Michael Kors: What Women Want

updated 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Michael Kors buyers, beware: Even after nearly three decades in fashion, the designer has difficulty letting go of his creations. "I walk up to people on the street [in my clothes] all the time and ask, 'How is that dress going for you? Are you comfortable?'" he says. "I can make something beautiful, but if it doesn't work in real life, then to me it's a disaster."

Indeed, he is the Project Runway judge most likely to ask, "But does someone really want to wear that?" In his case, absolutely. Masterfully mixing sex appeal with comfort, Kors, 46, has turned his trademark luxurious ease (think cashmere tank tops) into a fashion empire with sales expected to top $260 million this year and boasting more than a dozen lines, including accessories and an upcoming home collection. Along the way he has attracted a celebrity following that includes Madonna and Jessica Simpson and joined the likes of Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan as one of five designers ever to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America's top awards for both women's and men's clothing.

The son of a Revlon model, Kors grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and sold his first fashion sketches to a manufacturing company at 15. "The first thing I did when I got paid was buy ridiculous shoes!" he says, laughing. Four years later Kors became a designer for Manhattan's trendy (and now defunct) Lothar's boutique and then debuted the Michael Kors label at department stores including Bergdorf Goodman in 1981. He was just 21. "I knew that women liked what I did," he says.

They still do. But how to explain his longevity in such a notoriously fickle business? "You have to be consistent, but also change," says Kors as he pores over photos of his career highlights in his Manhattan office. "It's like making the perfect porridge for the three bears. It has to be just right."

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