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This story first appeared in the June 1, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
On Monday night, Marc Jacobs will receive the CFDA’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. That will bring to 10 the number of CFDA Awards residing in the sleek glass display cases visitors see upon entering the reception area of his company headquarters on Spring Street — 11 if he also wins the award for Womenswear Designer of the Year.
If those of us of a certain fashion age wonder where the time went that turned New York’s seemingly perennial enfant brilliant into a figure of mature ubersuccess, we don’t wonder how it happened. Jacobs’ career is indeed one of dazzling achievement rooted in rare talent and a bottomless love of fashion. It has made for a thrilling, tumultuous narrative, one played out publicly over the course of a quarter century and filled with challenges, dramas, titillations, provocations and always, fabulous fashion. And oh yes, hard work. On Friday I visited Jacobs to chat about the honor, which he prefers to think of as a career-in-progress citation. On my way out at four o’clock, I asked about his plans for the holiday weekend. He looked as if I’d gone daft. “Memorial Day?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve had a Memorial Day off in 30 years. We’re all here. The design team’s here, working through Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I’ll go to the gym every morning, but I’ll be here after the gym. It’s resort.”
Bridget Foley: So, Lifetime Achievement…
Marc Jacobs: You can only imagine what I have to say about that.
B.F.: What was your first reaction?
M.J.: You know how I am about the CFDA Awards and stuff like that. It’s a great honor and I think it means a lot to everybody here to be recognized by our peers. But when I think of Lifetime Achievement, the first thing that comes to my mind is some venerable actor who hasn’t been in a movie in 30 years whom the Academy is honoring; Lifetime Achievement seems quite final to me. I [prefer to look at it] as an “In-the-Process-of Award.”
It’s not my achievement, number one. It is Marc Jacobs as a company. As you know, that’s Robert [Duffy] and myself and Leslie [Clements, director of sales], and Kate [Waters, director of public relations] and the design team, Joseph [Carter, women’s design director] and all of the people in the stores and everybody who’s been here and been through this for all of these years. It’s Coty, it’s Iris with the shoes, it’s Safilo with the sunglasses. It’s every single thing that has helped to build this brand. That, I guess, is our achievement so far, but we’re not done. We want to continue to add to this.
B.F.: I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use the word brand before.
M.J.: No, I probably haven’t. There are two words that seem to come up all the time right now and I wouldn’t [typically] use them: sustainability and brand. Everybody uses them and I think I’m probably a bit of a chimpanzee. Brand. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before. But, again, the achievement is that Robert and I met many, many years ago and we’ve had many, many ups and downs — as you and everybody else have documented — we’ve had failures and we’ve had successes and we’ve had good ideas and ideas that maybe weren’t as good and as lucrative. So when you sit here and talk to me, I’m Marc, and when you talk about Marc Jacobs, it’s a company that a lot of people have helped to build.
B.F.: What was the hardest time you and Robert ever went through?
M.J.: I think the hardest was when we were fired from Perry Ellis, because we’d had several failures: the Kashiyama thing went wrong, the Seventh Avenue Sketchbook thing went bankrupt, all of these things. At a certain point you think we want to keep going but have we just used up all of our get out of jail free cards? How much can we fight?
B.F.: Let’s talk about brand in reference to what it used to be: a company, a house, a label. Do you think that the word brand has taken some of the intimacy out of fashion?
M.J.: I feel like a little bit of a cheat using it because I don’t really know if I feel like our company is a brand in actual fact. These past couple weeks I’ve had to do a lot of things regarding the CFDA in terms of interviews, etc. And I just had a meeting with Coty. They presented us with the position of Daisy Eau So Fresh and said we were the most successful flanker ever. Flanker is a new word for me, too.
B.F.: About fragrance branding, have you seen the Justin Bieber fragrance bottle?
B.F.: Does it remind you of anything?
M.J.: Yep, yep. We just had a conversation about it. Coty said, “Do we sue them?” and I said, “You know what? Let everyone else say what they want.” I received Google [Alerts] about people saying it was derivative. We’re not going to do anything about it.
B.F.: That bottle is very similar to your Lola.
M.J.: But you know, I look around the room and I look at the work we’ve done and a quote I always bastardize but I really believe in, is something Chanel said: “He who insists on his own creativity has no memory.”
