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Marc Jacobs: Seizing the Moment

There are certain presumptions one can make about a designer of Marc Jacobs’ stature — that he is famous and influential, that his genius is the result of a singular vision that is unleashed on a runway each season, that he must agonize...

There are certain presumptions one can make about a designer of Marc Jacobs’ stature — that he is famous and influential, that his genius is the result of a singular vision that is unleashed on a runway each season, that he must agonize over a critical review. Yet from his perspective, none of this is a true representation of the real Marc Jacobs.

“It’s such an uncomfortable thing to say I’m an influential designer,” said Jacobs, designer of Marc Jacobs International and artistic director of Louis Vuitton, during a dinner conversation with Bridget Foley, vice president and executive editor of WWD and its sister publication, W, in which he set out to demystify certain ideas about who he is.

“I didn’t decide to be influential, I just make the things I like,” he said.

Doing his thing for more than 20 years, Jacobs is the rare designer who has been around long enough to become a fixture at the top of the fashion pyramid yet still maintain the excitement and freshness of a new talent. But he insists the long and often difficult path to his current success was never plotted out. Rather it was the result of the hard work and dedication to fashion shared by himself and Robert Duffy, his career-long business partner. Maintaining his youthful appeal, the 41-year-old designer added, probably has as much to do with his embrace of collaborations with young artists and designers.

WWD: Let’s start with the notion of influence. Can you articulate what makes a designer influential?

MJ: The customer. First of all, it’s such an uncomfortable thing to sort of say, ‘Oh, I’m an influential designer’ because I didn’t decide to be influential. I just wanted to make the things that I like. But what I mean by the customer is that, yes, there was, as you introduced, this generation sort of embraced — for whatever reason — something that I was doing and it started to sell, they started to buy it, people started to see it, the magazines were covering it, etcetera, etcetera. And so I guess it’s the appearance of things in everyday life that mean you’ve been influential.

This story first appeared in the November 17, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

WWD: Did it click with you at the time that you had achieved a level of celebrity that was unlike anything else for someone your age? All the other major designers, certainly in New York, were addressing a different customer.

MJ: Well, I never looked at, or I still don’t look at myself that way. I mean Giorgio Armani is a celebrity designer to me and so is Calvin Klein. I’m just like, you know, still trying to…

WWD: In a way you are unique in the industry. You are a 20-year veteran and yet you do have the swirl and the excitement and the frenzy about you of the proverbial young designer.

MJ: I do have quite young taste. I love young things. I mean, I think youth and energy are just the most beautiful things in the world. I don’t know anybody in the world who wants to look old. So I mean I am attracted to young things and I do get inspired by young things or fresh things. And even when I’m doing something that’s ironically dowdy it’s because it seems to be what appeals to young people at the moment.

I can’t seem to get it together to get a blazer. I haven’t worn shoes since I was probably seven years old with gray flannel shorts and a navy blazer. But so I don’t know that I come across as like a man. Although, I mean…Wait a second, I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, you know, again you look at Mr. Armani or Calvin Klein, even Tom Ford. You look at these people and you say like these are men to be revered and respected. I sort of schlep in, in an army jacket and a pair of sneakers.

WWD: But then there are those big billboards, girls love Marc Jacobs, boys love Marc Jacobs.

MJ: Girls. It doesn’t say mature women love Marc Jacobs.

WWD: So do you ever worry that you’ll lose that? You mentioned Tom. Tom has sometimes said, “I wonder when I won’t get it anymore.” It turns out he left before he didn’t get it anymore.

MJ: Again to be really just straightforward and realistic and sort of demystify the whole thing — you know, it’s not only me. I am always, always, always seeking the company as well — at work and in my private life — of people who are young and influential. Not necessarily because they’re influential but because creative people with something to say really inspire me and I like being around them. I always have.

So even if I may be 41, God forbid, now, I have a lot of young friends who are vital and again doing something today.

