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Look, Ma!

It's about more than mutual affection and respect. Designer Michael Kors says mom Joan has been his muse and his mentor since Day One.

May 12, 2000|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Michael Kors, known for being a multi-tasker, is buried in work. For starters, he's in the middle of his fifth collection for the Paris fashion house of Celine as well as his own signature label. Then there's the grand opening of his Manhattan store in about four months. And, along with movie mogul Sherry Lansing, he's planning a benefit for the Los Angeles Rape Treatment Center at the end of this month.

But mention his mother, Joan, and Michael puts his work on hold. No other calls and no interruptions when it comes to talking about the woman who has been his inspiration, and yes, even his muse.

"The greatest thing about my mom is that she sensed in me, even when I was little, that fashion designing was something I was interested in. She encouraged it. She saw that I was one of those kids who thought it was real fun to rearrange the furniture. And she'd let me do that," says Michael in his New York office.

Forget that Mother's Day is right around the corner. For Michael, 40, and Joan, 60, the observance isn't once a year.

"Michael makes me feel like it's Mother's Day every day--and I'm not just saying that," says Joan at her West Hollywood high-rise apartment, where she works as a fabric pattern designer for Lamont, a Burlington, Iowa, firm that sells linens and bathroom accessories to places such as Bed, Bath & Beyond.

"You know, I was always Michael's mother first, but I was always his friend too. Most parents don't ever get to be friends with their children, and I really wanted that for Michael and me," says the thrice-divorced Joan, surrounded by her three cats, Mushroom, Lily and Dolly, in her all-white home with its country-style furniture.

"From the time he was born, I knew it was always going to be just the two of us," she says, chatting in her living room filled with photos of Michael and her as well as her idols, actress Betty Grable and Don Maynard, former wide receiver for the New York Jets.

Mother and son are so close that they gab on the phone daily, sometimes two and three times a day. Together, every summer they celebrate their birthdays--he was born Aug. 9; she July 10--like national holidays.

They often order the same meals at restaurants, enjoy Broadway show tunes, have similar tastes in clothes and furnishings. Both are extremely competitive.

They've even quit smoking together, although Joan confesses she's down to four cigarettes a day. Michael has totally kicked the habit.

Of course, there are differences. Joan loves sports. Michael can't catch a beach ball. She's a laid-back woman. He's always on the go. She loves the country--chickens, goats and the white picket fence she dreams of having one day. His idea of the country is Malibu.

Joan, a onetime Revlon model, dancer and athlete, even has the newspaper clippings to prove she sneaked into a football field in 1973 to try out with 400 men for the Philadelphia Eagles.

And through it all--the marriages, the football and Joan's extraordinary 30-year friendship with Grable, whom Michael calls "her personal God"--the designer has been devoted to his mom and mentor, the woman who would get down on the floor with him when he was a kid so they could sketch together.

"No matter what has happened in our lives, my mom has always been there for me," Michael says. "There are no other siblings in my life, my real dad was never part of the equation, and you know, even though my mom remarried twice, we kind of grew up together. Even in the midst of all the change in my life, we were always together."

Independence Runs in the Family

Joan, a slender woman known for her trademark blond ponytail, clearly influences his work. And now, she only wears her son's designs, preferring trousers and sweaters.

"People say to me, 'Who do you dress?' And the only connecting thread is that I dress women who are smart, independent and opinionated. And that's my mom. She remains my first reference point."

His mother's independence has rubbed off on him too.

In 1964, when Michael was 5, Joan let him audition for a Lucky Charms cereal commercial because he wanted to be an actor. He won the part and soon did other commercials for Apple Chips and Charmin.

"It's what he wanted to do," Joan recalls while cruising down Sunset Boulevard in her 1990 Mustang convertible with just 38,000 miles for her weekly ponytail fix and manicure at Yuki's salon in West Hollywood. "I believe in doing things that you enjoy doing. That's what I've always told him."

But when Michael was 6, Mom put the kibosh on his acting gigs because they were interfering with schoolwork.

"That's the only disagreement we have ever had," Michael says. What he cherishes most about that time "is that my mom listened to what I was interested in doing and for 1 1/2 years I did commercials."

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