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Marc Jacobs’ Great Performances

To the sounds of Gershwin in New York and Piaf in Paris, Marc Jacobs turns out two of the season's best collections.

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Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 10/27/2008

Backstage at Louis Vuitton, just before 2:30 P.M., the show’s scheduled start time, a bevy of flamboyant teens—all glitzed-out, feathered-up microminis and euphorically frizzed ponytails—is lined up atop supersculptural platforms in what masquerades as precision, chatting, twisting handbag straps and shifting their scant weight from one foot to the other. Aside from their impatient, girlish squirming, the scene plays as remarkably calm. Only makeup maestro extraordinaire Pat McGrath breaks the holding pattern with shouts of “No powder on the nose and chin!”

Marc Jacobs, the man whose name is, if not on the door, then the rock-star presence behind the name on the door, looks positively dapper, having ditched his recent uniform of a Comme des Garçons men’s skirt for a proper tailored suit. He strolls about coolly, silently flaunting his readiness to start the show while verbalizing the fact that he can’t just yet; he must wait for the biggest VIP of all, Bernard Arnault. “I want Mr. Arnault to say to me that he thinks that I did a great job,” Jacobs says later. “For so many years, all I wanted was a little bit of praise from him. Now I really get it, and it’s really great.”

Once Arnault takes his seat, the show starts. When it’s over, a breathless 13 or so minutes later, the LVMH chairman looks delighted. Ditto the larger audience, among whom one senses a communal sense of relief. On this final day of the spring 2009 collections, it’s up to a handful of big guns—Jacobs at Vuitton, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin and Miuccia Prada at Miu Miu—to salvage what must be characterized as a long, slow run of shows. Jacobs has done his part and then some, almost book-ending the season with spectacular efforts in New York with his own line, and here in Paris for Vuitton.

Eight days later, on a trip to New York, Jacobs settles into a banquette at the Mercer Hotel to discuss his brilliant twofer, but not before giving a rundown of his first few days in Gotham: a no-go decision to the hernia surgery he expected to have (he now must take it a bit easier at the gym); a Madonna concert (she made an impassioned plea for Obama); Elizabeth Peyton’s opening at The New Museum (“beautiful, beautiful show, and I was really happy to be there for her”); Equus (“a hard Saturday night. It was great but intense”), and the expected dining at Pastis and Da Silvano, all opportunities for people to lavish Jacobs with plaudits for his knockout season, praise he admits to basking in, if only briefly. “There’s this little tiny window of time that I get to enjoy any sort of positive feelings about the last show, because you’ve got to get involved in the next,” he says. “You’ve got to give yourself a cutoff.”

But these days, the stress of “the next” seems to agree with the designer, who looks fabulous, feels healthy and holds no animosity toward gossip mongers who chart his every possible move, including his love life. He calls current boyfriend Lorenzo Martone “the greatest, greatest, sweetest, nicest guy in the world,” and if blogs and tabloids chart their comings and goings, so be it. It’s not like they’re attempting to go incognito. “Celebrities and sometimes-celebrities sitting on the terrace at Pastis saying, ‘Don’t take my picture,’” Jacobs says with an incredulous look. “Well, then, don’t eat outside at Pastis, because that’s where the paparazzi are….It’s hard to believe somebody who is on stage doesn’t want to be noticed, and I mean a stage of any sort.” He finds himself content enough to riff seriously on that old get-high-on-life line: “I’m just actually completely high on doing and making and being in this role and enjoying it.”

And trying to keep perspective. Jacobs wonders whether the perception of his shows got a boost from the overall impression of a lackluster season. Though he altered his approach not a whit going into the dual design process, one thing was certain, he wasn’t feeling anything high-minded. “I just felt like I didn’t really want to be challenged intellectually by fashion,” he says. “I just wanted to see stuff. After a period where it feels like things are going too much in that modern direction, that it’s about cut and seam, I just felt like it was nice to be more demonstrative, to see things that you didn’t have to really think about. There was no stretch or challenge, it’s all really overt.”

Though no one would ever mistake Jacobs for a minimalist, last season’s New York show, with its grandly sculpted American sportswear motif, was as plain and undecorated an outing as he’s had since he introduced his now-famed cashmere thermals with gray flannel pants 11 years ago. And just as it lacked fall’s visual simplicity, the new collection also skirted the not-so-subliminal message of last spring’s Surrealist sexcapade romp. Ditto his Vuitton show, for which Jacobs played on various stereotypes of French chic without specifically studying any such references anew. “You have, in my case, 40 years of knowledge,” he says.

That translated into lots of stuff—in New York, elaborate pilings of mixed-pattern fabrics with a decidedly Americana, prairie feel, all luxed up to the nines, and in Paris, a specific, hyper-coquettish silhouette with an imprecise African tribal undercurrent. Both thrilled, but Jacobs claims neither to be alone at, nor first to, the party. “I don’t understand why this is such a big deal, because people like Roberto Cavalli do this all the time,” he muses. “I don’t mean that in any way, shape or form as a put-down. I’m just saying that this idea of lots of accessories and fancy fabrics and mixes is there for you every season if you want it. Maybe it’s our take on it that made it right.”

Yet he downplays neither the painstaking work involved in developing such non-cerebral fashion nor the pressure of immense expectations, especially in New York, a distinction he calls “a blessing and a curse.”

“Let’s face it—Robert and I put on a show,” Jacobs offers, referring to business partner Robert Duffy. “Whether you like the collection or not, whether you’re happy if it starts on time or late, it’s a show with a production and a set and everything. You don’t really get that again until you go to Paris.” (Regarding Milan, for him, it’s all about Prada: “I have such admiration for that place and her aesthetic.”)