WWD: Let’s talk about that, Modest Mouse and whatever. Music has always been very, very important in your work, the references. You know, musical references, cultural references, artistic references — how do you take them and not be precious with them and make them into something viable?

MJ: I think again it’s kind of hard to translate the feeling you get from music into something like a dress or something. But that is kind of what happens with me. I am very moved by a lot of art and by music. And I guess it’s the energy from music as well as…

I mean, I wrote an introduction to this book on punk, once I was asked to do this, and what really seduced me into listening to the music was the way the crowd looked. I was so drawn to all these skinny guys in shrunken jackets and all these women with cat-like eyes and zebra prints mixed with leopard prints. So I was really attracted to the look of the fans and that sort of got me to listen to the music. And then I loved the graphics and all that. And that’s kind of been the thing with music, I mean whether it’s hip-hop or punk or alternative or rock ’n’ roll. But that goes back to Elvis Presley or The Beatles. I mean, musicians have always influenced the youth of the world.

WWD: And at the same time you’ve also always said that your work has a classicism to it.

MJ: I use the word “classic” to describe anything that feels familiar in a way. Classic to me is something that’s endured. Now it may have only endured in my head, but it has endured, you know what I mean? Like I say like, “Oh, you know those classic square-toe shoes.” Well…(laughter). Well, I think that just says it all right there.

WWD: But you use the word “familiar.” So let’s take familiar and consider another ramification of that word, retro.

MJ: Well again, I have no problem…There’s not such a thing for me as a negative word. I have no problem with this word retro, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, you know? I love old clothes. I love fashion. So I have been inspired by looking at clothes from the Twenties, the Thirties, the Forties and the Fifties all in one season. It doesn’t matter, I really love clothes. And I don’t study old movies or sit with an open history book about costume history or anything like that, but I have this brain that retains certain things, but not perfectly. And I think, again, young people — or the young people that I know — don’t set out to do a Forties look or a Fifties look or anything, they wear what they like. And sometimes they decide that they want to dress like one of their icons.

WWD: Do you have a problem with people who have a problem with retro? With the ongoing criticism of it?

MJ: You know it’s like critics, some critics — sorry — there are certain designers if you do something every season you’re fantastic because you’re always consistent. Other designers, if you do the same thing every season, you’re terrible because it never changes. So I’ve kind of learned to sort of forget and forgive about whether it’s been called this or that or too little or too whatever, and just sort of think, “OK, some people like it and some people don’t and get on with it.”

WWD: How have you worked things like your own classics, like the thermals and all of that?

MJ: Well sometimes, again, it wasn’t a master plan. I didn’t sit down and sort of think I’ve got to come up with a classic that we can just recolor every season so the pattern doesn’t change and we’ll keep the cost down or whatever. I’m just not drawn that way. So I had this idea and people liked it and luckily I have this great business partner named Robert Duffy and he said, “I’ve got one less thing you have to draw next season. All you have to do is change the colors.” And that’s how it goes. It’s like, you know that mouse shoe you did? All you have to do is pick new colors for it; you don’t have to make it higher or lower or you know.

WWD: What is the master plan now?

MJ: You know, oh I always feel so corny when I say this, but the master plan is to be able to keep doing it. Because it’s scary sometimes to think like, “Oh, wow, this is our moment and we have to make hay while the sun shines or whatever that expression is.”

Even in every designer’s life, whatever scale they grow to be, there’s this sort of period where they’re on everybody’s lips or on a certain group of peoples’ lips. So we want to do as much as we can within our time. We just hope to keep going. We have meetings with people and future licensees and whatever, and we say this could be an interesting project and we give it our all and hope it works out. But it’s out of our hands once we’ve done the creative work and Robert has placed it in stores and we’ve all fought and done our part. Then it’s got to become somewhat organic, like people have to like it and buy it.

