "The last time I was here, I watched a woman who was so drunk she threw up in her purse in the middle of telling a story," Kors recalls as he slides into a booth next to the piano player. "She did not miss a beat. She op-ened it up. Threw up. And kept right on talking. Didn't even go to the bathroom to freshen up. She wasn't a floozy, either. Quite stylish. My jaw dropped—and it takes a lot to make my jaw drop."
"That was the night I had been to a party at the Reynoirs' house," Kors says, citing another Garden District society name. "Gus Reynoir—he was a man for whom the word burly was invented—got a bunch of us to come to the Bombay Club. He even brought the piano player from his party. The poor guy who was playing here didn't know what to think. Gus went up to him and said, 'You finished for the night yet?' The guy shook his head no. Gus plopped down five one-hundred-dollar bills on the piano and said, 'You're finished now. Get up. I brought my own.' Sure enough, Gus's piano player took over. Only in New Orleans do you bring your own piano player to a piano bar. People in this city really know how to party."
Kors settles into the leather booth. Mimi and Rae put their heads on his stylish shoulders. Tonight, the piano player gets to keep his gig.
Putting his fashion acumen to use, Michael Kors describes how he would make over real and fictional New Orleanians. Blanche DuBois "Blanche could wear her tattered chiffon dress, but living in this day and age she'd have to put on crazy stilettos. Sally Hershberger would chop her hair like Meg Ryan's, because that has become the hairdo for women of a certain age." • Stanley Kowalski "The only thing I'd do is make sure he had clean T-shirts in his drawer. Stanley, honey, a new one every now and then would be nice." • Lillian Hellman "To me, she will always be in that Blackglama ad. That cigarette. That mink coat. She would be the one woman hereI'd say 'to hell with it' and dress her in linen." • Mahalia Jackson "I love jewelry on the right woman—especially a big girl. You've got to get Mahalia out of that choir robe. I'd put her in one of our printed caftans." • Louis Armstrong "It'd be cool if his tuxedo were linen. He'd wear loafers with no socks. I'd make him resorty like Mahalia. They could look like they were on their way to Capri and got sidetracked." • Binx Bolling "He was a sad, preppy sort, from Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. He could wear things from my new Michael line. He's clean-cut but dirty at heart. In fact, that could be Michael's ad line. Actually, that's an even better ad line for New Orleans."
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Maison de Ville and the Audubon Cottages
DOUBLES FROM $249
727 RUE TOULOUSE; 800/634-1600 OR 504/561-5858; www.hotelmaisondeville.com
Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans
A department store turned luxury hotel.
DOUBLES FROM $419
921 CANAL ST.; 800/241-3333 OR 504/524-1331; www.ritzcarlton.com
Soniat House Hotel
Three quiet French Quarter town houses.
DOUBLES FROM $240
1133 CHARTRES ST.; 800/544-8808 OR 504/522-0570; www.soniathouse.com
Windsor Court Hotel
English-style hotel filled with original paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough.
DOUBLES FROM $195
300 GRAVIER ST.; 800/262-2662 OR 504/523-6000; www.windsorcourthotel.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
DINNER FOR TWO $70
830 CONTI ST.; 504/586-0972
Grab a stool at the revolving bar.
214 ROYAL ST.; 504/523-3341
An upscale classic. Expect turtle soup au sherry and Creole bread pudding.
DINNER FOR TWO $150
1403 WASHINGTON AVE.; 504/899-8221
DINNER FOR TWO $67
209 BOURBON ST.; 504/525-2021
In an old pharmacy, chef Mat Wolf—formerly of Commander's Palace— wins fans with his grilled king salmon.
DINNER FOR TWO $84
1728 SONIAT ST.; 504/899-7397
Cafeteria-style po'boy joint.
DINNER FOR TWO $30
401 POYDRAS ST.; 504/523-9656
Napoleon House Bar & Café
The 200-year-old landmark is the place to enjoy a Pimm's Cup.
DINNER FOR TWO $60
500 CHARTRES ST.; 504/524-9752
WHAT TO DO
Aidan Gill For Men
An old-time barbershop, for a close shave and a shot of whiskey.
2026 MAGAZINE ST.; 504/587-9090
Faulkner House Books
A bookstore in Faulkner's 1925 house that stocks both contemporary fiction and first editions.
624 PIRATE'S ALLEY; 504/524-2940
Hoover Watches & Jewels
Vintage watches, including Rolex and Patek Philippe.
301 ROYAL ST.; 504/522-7289
Antiques, surplus, and stylish junk.
1234 DECATUR ST.; 504/522-6639
French countryside culinary antiques.
610 CHARTRES ST.; 504/528-9620
Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
The source for magic potions.
739 BOURBON ST.; 504/581-3751
Meyer the Hatter
120 ST. CHARLES AVE.; 504/525-1048
5500 MAGAZINE ST.; 504/269-6464
Antiques and vintage clothing.
1218 DECATUR ST.; 504/568-1004
Devoted to the art of scribbling, this shop carries fine writing supplies.
5423 MAGAZINE ST.; 504/897-1555
More shopping, restaurant, and nightlife picks from Michael Kors
WHERE TO SHOP
Soniat House Antiques
A nice collection of 18th- and 19th-century French and Italian decorative furniture and accessories.
1139 Chartres St.; 504/212-0200, ext. 2; www.soniatantiques.com
The Shops at Canal Place
This upscale mall includes outposts of Gucci, Betsey Johnson, Kenneth Cole, and Saks Fifth Avenue. On its third floor are the four screens of the Canal Place Cinema, which shows the latest in art house films.
333 Canal St.; www.theshopsatcanalplace.com
The 200 Block of Chartres Street
Within this one block in the Quarter is an assortment of great artsy establishments: Bassetti Fine Art Photographs (No. 233; 504/529-9811), for contemporary photos; Crescent City Books and Prints (No. 204; 800/546-4013 or 504/524-4997; www.commonwealthbooks.com), for antiquarian books and prints; La Provence (No. 239; 504-299-0772; www.provencelinens.com), for French linens and furniture; A Gallery for Fine Photography (No. 241; 504/568-1313; www.agallery.com), for rare photos and books; Stone & Press Gallery (No. 238; 504/561-8555; www.stoneandpress.com), for an extraordinary collection of etchings, lithographs, and wood engravings from the first half of the 20th century.
High-end vintage clothing, jewelry, bags, housewares, and furniture.
5418 Magazine St.; 504/895-5045
Inexpensive vintage clothing.
3127 Magazine St.; 504/899-5587
Two branches, selling vintage women's clothing and jewelry.
829 Chartres St.; 504/581-4555 2048
Magazine St.; 504/299-8777
Fleur de Paris
Ladies' couture hats, created by milliner Nicole LeBlanc, and dresses.
712 Royal St.; 504/525-1899
This quaint little French Quarter drugstore was used in the remake of Lolita a few years back. Its soda fountain is still intact, but not, alas, in service. The store's interior has barely changed in the 100 years it's been open.
1101 Royal St.; 504/523-5401
WHERE TO EAT
An old stand-by just outside the Irish Channel neighborhood.
Dinner for two $76
6100 Annunciation St.; 504/895-1111
Hip neighborhood spot down the block from Peristyle, it was opened up by James Conte and Matthew Guidry, two New Orleanian transplants from Sag Harbor, New York, who owned the restaurant The Paradise Diner there before heading south.
Dinner for two $55
942 North Rampart St.; 504/569-9979