“Paris is very different—this theater of fashion, where you’ve got Rei and Junya and Yohji, and then you’ve got Alexander McQueen and Nicolas Ghesquière and Alber Elbaz. You’ve got all the foreigners showing in France and Olivier Theyskens. There’s so much going on that, in its worst season, it’s still like the nonstop city of fashion. So I don’t really feel that pressure in Paris.”

Oh, but the City of Light poses challenges of its own, specifically the in-house vibe that Vuitton better not play second fiddle in the Jacobs’ repertoire. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘OK, we heard Marc had a great show, so we’ve got to do a really great show.’ So there’s this kind of competition.”

As to exactly who fuels this mood, Jacobs points a finger back at himself. “I haven’t been behind a door and overheard anyone saying that, but I have this feeling. I’m saying I have this pressure, whether it’s real or imagined. There’s this voice: ‘Please do a good job, because you did a good job in New York, so you have to do a better job here.’”

If that sounds like a recipe for inner conflict of the gut-wrenching kind, Jacobs takes a different approach to his two collections. Despite his 10-plus years in Paris, in the New York collection, he continues to find “a very personal meaning to everything….It seems very autobiographical. I’m very connected to everything and every choice.”

By comparison, Louis Vuitton takes on a character one might call more clinical, partly because it comes second and must look completely distinct, regardless of how strongly Jacobs feels for a particular mood. This season that meant finding a different way to express that lots-more-is-just-enough notion. “I go back and I start saying to everybody, ‘I’m so in love with the idea of mixing a lot of fabrics together in one garment, but I just did New York, so you guys have to stop me if you think it’s too much like what we just showed.’ I still enjoy it,  but it’s not like a personal thing. It’s a little bit more like solving the problem of doing a great collection at Vuitton. I rely on my team at Vuitton so much—well, in both places—for bringing also their inspirations and their ideas, thoughts.”

To that end, Jacobs stresses the group effort involved. “I’m only part of what makes me me as a thing. I couldn’t stand the idea of feeling like a fraud.” He bothers to name-drop during this interview, mentioning key members of his staff, Joseph Carter and Emily Diamond in New York and Peter Copping and Jane Whitfield in Paris, numerous times.

And then there’s Robert Duffy. “He is constantly opening stores. Things are going pretty well in most areas of the business, and he is single-handedly responsible for that,” Jacobs says. Like most long-term, thick-and-thin relationships, theirs has had its ample ups and downs. After the Vuitton show, they exchanged written words of love and pride. “I don’t know if sometimes he realizes how much it means to me,” Jacobs says. “He wrote something to me after the Paris show and [I wrote him,] I said, for so long I’ve worked for gaining the approval of so many others, and I finally realized that the only person that I really care about, the person I care most about feeling proud of me and us, whose opinion matters most is yours—Robert’s. Yes, I wanted to impress Mr. Arnault, yes I wanted to please the press, but at the end of the day, Robert has been there for me from the beginning and he’s believed in me when nobody else did and he still does. If Robert is proud and impressed with what I’ve done, then I know I did a good job.”

Which is not to say that their roles haven’t changed over these past 24 years or so; long past their enfant years, each has assumed the role of father figure to his respective brood—Duffy, to the Marc Jacobs store staffers (he spends enormous amounts of time with the staff in New York and while traveling, and seems to know every sales associate by name). “He likes playing that paternal role, he likes having that store family, and they adore him,” Jacobs says. His own assumption of a parallel role has been willing. “My shrink sometimes says, ‘You might not want to be in that paternal or director role, but things go well when you’re involved. It’s like, when Daddy’s there and Daddy participates and Daddy plays with the kids, then everybody is kind of happy.’ [I’ll say,] ‘I don’t really see myself that way,’ and he’ll say, ‘You don’t have to.’” When Jacobs returned to Paris in September after his New York show, it took him a while to get into the Vuitton groove, and the staff could sense it. As his own energy increased, he wanted to excite the troops, so he brought in a microphone, and they spent the two weeks leading up to the show working while singing along to show tunes. (Hence, Liza belting out “Cabaret” as guests arrived at the Vuitton venue.) “I’m the cheerleader,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a leader, but sometimes….”

Nor does he think of himself as a budget-oriented guy, for good reasons. When talk turns to the economy, Jacobs notes that his few days in New York have been curious. Despite the endless private and media discourse about impending doom, restaurants and theaters have been packed, and his lifestyle hasn’t been impacted a bit. Though well aware that he’s hardly Joe the Plumber, he maintains that it’s difficult to speak about a phenomenon happening beyond his own reality. “I understand that this is a very big crisis, but it hasn’t affected me yet, nor has it affected the people I normally see,” he says. “I was in our store and Barneys the other day, and people were shopping and buying things. But when all those reports come out at Christmas, when they say sales weren’t so good, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

As for how the economic doldrums are playing within LVMH, Jacobs notes a recent WWD story on the group’s still-healthy profits. That said, he admits to being “consistently over budget at both places,” with Duffy positioned as buffer between himself and the ax wielders. “We’ve been in difficult conversations,” the designer acknowledges. “He doesn’t want to tell me that I can’t use this or that fabric.”

“I think budgets are ridiculous,” Jacobs continues. “It’s like, we’ll stay within budget and go home at five. It’s like saying we worked more than 35 hours a week. We do that, too, and we’re over budget. It’s fashion. It’s not like A to Z. It’s not linear for us, and maybe somebody could do it within budget in a 35-hour week, and if you’d like that to happen, then I suggest you fi re me and hire them. That’s kind of my answer.”

Spoken like a man who’s at the top of his game and knows it. To wit, asked what he thinks is his best collection ever, he responds quickly: “The last two.” As for his favorite, that’s a different story altogether. “Grunge,” he says with a nod. “I guess it always will be.”

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