B.F.: We were talking about the Marc Jacobs brand.
M.J.: I had just come back from Berlin with [his assistant] Casey Kenyon. We were on British Airways flying from London to Berlin and the in-flight magazines were filled with stuff to buy and there were ads for Daisy Eau So Fresh. Every flight attendant came up to me and told me how much she loved the fragrance. We get to Heathrow and the duty free shops were filled with display cases and perfumes. At JFK, there are all these Marc Jacobs fragrances in the duty free shops and people come up to me there. And I can’t help but remember the days when Robert and I were interviewed for “48 Hours” [in 1988]. Robert was building a runway. I’m vomiting in the bathroom because we hadn’t slept in three days and we were delirious and hallucinating. So none of that ever goes away.
I haven’t even sat down to write the [CFDA] speech yet but I’ve been thinking a lot about it, about what does this mean to me and what does this mean to us. I just turned 48 but I don’t feel 48. I still feel like a young person but I really see the difference in the work. I’m trying to understand what all of that means and how I feel about it.
B.F.: You certainly don’t look 48.
M.J.: There’s that thing on the Internet about me, this person at 48 being physically addicted to going to the gym two hours a day, who goes for manicures and pedicures and facials and injections and haircuts regularly and all of this taking care of oneself to the extreme. And I guess I’ve just been thinking about all of this because of this award. But, again, I work with a group of young people; we’re all interested in things that are current and the way that it informs us. I don’t feel old.
B.F.: Do you follow what younger designers are doing?
M.J.: People ask me about the younger designers, Alex Wang and all of them, I think they’re great. I couldn’t do what they do. It’s not what I do. But just like in pop music and in the art world, people always want new work from the artist that they like but they also want new artists. I don’t think one changes the other. There’s always room for new designers, new musicians, new artists, new writers. Madonna, I don’t think is showing any signs of slowing down, but that doesn’t mean Lady Gaga isn’t taking over the world.
B.F.: Do you see in your work the impacts of age?
M.J.: I guess there’s a little less naïvety in it. Going through the learning process and working here and in Paris, I personally think we’ve built a strength in terms of editing. Also, through becoming healthier and more confident [as a business], there’s a sense of security and less fear. I’ve said this to you many times before but I don’t feel like we’re sticking our necks out when we’re doing a show like before. We’re all in this because we love fashion and part of that love for fashion is being unapologetic.
B.F.: Has the pressure waned, the pressure of having one of the most anticipated shows every season?
M.J.: I still feel the pressure.
B.F.: Does it get worse?
M.J.: I’ve spent the past two weeks, which is superpremature, thinking that I don’t know what we’re going to do to top that last Vuitton show. I thought it was the most beautiful presentation. I think, “Why am I doing this to myself?” but it’s inevitable. When I get back to Paris two weeks from now, I’m just going to be like, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” The answer won’t come right away.
B.F.: What are you most proud of?
M.J.: I’m just proud of all of it, really. I’ve just been reflecting so much on all of this. I ran into the chairman of Safilo on the plane [from Berlin]. He was sitting next to me and he introduced himself. I’d never met him. He said, “You know, your brand is one of the most successful in the Safilo Group for sunglasses.” Then I run into random young people who say, “I wear the Marc by Marc sunglasses.” People come up to me at the gym and say, “I love Bang,” and people say, “The bookstore is so incredible.” So I don’t think I could say what I’m proudest of because it’s just all so amazing. I mean, again, that “48 Hours” episode where we had six pairs of shoes to work with that Manolo [Blahnik] kindly made for us and Robert was literally building the runway.
B.F.: The established designer counterpoint in that episode was Bill Blass, right?
M.J.: Yeah. But there are so many things. Like I told you [right before showing fall], given some press criticism about changing all the time, I said, “OK, our first fashion show —every fabric was spotted.” The sweaters, you know very well, were spotted smiley face sweaters. So we were like OK, everybody says we reference everybody else so we’ll reference ourselves. This was the first thing we ever showed in New York, at the Century Cafe. You know, sometimes I just feel like, God, we’ve been around for a quarter of a century.
B.F.: You’ve gone through a lot.
