“I felt like it was coming at me. Of course I loved the music, but what I was really interested in was the style.” — Marc Jacobs on grunge, June 2018
Get ready for Grunge Redux.
Twenty-five years ago, Marc Jacobs rocked fashion with his grunge collection for Perry Ellis. It shocked, it awed, it outraged. It also charmed, inspired and, with clothes and an underlying approach that were the antithesis of fashion-intellectual (Jacobs prefers the virtues of instinct and whim) it got people thinking. A quarter-century later, we still are. What is fashion? Where does it start? How does it reflect and inform the culture? Why the enduring appeal of “off-beat” and “undone?”
This month, we can ruminate on those questions while examining — and shopping for — some major original-source material. Sort of. As reported, for his brand’s November delivery (he refuses to call it “resort”), Jacobs has re-created line-for-line copies of 26 looks from that seminal grunge collection. It will be available online on Nov. 15, and in physical stores beginning on the Nov. 19, with the opening of a major pop-up concept on Madison Avenue in the old DKNY space. Anyone who loves or is remotely curious about fashion should feel palpitations. Jacobs’ grunge show was one the most important — and most infamous — collections of these past 25 years. (That I don’t have an original piece is a major regret of my working/acquisitive life in fashion. That and the wrongful de-wrinkling of some Margielas.) On Madison, the entire collection will be installed gallery-style, providing an opportunity for insiders, casual fans, the merely curious and, most importantly, legions of fashion students to take in a piece of fashion history and perhaps rethink or ponder for the first time what the fuss was all about.
Given a variety of the collection’s concepts that have endured, one can even argue for Jacobs’ grunge as the single most influential collection of this past quarter-century — not a statement of anniversary hyperbole. Yes, other designers have been knocked off more frequently, with Miuccia Prada, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela at the top of the list. Ditto Karl Lagerfeld (the tweed jackets and quilted bags may have been Coco’s inventions but their endless co-opting results from Karl fascination). John Galliano changed the way women dress for evening, Tom Ford turned the concept of commercial designer from cheesy to cool, and Rei Kawakubo — the designer’s designer. Of more recent arrivals, Phoebe Philo, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Demna Gvasalia, and Alessandro Michele have each steered the influence train in a strong direction. Yet while all of those designers have produced memorable, and sometimes iconic, collections, their ongoing influence more often derived from a series of shows.
Grunge was a single, seminal collection that continues to fascinate, its more quantifiable groundbreaking aspects are still resonant. Today, grunge and its creator seem uncannily prescient. With its music-world inspiration, the collection codified the fashion-entertainment fusion. Along the way, Jacobs orchestrated his first art-world collaboration, with illustrator Robert Crumb, as well as those for shoes, with Birkenstock, and what may have been fashion’s first designer-sneaker collaboration, with Converse. (“I don’t know that the people at Perry Ellis were thrilled. They had a shoe line,” he quipped.)
Yet Jacobs is loath to take credit for “firsts,” quickly correcting the notion that he forged the modern idea of designers working with artists: “No, I think Schiaparelli did that.” (Point taken.) Overall, he downplayed the idea of deliberately formed commercial partnerships, while invoking a word central to today’s fashion. “More than the collaboration thing, I felt like things had to have authenticity,” Jacobs said. “It wouldn’t have done for me to do a [Crumb-like] drawing. They needed to be a real thing. I didn’t want to put a marcasite buckle on a two-strap sandal. It had to be on a Birkenstock…It was important that there was this integrity. I didn’t want the girls in designer shoes. I wanted them in authentic Converse and authentic Birkenstock. I wanted them to be the real deal.”
The real deal — not to be confused with mere linear interpretation. Along with grunge, Jacobs was moved by the gritty photography of Juergen Teller, with whom he’s worked in the past and who shot the Grunge Redux campaign, as well as David Sims and the late Corinne Day. And his first trip to San Francisco including, of course, Haight-Ashbury, when he saw the city “the way I wanted it to be more than it really was. It was amazing, but like, [I saw] the ghosts of all of these other times. And I just thought that I love that whole magpie, thrift-shop thing.”
Jacobs took note as well of interesting dressers among his friends, particularly off-duty models, even the glamour girls who, when left to their own instincts, could surprise. “You saw Helena [Christensen] wearing flat sandals with some granny shawl over a vintage Thirties nightgown. And it was like this is what Helena looks like.”
Jacobs distilled it all, re-creating plaid flannels as silks, mixing them with army fatigues, lace, delicate crocheted knits and knitted caps, the sundry pieces put together in seemingly random combinations on girls with bare faces and messy hair. It was a high-low, pretty take on youthful angst, and it was, most importantly, about reveling in one’s own imperfection. How 21st century is that?
For those who buy into the emotional power of fashion, it’s easy to romance something you love, especially when you first experienced it while young, and 25 years hence, you’re not so young anymore. Jacobs has often said that grunge remains his favorite collection, and its influence ripples through the years in his work. Yet this Redux is no anniversary reverie. Rather, he views it as an essential marker in a career that has experienced countless vicissitudes.