WWD: You have been in a remarkable two-house role for some time with very, very few nonstellar collections. When you do have one, when you hit a snag, does it impact you strongly? For example, I think it was fall 2003, the Courrèges-y collection?

MJ: Yeah, well, besides being sued by Mrs. Courrèges or whatever…that was just one of the many unfortunate moments during that season. I look at it and I say it was a whim, we did it, it’s done, it wasn’t a good collection, I realize that. I didn’t mean it — oh, God I’m probably not supposed to curse in here — but you know, people said, “Was that your f–k you collection?” I was like, no, I really thought we’d have some fun and do this thing and so it wasn’t liked, you do another one. I mean, to quote Karl Lagerfeld, “It’s on to the next.”

WWD: Do you think it’s a good moment for fashion, bad…?

MJ: Yeah. I mean people love it, they watch it on TV, they want to come to your shows, they get dressed up, they buy clothes, they love accessories, they have to have the bag six months before it’s ever in the store. It’s like there’s a fashion frenzy going on. You’ve got magazines like W and Vogue and In Style and everything has got like buy this, buy that and everyone is lining up to buy it.

WWD: Apart from Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs, where do you think the excitement is coming from?

MJ: Well, a lot of…Like Zac [Posen], who I ran into today, I think Zac’s really an exciting designer here in the U.S. I always find Ralph Lauren’s work exciting just because I just love Ralph Lauren. I think in Europe there’s great designers like Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, who I really respect. I think Miuccia Prada is probably singularly one of the most exciting human beings in terms of how she sees fashion.

And then I think there’s also — I know this is kind of a later question but I may get to it now — there’s the celebrity thing. Celebrities are the fashion models of the moment. There was a time period where supermodels rose to become supermodels because celebrities were just schleppy. And now celebrities all dress up. You don’t even need to lay a red carpet, you could lay a red doormat and they’d get dressed up (laughter). And then the celebrity endorsement thing and everybody who has ever sung a song or had a bit part in a film is designing a collection.

WWD: Let’s talk about that, both of those points. First of all, you have a lot of celebrity clients. Virtually every morning there’s some little actress on one of the morning programs in a Marc Jacobs outfit or talking to David Letterman in a Marc Jacobs look. But you have never really worked the red carpet angle. Do you think you’re missing a p.r. moment? Because they don’t go on David Letterman saying I’m wearing Marc Jacobs but…

MJ: I don’t think it’s in me to do great evening gowns. If I had that ability I’d probably be cranking them out, but I don’t really think it comes very naturally to me. I like a pretty dress but I’m not very good at a grand entrance or exit maker. It’s just not something I feel. So it would be very forced.

Also we — we meaning myself, Robert Duffy and anybody who is involved in any p.r. capacity — we have never courted celebrity. And I’m kind of proud of that, that we’re not like salesmen and we’re not kind of out there and sort of saying wear this, do this, promote us.

WWD: What about the other side of the celebrity thing you brought up, that everyone who has ever sung a song is launching a line? It’s clearly a thing at the moment, but do you think that the best may last and it’ll be like anything else, it will be a falling-off process?

MJ: Probably. I mean, with the popularity of the performer. I think it’s like perfumes or anything that people get involved in or endorse — as long as that person maintains an importance in the public eye, I think anything they touch may succeed. But I think like some of the Charlie’s Angels did J.C. Penney lines [Jaclyn Smith at Kmart]. So I don’t think again that this is such a new notion or anything. There seems to be a lot of it now. But honestly, if I had a great voice I’d try to make a record, you know, so…

WWD: Early on you and Robert found each other.

MJ: Thank God.

WWD: If a young designer came to you looking for advice, would you suggest that he or she try and seek out a business-side peer as opposed to just the sugar daddy money type?

MJ: Yeah. I’m of the belief that nobody can do everything. And when you put your energy into the gift that you have, like if you have this gift for creating something or making something, then that’s where you should put all of your energy all of the time. And somebody who puts that same creative energy into running a business or building a business, that’s terrific.