M.J.: We’ve gone through a lot. I think every time I walk into this building [72 Spring] when I come back from Paris, it hits me. Walking down the street or going to a restaurant, people recognize me. And I come into this building and we have [taken over] another half a floor or another full floor and I’m just like, “What the hell is going on?” We have six floors in this building. We have all these stores I just think, “When did this all happen?”
B.F.: Did you know from the first time you picked up a pencil or looked at a dress or whatever that you were a great talent?
M.J.: No. I still wouldn’t say I am.
B.F.: Come on.
M.J.: I wouldn’t. I don’t mind if you say it but I’m not going to say it myself.
B.F.: Where do you fit in fashion history?
M.J.: I don’t know. I guess many years will have to pass and we’ll have to look back and see what the social contribution is….I think the greatest contributors to fashion are women. Chanel, Vionnet. I think Vivienne Westwood; I think Miuccia Prada; Schiaparelli, Rei Kawakubo.
B.F.: Would you pick one of them out of the group?
M.J.: The one that I probably feel the most strongly about is Miuccia, because of the aesthetic and the mood. There’s something so shocking and so tender about it, and it’s also very real. I mean, I’m sitting here in a banana print shirt from Prada [with a Comme des Garçons kilt.] In the way that Ralph Lauren has created a world that’s affluent, I think Miuccia Prada created an aesthetic that, to me, is so rife with references to other great works. And I never think that’s problematic because it’s always filtered through her very specific aesthetic. There’s an eccentricity but there’s also a chic old world sophistication, but it’s so new. It’s young but never vulgar. There’s a sex appeal that’s kind of naïve. It’s all the things I love.
B.F.: Don’t you think though that you two are on a certain wavelength? The juxtaposition of eccentricity and chic, I’m seeing that around here.
M.J.: Perhaps that’s where the appreciation comes from. But I also think in terms of building a brand and her support of contemporary art, her interest in modern architecture, she’s such a rich, smart woman and her husband is a great businessman. It’s a great partnership. I think what comes of it is so new but there’s a comfort in knowing there’s something old about it as well.
B.F.: The younger designers —whom do you think is good?
M.J.: I think Alexander Wang is really good.
B.F.: What do you like about his work?
M.J.: I don’t know it really well but I know people wear it and I hear people talk about it all the time and I’ve seen pictures. It looks well-formed and well-thought-out. And Jack and Lazaro [of Proenza Schouler], I think they’re really mature in what they’re doing. I’m not going into whether I like it personally, that’s not what I’m talking about because we all have different taste. The clothes I like are Prada so that’s that, or Comme. But as young American designers, they seem to be really good. There are probably others that I’m sure are really good but I’m not paying that much attention.
B.F.: What do you think of the Rodarte girls?
M.J.: They’re in a league of their own. I don’t even think of them as young designers. From the first thing they’ve ever made, it’s such artistry. They are so sophisticated. All their references are superintelligent. They are definitely thinking people. I think it goes beyond fashion. It’s just great work. We said something similar when we were at McQueen [at the Met]. I think I said to you, “It’s so beautiful. It’s not a history lesson. It’s just like looking at beautiful things.” I’m not talking about art to wear; I hate that kind of thing. It’s just that they make beautiful things.
B.F.: Is fashion art? Can it be art?
M.J.: You have to get into defining art, which I just think is pretentious. My favorite quote, and again, I’m sure I’m twisting this into my own words, is something Mainbocher said: “Fashion is not an art; it’s part of the art of living.” I agree. I think fashion is not an art but it is part of the art of living just like good wine, just like beautiful interiors, just like flower arranging.
B.F.: What’s stimulating you right now?
M.J.: Sometimes it’s not evident. It’s like that week before the show and all the things that have been stimulating me over the past six months become clear. Sometimes it’s too recent to put my finger on but then as we’re working, it becomes evident. It’s a collective stimulation. It may be one catalyst that jump-starts things but then it evolves and it organically becomes that show, that collection.
B.F.: Your favorite show — still grunge?
M.J.: My favorite of all time will be grunge.
B.F.: Why? And how does your perspective on it change as you move further away from it?
