The extreme heat harkened back to shows of yore—or would have, had audience members been forced to squirm in their own sweat for more than seven minutes. But on the stroke of eight (or was it a few seconds before?), Natalie Westling presented herself. She led Marc Jacobs’ rapid-fire procession of girls across a beach-in-shambles set, giant abandoned lifeguard chair, bus and food cart suggesting prior calamity. The early girls in the lineup wore their jams with antithetical sobriety, paired with frilled dark blouses and the occasional sweatshirt; on the later girls, the blouses became dresses beribboned, jeweled and embroidered lavishly, their embellishments only enhancing their exquisite Victorian moodiness. An intense passage of dark magic, and in a flash it was over.
Nineteen days later, guests to the Louis Vuitton show left behind the light of a lovely Paris morning for a second dark reverie, one that employed a showgirl ruse to celebrate the decorative, superficial, hyper-beautiful side of Paris that Jacobs had come to love in his 16 years as creative director. The breathtaking show would be his last for the house. Just as he took his bow to a thunderous standing ovation, WWD reported the end of the tenure during which Jacobs transformed the one-time carriage-trade luggage maker into a major fashion force.
With the signing of a new contract last week, Jacobs and Robert Duffy entered a different phase in their relationship with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, shaped to achieve a specific goal: to prepare the Marc Jacobs company for a public offering. All parties agree there’s work to be done, including expansion of product offerings. Jacobs doesn’t know exactly where that will lead, but he’s game for the challenge. “I don’t think that means giving in or losing your values or ideas,” he tells WWD. “It’s maintaining an open mind in order to go somewhere else.”
WWD: Are you feeling wistful?
Marc Jacobs: It seems like everyone is, “Are you OK? Are you upset?” I’m like, “No, I’m really not.” And no matter what you say, no matter how you explain the situation—for Robert [Duffy] and me, it’s all really super positive. And if I weren’t OK, I would be the first to say I’m not OK. I’m not good at hiding my feelings. I’m also not good at lying. I’m very open about everything. We’re both really hopeful. We both really believe in what Mr. Arnault said, and we all made this choice. We signed our contracts for the changing [situation] in the Marc Jacobs company, with LVMH.
WWD: A new contract?
M.J.: Yes. It’s a huge contract. Again, after Robert was negotiating for so long, it’s another demonstration of how seriously intent they are on taking the company to the next level. What the contract seems to provide for, what they did for Robert and me, is setting up for “this is the direction.” We’ve had Mr. Arnault’s word and we have this contract now. This is all super positive.
WWD: Are you up for working toward whatever that direction is?
M.J.: This is just projection, but I’d feel differently if anything changed. I’m going to continue to work in Paris part of the year because it’s beneficial for us. I’m going to continue to devote the amount of time I work on things like shoes and bags. Plus, I’ll take on other things—the Sephora thing has gone super well and I’d like to devote more time to that. To be honest, there was a lot of time that I was in Paris over six months of the year that I was working on Marc Jacobs as well [as Vuitton], which is why we have an office there. At this moment, nothing has changed. The only thing is the Vuitton shows.
WWD: Has Marc Jacobs always been you first priority?
M.J.: Robert has always said to me, “When you think back to when we met Mr. Arnault and LVMH, they were willing to invest in Marc Jacobs because they wanted us to do Vuitton.” They were willing to make a smaller investment to keep Marc Jacobs going if that was the cost to get us to do Vuitton. Robert would say to me, “I know you love [Vuitton], I know you give your heart to it, but Marc Jacobs is our future and Marc Jacobs is what we built. The reason we’re here in Paris is to keep what we started alive.” Robert was the voice of reason in this; he always has been the practical one.
WWD: You say he’s always been the practical one. Was it practical to say that the far-smaller business is the priority? Or is that more emotional than practical?
M.J.: I think it was practical. Whatever part of my heart or my brain that took to do this, and whatever energy it took on Robert’s side, we started this and we came to this other thing. Before LVMH came into our lives, we were doing other things. I was working at Iceberg, doing this Japanese consulting job and Robert was mortgaging his house. We would do what we had to do to continue to do collections. And then the wonderful opportunity of Vuitton came along. As much as I loved it, it was supporting the other thing, Marc Jacobs. Robert’s never lost sight of that.