Like other journalists, I saw the then-embargoed collection last June at the company’s Spring Street headquarters. I’d seen it all before, the first time around. Now the installation of 26 mannequins felt friendly in its instant familiarity, the undone mood that once played as dissonant now a reality of life today, in the streets and on many runways. As styled, the clothes looked of their original time, but right for now. When I asked Jacobs why it still resonates, I expected philosophical musings. Instead, he said, “Maybe we’ll get to that part in the conversation. We needed to do something, right?”
With that rhetorical query, Jacobs referred to the state of the business, which is challenged. Together with chief executive officer Eric Marechalle, who succeeded Sebastian Suhl last year, Jacobs is in the process of reordering some elements of the business to capitalize on the creative and philosophical essence on which the company was built and which he would like to recapture.
“In the big picture, a redux of grunge evokes going forward while being a little bit more instinctive and a little bit more liberal and not as rigid with the way we do things,” Jacobs said. “There needs to be a delivery for November, and we all got excited about the idea of doing 25, 26 looks from the grunge collection. This is not what we’re going to do every month or every season. There are a lot of things to take on.
“In terms of thinking about how Robert [Duffy] and I operated, we were always kind of instinctive,” he continued. “Some ideas worked and some ideas didn’t, some of them worked on a certain level and not another. I feel like there are so many issues in fashion and in the worlds of marketing, communication, etc. I wanted to look at the situation we were in here with the reality of what has happened with the runway collection and the confusion and trying to combine two collections.”
Before our conversation ended, Jacobs addressed balancing runway wonder with “things to sell,” retail’s changing realities, customer confusion, the meaningless of seasonal handles for “resort and pre-fall” and his innate aversion to other trade lingo. (“I don’t want to fall into the popular vernacular of ‘drop’ or any of those things, but you know what I mean.”)
But now is a moment for grunge, and how it fits into Jacobs’ determination to “do something.” He assembled “people remaining in this company who I feel understand what we’re about, who have been here for a long time. We sat around a table and we started talking about what we would like for the company, how important we felt certain things were and where they’d gotten broken or damaged, what we feel like we’ve always stood for, what was the essence of what that meant.”
One tenet: price diversity. When the topic came up, I pulled out some notes and read a comment Jacobs made around the time he was exiting Perry Ellis: “Going forward, I would like to do a line that builds on what I did last season, not grunge specifically, but the idea of $30 sneakers with a $300 dress, a $12 T-shirt under a $3,000 suit. My theory is it’s all fashion.”
“It still is [my theory]”, Jacob offered. “But I do feel like there was a moment, with Robert in the West Village…” The two had long embraced broad-range pricing, from “the special items, like key rings and little trinkets that were very, very inexpensive, to Marc by Marc, which was much more democratic in price point.” Those were the heady days of the Marc Jacobs multiple-door retail ascendancy on Bleecker Street in New York’s West Village. Now, only Bookmarc remains. “There is no point in blaming or pointing fingers, but it’s just gotten away from us, or away, from me, and so I wanted to speak to the people here who I feel have a knowledge of this company when it was working in the way that I like to see it work, and we started talking.”
The challenge: “How do we hold onto the past that we believe in and how do we move forward?”
A November-delivery Grunge Redux felt like the perfect start — and a labor-intensive one. Before clothes could be made, they had to be sourced. That the original designs don’t belong to Marc Jacobs Intl. seemed of little concern from the start. When news of the Redux broke, “We got a nice email from the people at Perry Ellis saying congratulations and all of that,” Jacobs said. One assumes no archives were kept. Certainly, Jacobs didn’t have any of the pieces. Clothes were called in from industry friends Elissa Santisi and Gabe Doppelt, tracked down on eBay, examined at the Met and some, re-created from pictures. They’re all apparent ringers, though Jacobs wouldn’t have used the original patterns even if he’d had access. “The body changes,” he said. For fabrics, his staff went back to the original houses. As for been there/done that, Danuta Denuree, now head of the atelier who first worked with Jacobs at Perry Ellis, had some original fabric swatches from which to work.
Rallying the troops had practical and psychological aspects. Everyone familiar with the original grunge collection was immediately passionate. For the less aware, particularly the sales staff, Jacobs staged a “sort of a pep rally” for which he and his right-hand guy, Nicolas Newbold, wrote a manifesto of sorts that included his thoughts and reprinted in full Cathy Horyn’s 2015 “Changing My Mind About Marc Jacobs Grunge Collection,” for The Cut. This session came at Marechalle’s request, who, according to Jacobs, stressed, “how much it would mean to the people who weren’t there and who don’t know and don’t have the romantic attachment to hear from you why it was important to you, what it meant to you, what that period was about, what that time was about.”
Jacobs was initially wary, having long maintained that no matter the backstory, people respond to clothes or they don’t. Ultimately, he acquiesced, in acknowledgment of the import of the moment. “I am trying to bring an energy back to the company and to the people who work here,” he said. “Not to the ones who’ve always been here and love being here and love what this company has always represented, but to people who haven’t been, to say to them, ‘This is who we are, this is how we got here, this is why we do what we do and this is why I believe in it.’”
The staff buy-in felt unanimous. “My heart was in something,” Jacobs said. “It shows when your heart’s in it, you can see it, you can feel it…[Grunge Redux] will end up in a store, on a rack. It will end up there with the love and the energy and the kind of excitement and the enthusiasm that [went into] it. [We did it] not for just the few of us who know it, but for those that don’t.”