M.J.: It was probably the most liberating thing. Because it was when I honestly felt like I couldn’t stop designing because I was genuinely so inspired by the music that was going on, the photography that was going on, new girls, this idea of beauty in imperfection. There was so much more to it than making plaid shirts and flowing silk dresses. It wasn’t about that. It was about a sensibility and also about a dismissal of everything that one was told was beautiful, correct, glamorous, sexy. I loved that it represented a newness. I think that’s how people dress now. I think that moment hasn’t passed. It’s morphed into different things but it really hasn’t passed. You look at young people on the streets, and I’m not talking about only in New York or major cosmopolitan cities, but there’s a sensibility that allows for a lot of difference now. This kind of cacophony and chaos in fashion in a nice way allows for breaking down of gender [rules] and appropriateness.
B.F.: So you don’t think this is a dull time for fashion?
M.J.: No, I don’t. I mean, is it the most exciting time? I don’t know. It seems like hindsight is the best way to look at all that stuff. I loved the last show we did. I thought it was great and I enjoyed it. I felt it was very strong and very specific. And as I said, I loved the Vuitton show. I think as a show it was probably my favorite presentation we’ve ever done of a collection. I really loved it.
B.F.: Where did the idea come from?
M.J.: We had been talking about fetish and one thing just leads to another. I started thinking about this hotel and the team at Vuitton had suggested building stairs and having the girls come upstairs and I was like, no, they should come up elevators. Then I thought of all of these old parties with Naomi and Kate at Claridge’s and all the different people, mistresses and girlfriends and all kinds of people leaving the hotel at different hours. There was a romance in this kind of fetish and not knowing their lives. There was this voyeuristic kind of thing and again, one little seed of an idea led to another. Then when I got back to Paris from New York, they were like, “We want to build staircases,” and I was like, “No, no. The girls have to come up in elevators. It should be like Claridge’s where you don’t know what magnificent creature is getting out of what elevator at what hour.” So it just kind of evolved.
B.F.: How nice is it to have the resources available to do that.
M.J.: It’s really nice. I mean, thank you Mr. Arnault. Many years ago he gave the opportunity to Robert and me. If you look at our first Vuitton show, we wanted to send out a nice collection of simple clothes with all the logos on the inside and one single bag on Kirsten Owen. It has evolved into, ‘OK, this is Paris. Let’s have three elevators’. I asked for six; I got three. So we’re like, ‘Let’s get Kate Moss, Naomi. Let’s fly in Stella. Let’s fly in Carolyn and Amber.’ You want a show? Okay guys, I’ll give you a show.
B.F.: Is it easy to gauge Mr. Arnault’s opinions?
M.J.: We have very serious conversations. I meet with Mr. Arnault every time I’m in Paris. He’s such a hands-on sort of guy. He goes to every store in every country and he discusses things with me. He’ll say, “The perception of Vuitton as a brand is very masculine as opposed to Chanel, which has a very feminine identity.”
And I’ll be like, ‘Well, Chanel has always been a woman’s brand and it has beauty and perfume and the boutiques are feminine. Vuitton is brown luggage with an okra-colored logo. It’s not the most feminine coloration.’ And, other than the fashion ads, we do these ads that feature world leaders and sports figures and I think they’re great but I don’t think they exactly speak to women. And he’s aware of that.
It’s very interesting. I felt that [being hired for Vuitton] was all born from Tom [Ford’s] success at Gucci. I believe Mr. Arnault was aware of that and said, “We can do that with Vuitton.” But Gucci had a heritage of making clothing and Vuitton didn’t. The history was ours to write and it’s still being questioned every single season. But he was thrilled with the last show. He felt that one and the one around the fountain were how he would like women to see Vuitton’s image as a fashion brand. He’s very up front and honest with me about what he likes and what he doesn’t like, what he thinks works and also what he thinks works in other places. Not that he’s asking me to do what someone else does, but to look at the success of certain things.
B.F.: Is Chanel the primary example?
M.J.: It is absolutely without argument, it’s like France in terms of fashion. No one since Coco Chanel has left anything. Dior made beautiful dresses but they didn’t create a style of dressing that women still aspire to. What Karl has done is take all of these Chanel-isms and just kept them so incredibly up-to-date or ahead-of-date. So of course, it’s one of those things you look at and say, “How does one start or continue to make a brand?” — or not a brand, sorry about that word. How do you create a style? Because that’s what Chanel did. That’s what Saint Laurent wanted to do. I’m pretty sure I’m paraphrasing again, but in one of those documentaries [Pierre] Bergé was talking about it and he said, “That was Saint Laurent’s goal, to leave behind a style, because that’s what lasts.”…I don’t know that we’ve done it yet. No, I know we haven’t done it yet.