WWD: Did you lose sight of it?
M.J.: I didn’t lose sight of it. It’s just that I operate in a very different way. I go through my ups and downs emotionally, physically, in every other way in terms of getting to the end, which is the show and the collection. We go through the fabric stage, all that stuff. That’s where my head is. I don’t have space or room for the rest of the conversation. We’ve got to do the shows, we’ve got to do the bags, we’ve got to do the clothes, we’ve got to figure out the set. Now, it’s “We’ve got to get a Coty meeting. We’ve got to get a new fragrance. We’ve got to do two days of press for the fragrance. We’ve got to meet with Sephora. We’ve got to have a press day about that.”
WWD: Was there the same amount of emotional investment in Vuitton?
M.J.: It’s very different. I have this attitude about being this foreigner in Paris. It’s sort of make believe in Paris. New York is very real to me—it’s where I grew up, it’s where my friends are, it’s where I feel most comfortable. In Paris, I embraced the idea that I lived in this bubble and I always saw Paris the way I wanted it to be…I don’t need to know about politics, I don’t need to know about the economy. I just see what I want to see. I live in this beautiful home on the park that overlooks the Eiffel Tower. I go to work…I make beautiful stuff and then somebody else decides what’s being made, what’s being shipped. There isn’t tension. I saw just what I liked, not having the same emotional attachment to it. I tried to write that in the [Vuitton] program. The love for the superficial is just as real a feeling. That superficiality that I see in Paris is just as real a love as loving something because I have a deep, emotional attachment on a more spiritual level. I don’t want to get all philosophical but it’s very genuine. It’s funny when people feel they have to justify. Love is a feeling. When you love something you feel happy. Happy is happy.
Whether you’re happy in New York because your friends are there and you grew up there, or you’re happy in Paris because the lights at the Place de la Concorde are so beautiful when you drive through. I’ve gone through enough therapy to know that in honoring one’s feelings, you don’t have to assign weight: “I’m happier…” Going with your feelings, honoring your feelings, embracing them, they are just as valid for whatever reason.
WWD: You’ve made clear that the Vuitton set wasn’t designed as a finale, because you didn’t know until late in the game that this would be your last show. But you did know you weren’t going to re-sign long-term.
M.J.: It’s funny, I was thinking about [inspirations] and Miuccia Prada came into my mind. Not anything she said or did, but because I always admire her in a way that’s very different. People talk about their inspirations and what they are thinking and all of that. But with the designers I respect and admire the most, I imagine—and I don’t know if this is a fact—there’s something that they don’t ever talk about or realize, which is that you are also dealing with people who are extremely talented, extremely creative, extremely instinctive and fearless.
WWD: Are you fearless?
M.J.: I mean different designers that I respect, like Miuccia Prada. And I saw this thing about Anna Wintour and fearlessness on the cover of WWD for the [CEO] Summit. Anna talked about being fearless. It triggered something in my head because I’d been thinking about this in regard to other things. There’s something with people who are sensitive and creative and talented, that instinct is a very huge part. You are very sensitive. Maybe your instincts don’t always please people, maybe they don’t always strike a chord. But a large part of what I know drives me, and what I imagine drives Miuccia, is something that you could never learn, something you could never calculate, and that’s instinct. There’s a certain amount of curiosity, a certain amount of boredom, a certain amount of instinct, and there’s a whole lot of fearlessness. I do believe instinct plays a big part, besides inspiration and all of that. All those things I think exist within really thoughtful, sensitive, creative people.
WWD: Have you ever doubted your creative instincts?
M.J.: All the time; that’s part of the process. For me, there certainly needs to be a healthy dose of questioning, feeling very confident about one’s choices, then questioning one’s choices. That’s how something organically shifts and grows and becomes what it ultimately does. It’s not about making an instinctive decision six months prior to having a show and just executing that decision—that wouldn’t allow for any spontaneity.
WWD: The Vuitton set: Many references, but none to Murakami.