But, you know, I’m not…is it megalomaniac? Or I can’t control everything, I’m not a great director either. So I’m doing the best I can to participate in the area that I know I’m good at. And the rest I think I have to let go and give it to somebody else.

WWD: The two of you have had your share of experiences when it came to backers.

MJ: Yes.

WWD: What do you wish you had known in the beginning that you know now about the right situation?

MJ: You know, unfortunately, it’s like you can’t learn the lessons without doing the lesson. I have to go through it. That is the only way. And even then sometimes I don’t learn my lesson. But it’s like I can’t get to the end without going through the whole thing. And everything we’ve ever been involved with, Robert and I, we believed would work. We believed the people, we trusted them, even if we had moments of doubt we gave it our all. So if it didn’t work out we were always singing “On the Road Again” and then we would look for somebody else.

WWD: Why do you think it’s so hard to find the right fit? And it’s so hard for new designers to find the right fit and financial people who want to get into the business and whatever, but it’s also hard for major houses to find the situation that you now have at Louis Vuitton?

MJ: I think patience. And, well, a lot of people in big business. I mean Mr. Arnault is not the most patient human being, so he wants to see results. Anybody in business wants to see results. So it’s quite a different thing, a designer going to a big place. You know, as much as people say they’ll give you the time, they’ll give you the time maybe for a very short period of time and that’s really what they mean. You have to become a kind of translator to what things really mean. You kind of do have to prove yourself because I think people are enchanted by the press and who you’ve been seen with and what you’re doing and who your clothes are being worn with. But then they do want to see some solid proof that there is a reason that they should invest money in you.

WWD: You had getting-to-know-you problems at Louis Vuitton. Was that the biggest one, that your version of time may have been different from their version of time?

MJ: I don’t know. I think they were quite pleased with our work at Louis Vuitton. It took a while to convince Mr. Arnault that his investment in the company, Marc Jacobs, really was something that he should look at as opposed to just doing so that we’d carry on doing a nice job at Vuitton. So that took a little time.

There were people within LVMH who believed in us and believed in our business and believed in the potential of our business. But it took Mr. Arnault to really look at our handbags everywhere and the fact that the shoes were selling so well and the clothes really were profitable, etcetera. And once he saw that and we maybe pissed and moaned a little bit.

WWD: You are the only American fashion designer to have built a major success with your accessories company or collection. One retailer said to me that it’s because it’s transcended from fashion girl to soccer mom. Was that calculated — to make these things fashion-y but practical bags?

MJ: That was about as uncalculated as anything. Again, I love demystifying all this. But you know we had one bag. I work with a stylist named Venetia Scott and at the time we were working with Pina Ferlicci, who is now at the Gap. And we were all sitting around and we had this one bag and I think it came from some costume rental place, or whatever. And we looked at it and we said, “Well, we should make the hardware a little bit bigger and maybe we should get a leather that looks a bit used.” And this one bag then became 10 bags and that became 12 bags and they sold to 20 stores and then 30 stores, whatever. I’m still surprised. I’m like, “How did they all get these bags?”

WWD: Did you have a sense — you’ve had the bag of the season at least twice with the Sprouse graffiti bags and with the Murakami phenomenon. That has to be unprecedented. Did you have a sense when you were designing those, when you were collaborating with those people, that anything like that was going to happen?

MJ: There was one point I wasn’t even going to show them.

WWD: Talk about the notion of those collaborations and how you came up with the idea and what you look for in somebody to collaborate with?

MJ: Part of it is again a sort of romantic sort of dialogue I have with myself. The idea that I feel so fortunate to be this American designer living in Paris, which was always a dream of mine, working in Paris for this great, great company, with this prestigious company. And I thought there was that time, that romantic period in time, when people like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with great artists like Jean Cocteau. Although I’m not comparing myself at all to Chanel or Schiaparelli, I just thought isn’t this what life in Paris or Europe was about? It was about creative minds getting together and collaborating.