B.F.: Would you like to see the feminization of Vuitton?
M.J.: From Day One this has been about creating ready-to-wear and fashion accessories that coexist with what Vuitton is. There is no reason to apologize for the fact that it’s the most successful and identifiable luxury travel luggage in the world. But it is brown and gold. That does not stop women from carrying it, but it impacts the look of boutique and the clothes.…There’s no Vuitton Beauté. At this moment, there is no fragrance although we’re working on that.
B.F.: When you look back on your career and think about the parts that may have been controversial, the hour-long waits…
M.J.: You mean the three-hour-long waits?
B.F.: Do you think what was everybody getting so crazy about?
M.J.: No, I understand why people were crazy. I don’t keep anybody waiting three hours anymore and I never set out to keep them waiting three hours. There were dresses that weren’t ready and I was not going to hold the show without those dresses and to cancel those girls who were in those dresses.
B.F.: Do you think fashion overreacts in general?
M.J.: That’s just the nature of it. You are dealing with a whole lot of highly sensitive people who [will react] depending on their mood and how they’re feeling that day or what they did or didn’t eat for lunch. I have no problem going on record with this and probably have gone on record with this before, there aren’t that many people who I respect. There just aren’t. I think journalists have the right to their opinions but I think their opinions should be based on history and what they see, not what they feel, how long they’ve been waiting or whether it’s raining or it’s snowing or whatever.
[If] I go to see a movie of Sofia’s [Coppola], I go wanting to love it; she’s my friend and I think she’s a great talent. I walk into that from a plus place, and if I had to wait five hours that wouldn’t change my point of view about wanting to love that movie. But if I were a film critic with absolutely no personal relationship to her, I might be inconvenienced and I might be irritated. I might allow it to affect the way I felt about the content of the film. So it’s a little hard to make these kind of rules.
B.F.: Does traditional media matter anymore?
M.J.: I’m not sure it does as much as it used to, and I’m not sure how much it ever did. Another story: Once when I was living on 71st Street there was this very chic couple who lived below me. I got a really bad review in the New York Times. The wife got in the elevator with me and she said, “Great review of your show in the New York Times” and I said, “You didn’t read it?” and she said, “No, I saw the picture.” She didn’t read what it said but it was in the New York Times, therefore it was a good review. I know seasons when we’ve had good reviews, better reviews, bad reviews; I don’t know that the customer who is standing in the dressing room trying on a dress and loving it, really is going back and thinking, “I don’t know. This is the dress they mentioned as being clumsy.” I’m not sure how much it affects people.
[But] I feel like it affects the energy of all of us. In fashion we all gossip about it because within our community it’s extremely important. I think it breaks momentum or a sort of energy when there’s harsh criticism, and I think when the critique is positive, we all feel quite robust and we’re out there. In that way, it has an effect. But in another, I think a woman’s going to go into a shop to find a coat or a jacket and I just don’t think she’s not going to go into a shop because of a bad review she probably didn’t even read.
B.F.: Could you apply that theory to new media or social media?
M.J.: I think so.
B.F.: You’re not all atwitter about Twitter and all things social media.
M.J.: No, no. I had a couple of little moments…I’ve got better things to do. I don’t need to talk to like schoolteachers from New Jersey about what was valid and what was invalid and what was derivative and what was referencing. I mean, I’ve just got work to do. I really don’t care to argue with you.
B.F.: Have you ever examined why you are such a person of fascination?
M.J.: I think a lot of that probably happened when I got in shape, then all of the sudden I started posing for pictures more. Instead of being the guy with the long hair and the glasses who didn’t change his clothes, I [became] someone that everyone didn’t want in his clothes. Everyone [on photo shoots] was like, “Take your clothes off!” and I was like, “With pleasure! I didn’t work this hard to keep them on.” Then it was my romances, then my problem with substances.
B.F.: You’re not angry at all?
M.J.: No. I don’t feel like an angry person. I don’t feel angry at all.