M.J.: When we originally had the set meeting, we went back to some of the sets we had done with this team that exists now: the carousel, the fountain, the train, the escalators. I wanted to reference and use something of Richard [Prince’s], I wanted to use something of Takashi [Murakami’s] and the escalators, I wanted them to be a blackened version of what Daniel [Buren] had done. When we did that show, it was really a collaboration with Buren. When we did the collection with Takashi, it was a collaboration. So to use [the references] without actually [collaborating] would have felt wrong. It would have taken the credibility out of those things. Richard was the whole show; every choice was inspired by Richard’s work and the collaboration with him. The thing that was different about Stephen [Sprouse] was that Stephen created that print for Louis Vuitton. Even though it was a collaborative thing, I had invited Stephen in and said, “I want to deface [the LV logo] in the way that Duchamp drew this moustache on the Mona Lisa and Serge Gainsbourg painted his monogram luggage black.” I wanted Stephen to be the cool hand that defaced this iconic monogram and made it younger. So I felt that the graffiti was fine.
WWD: Why did you have the clock run backwards?
M.J.: That was a very last-minute decision. I thought of Vivienne Westwood and World’s End. The clock in front of World’s End, the punk store on King’s Road, ran backwards. This was my cynical comment on everything that I had read from people like Cathy Horyn about what was new. I had just been so fed up with hearing what’s new and what’s modern and all that stuff. One has to define what new is. Because if new is about a bonded fabric, it isn’t new because it’s been done for years. If new is about a synthetic fabric, synthetics were done as far back as the 1800s. If new is laser-cut, Azzedine’s been doing it for years. What exactly makes something new? Is it new to that designer? For me, new is what I just bought or what I just made. That’s new. Is it inventive? That’s a different thing. Is it original? And then I went back to that Chanel quote, “Only those with no memory insist on their originality.” So this thing of like, there’s nothing wrong with looking back. Looking back creates something new, which is exactly what I felt we did. We said something different. So in my definition of new, we made a new collection for Louis Vuitton by looking back.
WWD: You talked about Miuccia. You’re a big fan of women designers.
M.J.: Throughout history, the best designers and the ones who have made the biggest difference and the longest-lasting difference in fashion are women. Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madame Grès, Chanel, Westwood. I remember years ago, Saint Laurent was talking about how he wanted to create a style because that’s what Chanel did. That’s what lasts. Not to create a fashion. A fashion is a trend.
WWD: Chanel translates into something relevant today.
M.J.: Vionnet, too. They created a language through things that actually can last. Not a new silhouette, which was only new in the context of the fact that there was something else before it and there is something else after it. Creating a style. Style lasts, a way of dressing, a way of looking at clothes. I think that’s something that instinctively comes to women. Men can try to put themselves into that head, but they aren’t women. It’s still a bit of dressing someone. You can’t wear it, you can’t live it, you can’t understand why suddenly it feels good to wear a jacket with no shoulder pads that feels like a cardigan and has a pocket.
WWD: If women have long been the most influential designers, why at any given moment are the majority of designers men?
M.J.: I don’t know. That would get into a bigger philosophical discussion of why are all the most celebrated fine artists men when there are many women who make very brilliant art? Is it the way society looks at men’s role? Are men considered more powerful, more creative? Is that society’s mistake? As much as women say they want to be equal, does the majority of society still feel that women are secondary in some way? Is this a feminist sort of thing? Why do people know the names of Saint Laurent, Dior, Balenciaga, and of course they know Chanel, but you’d have to be a fashion person to know Vionnet or Madame Grès or Schiaparelli?
WWD: Talk about the Marc show. The set, the collection, the black—you said you weren’t depressed.
M.J.: I was happy as can be. I was back in my house. I was so excited about both of the collections. I collaborate with a lot of people and work with a team of designers. We sit there and go through fabrics, through archives, references. We see things we like, I see exhibitions, et cetera. And for some reason, we think, “We’re all sitting around here in the middle of the summer in navy blue and black and it’s like, “Who wears white?” It’s not that I think we’re going to make clothes that everyone will wear all of a sudden. Everyone is one of those “new” words.
WWD: Everyone is going to be wearing $10,000 Victorian dresses.
