Marc Jacobs is one of the most famous and influential designers in the world. After 27 years at the helm of his own label and 16 as creative director of Louis Vuitton, Jacobs consistently provokes and inspires with his collections. WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley interviewed Jacobs on reflections on his career, to what he owes his success and why fashion matters.
WWD: I’ve been doing this a long time; I know a lot of designers. I don’t think all designers love fashion equally. I’ve always felt that you genuinely love fashion. If I’m right, tell us why. If I’m wrong, why?
Marc Jacobs: I do love fashion. I certainly wouldn’t suffer all the stress that comes with it if I didn’t really love it. I always talk about the team of people I work with every day. They share that passion. We all have our moments where we’re ready to throw in the towel and then we realize there’s nothing we love more, nothing gives us greater pleasure. We like to look at colors and fabrics. We like to be inspired by things we’ve seen, and we like to translate that into clothing and bags and we like to see those things worn by people. And we do it quite a few times a year.
This story first appeared in the January 9, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Tell us what your schedule will be like between now and the Louis Vuitton show.
M.J.: I mean, it’s typical. It happens right after the new year. The factories and manufacturers and people we work with from the handbag to the shoe factories. They all close for Christmas and New Year’s. A lot of the Italians don’t open again until the week after, so today is the day where everyone is in a panic. Most of the people around me will have nonstop Monday-through-Monday until both shows are finished. So I’m here working on knitwear, and I’m doing handbags on Saturday. Saturday evening I leave for Paris and then Sunday night I have a meeting in Paris with Robert Duffy, my partner, and the people at Vuitton regarding contract stuff. Monday, I’m working with Vuitton and Tuesday with Vuitton — it’s just nonstop. It will go back and forth until the Marc Jacobs show is done, the Marc by Marc show is done, the Vuitton show is done and the Vuitton men’s show is done.
WWD: The contract is due now?
M.J.: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not really sure when it’s done or whatever, but I know we’re discussing it this week.
WWD: What are your most important influences?
M.J.: I like characters. I like spirited characters whether they exist in fiction or real life. Whether they’re the invention of artistic people or directors, musicians. I think music and art and fashion designers inspire me and I like characters. That’s what I think is always what leads us to do something a little bit different each time. We want to explore this other side of this girl or woman.
WWD: When you have a character in mind or something strikes you, how does it translate? Take, for example, the past two shows, both of which were Sixties Pop inspired, and the previous shows, especially the one in New York. It was very sort of romantic, tinged with a reverie of sadness, meanwhile all these massive pilings and hats and punctuated by a pilgrim shoe. Did you wake up one morning and say, “Yes — pilgrim shoes!”?
M.J.: Yes, actually it started out as boots and then the boots didn’t feel quite right. I saw Rachel Feinstein’s “Puritan’s Delight.” I looked at pilgrim shoes and I thought, ‘This is such a random thing to do.’ And then there was something I liked about a Dickensian thing, and I thought about “Oliver Twist.” I get into these melancholy romantic moods. There’s a lot of things going on. There was an art exhibition I had seen and I asked Rachel to design the set. A conversation with Rachel Feinstein is always inspiring….It started with hats. I wanted to make the biggest fur hats anyone’s ever seen. I wanted to make fur coats, but I wanted the coats to be hats. Anyway, that went sideways and random from there. Then when we got with Vuitton, it was simultaneous with this exhibition at the Musée Arts Décoratifs. So we had been doing a lot of preparation for that exhibition. There was a bit of nostalgia for the romance of travel. I don’t usually buy into that. That’s not my rap, but looking back at the things we had done at Vuitton and going through — Louis Vuitton was this man with an obsession for packing clothes. Then we made this fictitious Vincente Minnelli train journey and it became sort of “Funny Girl”…again it’s about all different things. We look at something one day and relook at the next day and you experience something the third day. Editing and adding, adding and editing.
WWD: The parallel between you and Louis Vuitton — you certainly have an interest in art and you’ve done all these amazing collaborations, you’ve sort of shied away from saying your clothes belong in a museum. Was that an uncomfortable moment for you?