So being this huge fan of Stephen [Sprouse], rest in peace, and Takashi’s work at two different times for two different reasons, I just thought my name isn’t Louis Vuitton, I’m kind of collaborating with this Louis Vuitton, bigger-than-myself entity anyway, so why don’t I just use it to collaborate with other creative people? And that’s how it started and that’s how it sort of keeps going.

WWD: And so you’re continuing whenever you…?

MJ: Oh yeah, whenever somebody has a good idea, let me know. It’s really great to work with other people. I think of working with photographers as a collaboration. I thought working with Jennifer Lopez is a great collaboration. She’s an artist and we did these ads together with Matt Marcus. And, you know, I think of everything, putting a show together, designing a collection, it’s all a collaboration of sorts.

WWD: What is the game plan now? Whether or not there is a master plan, how big can it go?

MJ: Well, I’d like it to just keep growing at a healthy pace. I don’t want to be the next Calvin or the next Ralph or the next Donna. It’s like we’re going to find our own way and hopefully we’re going to do it in time. But we just have to keep going.

WWD: Do you plan any additional launches, any additional product categories going beneath Marc by Marc into better or anything like that?

MJ: We’ve had conversations. I’d like to expand the scope of Marc by Marc Jacobs because I think that’s an area…I mean, one of the things, although it’s very flattering to be…we can call it influential or we can say copied….But I see a lot of places making things that are very, very literally something that we’ve done. And I don’t find that a problem because I certainly have copied enough people in my life in some way. But I just think that we could be doing that ourselves. But we can’t seem to get it out of the price that reaches this far.

WWD: Is that the problem, doing it at a price?

MJ: I think so. With the Marc by Marc Jacobs line the scope could be broader if we could offer a bigger array of prices, then we could do more products. I’d love to do a real jeans line and casual clothes that people all over the place could wear every day.

WWD: But what is the problem? With the Louis Vuitton resources available, I mean they don’t make cheap clothes but there are certainly resources there.

MJ: I don’t know.This is something Robert and I have discussed and have discussed with them. Louis Vuitton is very good at making an expensive luxury product. They don’t do jeans real well at LVMH, you know? So maybe a third party needs to come in and that’s something we’ve…

WWD: What role does ego play in all of this?

MJ: Oh, there’s nobody with an ego in the fashion industry.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What did you learn from your grunge moment?

MJ: Oh, just to be myself. It was one of the happiest and saddest days of my life. We were both fired, Robert and I. But I felt so good even with the negative press, I thought, “Wow, it’s so much better to be loved or hated than to not inspire any feeling in anyone whatsoever.” And again, we didn’t do that to be rebellious, but it’s still to this day the collection I’m most proud of because I felt really inspired by a music that I loved and thought how can I express what I’m feeling visually in clothes, which is the medium I work in. I also learned that when I trust my heart and go for things full-stop that there may be consequences. But I can sleep better at night, even with the consequences, if I trust my heart.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: When you think of collaboration, do you automatically think of accessories?

MJ: No. First of all, I feel like the ads that we do for Marc Jacobs, that’s my collaboration with a photographer named Juergen Teller. And then we choose together, Juergen and I, like with Winona Ryder, we wanted to collaborate with Winona. And then it became a dialogue between Winona and Juergen and, of course, using my clothes because she was a customer. So that’s a collaboration of sorts.

But I think what you’re saying is, like at Vuitton, the collaborations have been with artists specifically on accessories. We did collaborate with Stephen also on clothes, but what resonated, I guess, were the accessories. Because people, no matter what size you are, you can carry a Stephen Sprouse graffiti bag. So I think accessories have this huge, huge, huge, huge power to please people and fashion is still kind of tiny and ready-to-wear is tiny, because although you might like to look at it not everybody can wear it. It’s sort of a bigger commitment in a way. An accessory is something you can collect and put on eBay easily.