M.J.: No. Everyone is not wearing white and everyone is not wearing black and everyone is not wearing pastel. But I think fashion people are fashion people. We all have to come up with something that we’re interested in each season. I read something Rei said once, “I didn’t know what to do this season.” And I thought what a beautifully honest thing to say. Because the reality is, you have to do something. And maybe, we didn’t know what to do. So we said, there is Jamie coming in a Victorian dress.
M.J.: Bochert, who we fit on and is kind of the inspirational, fit-model muse. And Jamie comes in with jet black hair and traipses in some old Victorian dress in the middle of summer. And you know what? She looks cool. So you sort of say, “Why not?” We started looking at things that are Victorian. It really started out with a pair of surf shorts and a Victorian blouse. I just thought, wouldn’t I think it was cool to see a girl walking down the street in a beautiful Victorian blouse with a pair of boy’s surf shorts?
There were a list of reasons: the final scene of Pippin. This book of women in Tahiti wearing Victorian blouses and making these tropical print quilts. Maybe a bit of what Prada’s men’s show was. Maybe a lot of things I’ve taken in. Then Jamie walks in with this dress and all of a sudden you’re adding things up, and somehow I make a logical connection between these things. There is no right or wrong.
WWD: When you say “logical connection”…
M.J.: Logic may be the wrong word. Logic may be like “classic” or “new.” It’s saying like, instead of looking at these random things that you’ve experienced, you can see there’s a thread here. And maybe the thread is a good replacement for the logic.
WWD: Even though there’s no obvious connection.
M.J.: It’s not two-plus-two-equals-four logic. It’s not science or math. It’s saying, I know somebody who dresses like this and we’re all dressed in black, so it doesn’t seem like it’s that weird of an idea. If Prada shows mink coats for spring, what’s the difference of showing a wool jacket with Victorian braid?
And I said, “Which woman that buys a $3,000 jacket is out on the street in 105-degree weather?” It isn’t a climate thing that should determine our fabric choices. This is a fashion thing. This is about what you want and what appeals to you. I can’t wait until the fall Comme des Garçons or Prada comes into the store. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees out. I bought this coat three months ago, this winter coat. I couldn’t wear it, but I had to have it.
WWD: Whose coat?
M.J.: Prada—a leather coat with a quilted lining. I was like, I won’t be able to wear this for three to five months, but I don’t care. That’s why I’m buying it—because I want it. Need isn’t the reason for buying fashion. It’s want, desire.
WWD: Isn’t that a weird dichotomy? We all agree that fashion isn’t about need, yet people do clip into need mode when evaluating the runway.
M.J.: There is no absolute. I might ask Nick, who works with me, “I need three new T-shirts, would you order them from American Apparel?” But I wouldn’t go into Prada or Comme des Garçons like, “Gee, I need a floral coat in fur.” It’s a different conversation if you’re a fashion person. I need to eat, but do I need to eat a five-course meal with edible flowers around the plate? That’s probably not what I need in terms of nourishment, but it’s delicious. It’s special that I get to have it, and it’s visually attractive on the plate. It serves a very different purpose, but both are valid. Sometimes I just have to eat because I’m hungry, so I’ll grab anything.
WWD: Talk about the Marc Jacobs set.
M.J.: There was a shoot Steven Meisel did many years ago, for Italian Vogue. It looked like a Martha’s Vineyard or Hamptons beach, but there was something strange about these dark clothes on a sort of gray beach. It wasn’t girls in midriffs and cutoff jeans playing volleyball. It wasn’t spring break. This was a beach scene that had a very sulky, still, melancholy mood—almost What’s wrong with this picture? And then, the idea of the Burning Man festival. I looked at a lot of images. There was this Paul McCarthy exhibition that I absolutely loved. It was an installation called “WS,” which was his reversal of Snow White, so White Snow. We started talking about the set and that’s how it happened.
WWD: A number of people asked if the heat were intentional.
M.J.: Everybody thought it was and my friend Roger said, “You should tell them it was.” No, the heat was not intentional. Suffering wasn’t my intention for anybody. The Armory is incredibly hard and expensive to air condition. The whole week was super humid and super hot. And again, it was definitely not our intention.
WWD: Why do you think people thought you would have them swelter intentionally?
M.J.: I’m not sure. You know how many people come back after a show and tell me what their reading was? I know the catalysts and the inspirations, the thoughts. But I don’t ever want to negate anybody for seeing in it what they see. I don’t want to stand in front of a painting and say, “This is what that artist was thinking.” I don’t know what it is. It’s what I see in it that matters to me, and whatever he was thinking and feeling is fine. One of the wonderful things about watching a movie or listening to music is that you really don’t need any education whatsoever. You don’t need to know anything. You don’t need to be part of a cultural elite if you honor your feelings. If a child stands in front of a painting and says, “I love that, the colors are pretty,” it’s a very fair, valid comment. But once you’ve been conditioned into society, you are meant to understand and think things. People say things like “The heat was intentional” or “That’s his last show.” It’s fine. Whatever you saw in it, that’s fine…If you think it was intentional, that’s fine. Far be it from me to argue with what you felt and saw.
WWD: Let’s talk preparing Marc Jacobs for the IPO. When we spoke in Paris, Mr. Arnault said you need more product. What do you need?
M.J.: I don’t know. Robert and I—Robert is a very good businessman and very nurturing as a human being. His qualities are beyond in every way. But we have never sat down and strategically planned out what’s the next three, five years. That’s not how we operate. It’s like, “What do we want to do next? We want to do sweaters for dogs and call it ‘Bark Jacobs.’ If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll drop it and do something different.” There have been ideas that Robert and I have had that have been very fruitful—Marc by Marc; Robert’s idea of creating special products that were inexpensive and affordable. There are concepts that we both agree on. But there has never been a master plan. I never would have thought 10 years ago that we’d be doing cosmetics. When we did our first perfume, it was like, “This is crazy; I can’t believe we’re doing a perfume.” I don’t know what [more] products are. I’m open to the possibility of anything. I do think that in order for a company to be interesting to the investment community, there needs to be a plan; there needs to be a bigger retail footprint. There needs to be this idea—DNA, lifestyle, words I hate.
WWD: The DNA thing drives me crazy.
M.J.: All of a sudden you’ve got a bunch of fashion people talking like they’re scientists. So that already turns my stomach. Let’s leave the molecular life form of atoms out of this discussion. Sustainability is another one that drives me insane. Lifestyle means, what? That you are active in a sporty way? That you aspire to having a bodyguard and flying everywhere on a private plane? And that means that your bags have gold on them? How clichéd are these lifestyles? But maybe its time to think about those things. Maybe there is a whole world of possibility open to a paradigm—something that isn’t that clichéd. Maybe it doesn’t have to involve a private plane. Maybe it could involve wearing black in the summer, maybe it could involve getting tattoos or piercings…. Maybe there’s another aesthetic that could fit into [and change] this clichéd, banal idea of lifestyle. What the products are, I don’t know.
WWD: You’re not known for sexy shoes. Is it possible to have an IPO without a sexy shoe business?
M.J.: I don’t know. But I’d like to believe that one doesn’t have to do the same thing everyone else does to have success. Tory Burch has a flat shoe.
WWD: Speaking of flat shoes—those tiny-paillette moccasin boots. Where did they come from?
M.J.: I used to wear Minnetonkas—it’s a ballet flat, a little unconstructed suede little moccasin. It was a random thought. The idea of ethnic seems interesting, but I’ve never been one to do an ethnic-inspired collection. I thought, what would I think if a girl were walking down the street in an evening dress and those cheap suede moccasins? Then I was like, we have to elevate it. Take something that you know and change three things. All of a sudden they were embroidered with all those micro-sequins and all the colors changed. That’s what I love. That’s what I think is new and modern: looking at something and changing it or morphing it or putting it in the wrong context. It goes back to all of my favorite artists. It goes back to Duchamp, who took a urinal and said, “Why can’t a urinal be art?” Why is a cheap moccasin not fashion? Why is it any different than a ballerina flat? Why did Saint Laurent make a crocodile motorcycle jacket? Because Elvis Presley was wearing a motorcycle jacket. It was cool. Chanel always said the tweed came from fishermen, and the ease of the cardigans that she saw men wearing. These things, you take them, you appropriate them, and you make them your own. Everyone is talking about tribal, so this was my own little funny of way of saying, “Well, we knew that was happening, too.”
WWD: Are you willing to make certain creative compromises on this path to the IPO?
M.J.: Of course. I’ve always said that, even at Vuitton. Mr. Arnault has come to me over the years with products or things or ideas that he’s seen elsewhere and he’d say, “So-and-so has a canvas bag.” And I’d say, “Why don’t you let me try and come up with what a Louis Vuitton canvas bag would be?” I don’t have any problem with trying to rise to a creative challenge. That doesn’t seem like a compromise. You may be successful with it or you may not, but I don’t mind approaching it.
WWD: Does it worry you that you might have to do things that don’t interest you?
M.J.: I’m just worried about the next show. Until I have to worry otherwise, I don’t have the desire to take on that future thing. When the conversation becomes more real and tangible, I have the energy. I certainly think I have the brain to say, “What needs to be done?”
I can approach it two ways. I can look at it as a negative; I can think of the word “compromise” as a sellout. Or I can think of it as a creative challenge.
I don’t know what the decision will be. And it’s not just me. It will be me, Robert and whoever else comes into this picture [as chief executive officer]. Right now, I only see this as a good opportunity. If we’re faced with the high-heel discussion, or whatever the discussion may be, we’ll deal with it. I don’t think that means giving in or losing your values or ideas. It’s maintaining an open mind, in order to go somewhere else. Look, [most people] wouldn’t know a Comme des Garçons collection if it fell on them. But they all have that T-shirt with the little heart and two eyes. Somebody is doing the work to make sure there is something to sell on a daily basis.…They just have to find what works for them. Ralph put a polo player on a polo shirt. Calvin put his name on the elastic on underwear. Calvin Klein has never had a successful handbag collection. But he has a successful underwear collection, and that set the standard for designer underwear. It was so believable when Calvin did that. It fit [the brand].
WWD: How has your aesthetic changed over the years?
M.J.: I think it’s the same. You learn more and let more in. I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m visually stimulated. I learn about things that I’m seduced by. I learn about artists because I’m seduced by something I see. I learn about musicians because I like the way they look, so I listen to their music.…
That’s how I started to listen to punk bands in New York. I loved the way punk looked. So I thought I should listen to their music and that’s how I found that there was some of it I liked.
WWD: Back to Vuitton. You were the third-longest tenured major designer employee, after Karl at Fendi and Karl at Chanel…Do you see shorter-term situations now?
M.J.: I don’t know. Everything in fashion is cyclical, so maybe it is the end of a cycle. When Tom [Ford] went to Gucci, it was such a huge thing when it clicked. And then all of a sudden it seemed like [everyone wanted] to revive an old house. I wonder if the “reviving the old house” thing, just like the “It bag” or whatever—none of these things stays the topic of discussion forever. So in that respect, no. I can’t imagine who could ever fill Karl’s shoes at Chanel. And there’ll need to be someone, eventually, to do that. But I think it will have to be very different. I do think, if history repeats itself, this will reach its peak. The It bag conversation reached its peak—it doesn’t mean handbags won’t sell.
WWD: Clothes became the accessories to the accessories.
M.J.: It doesn’t seem quite that way anymore. Accessories may drive the business, but they’re no longer the press darling. The red-carpet thing became this thing. It’s all evening dresses and borrowed jewelry. When did red carpet overpower It bags? It bags were the red carpet before the red carpet.… You want to know what Madonna’s new record is, but you also want to know who is going to be the new Madonna. We want new music from the people we love, but we also want new music.
WWD: Many years ago, you told me something to the effect that “all that matters to me is fashion.” Is that still true?
M.J.: Absolutely. I have highs and lows, emotional ones, and I have days where I just think, “I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this.” But it’s all over the next day. I think that’s the creative ebb and flow. It’s so passionate, to go through that kind of torment, that kind of love. I certainly don’t mind the paycheck, but I don’t do it for that. I love going to work, I love making choices even when they’re difficult, even when it seems like they’re impossible. I’m not a frustrated musician. I don’t want to be an actor. I love fashion. It’s what I’ve always loved; it’s my form of self-expression.