M.J.: Very uncomfortable. I mean, Alexander McQueen’s clothes belong in a museum. That was probably one of the most beautiful exhibitions that the Met had ever done for the Costume Institute. Of course, I enjoyed the Prada-Schiaparelli exhibition because those are two of my favorite designers in the world. But I think McQueen — when I say our clothes don’t belong in a museum…. For people who appreciate sculpture and art whether they’re antiquities, Old Masters, like, I think the body of work that was the McQueen show could appeal to anyone who couldn’t care less about fashion. It was a beautiful show for someone who couldn’t care less about fashion.
WWD: How do you respond to cultural stimuli? How has it changed over the years?
M.J.: I don’t know. It does change but I’m not sure I can put my finger on how it’s changed. It’s funny, this idea of the show as becoming entertainment and this little sort of fantasy moment — when you go to see the clothes in the shop, they’re all wearable clothes, whether you choose to wear them or not. But I think it’s become, over the past few years it’s become, a really big part of the process that I really love putting on the show and sort of surprising myself and the audience in some way. Giving this little seven-minute or 11-minute — on time — it’s a little escape, like a little bit of theater.
WWD: That seven minutes will exist only in that seven minutes. Does that make it all the more special?
M.J.: It’s kind of the craziest thing. People like Rachel, to design and build the set, to see how many people it took day and night — and to know it was going to be torn down. That goes against what every artist believes in. Art is supposed to last forever, but this show.…We rehearse it once without clothes, which happens an hour before the show. Either it goes right and it works or it doesn’t. It’s so crazy. Six months of work and then a real roll of the dice: Is it going to work? There’s no do-over. There’s no, “Wait — we’re going to start that over again. It wasn’t right.”
WWD: You mentioned Prada and Schiaparelli. In the past you’ve said that you think women are the greatest contributors to fashion. Why?
M.J.: I guess it’s just a historical thing. There’s something about those women — Vionnet, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Miuccia, Rei [Kawakubo] — I think there’s something very unconventional, and still it seems maybe because they’re women and they have an appreciation and love for fashion and they can sort of wear it themselves that there’s a certain intelligence. Even when something is subversive or unusual, you can’t call them misogynists. When Miuccia sends a woman out at a Prada show in a fur jacket and panties, she’s not making fun of women, but when a guy does it, it becomes sort of sexist. There’s an integrity and an intelligence that comes with those women.
WWD: Your physical transformation — now old news. You got a lot of press when you lost weight, you cut your hair but it did seem to mark a turning point for you.
M.J.: Yes. I felt a lot better and I tend to do more of what makes me feel good. I started to hear from people that I looked great. I enjoyed going shopping for clothes, which made it more personal. I didn’t care about how I looked when I sort of was having all these problems with my stomach and not eating well. I was spending 16 hours in the studio, eating McDonald’s and KFC and junk food, so I felt pretty horrible. I think when I started to get in shape and spend time at the gym I could be better to other people and be better to myself and get back to loving fashion and experience it myself. I started to wear kilts and lace dresses.
WWD: You for a while were a mainstay in the tabloid pages, and not so much nowadays.
M.J.: Well, not since Kim and Kanye took my thunder.
WWD: Was that a conscious decision?
M.J.: No, I guess I’m just old news.
WWD: You grew up in New York. Let’s talk about growing up. What do you remember most vividly about being a teenager in the Seventies and Eighties?
M.J.: Going out to clubs and enjoying that a lot. It was so much fun to go to all the different clubs and I loved nightlife and I loved the way people looked at night. I loved hearing music and going to concerts. Everything felt like a first. Even though I had those firsts many times, it didn’t get old for quite a while. And New York, I think now it’s different but there were places in New York where young artistic people could afford to live. So there were things going on in the East Village and you’d hear about Madonna at the Roxy before anyone knew her, and you could actually be there and be like, Madonna’s singing again. There were pockets of creativity. All of that seemed new. All of that was pre-computers, too, so people actually talked to each other or ignored each other but they did it face to face.
WWD: You were raised by your grandmother. What was that like?
M.J.: It was great. My father’s mother. I went to live with her and she taught me how to do embroidery and needlepoint, and she helped me knit my first sweaters for my Parsons show when I graduated. She was a well-dressed woman who really appreciated fashion. She was very encouraging. I knew that was what I wanted to do and she was the first person to take me to a butcher shop and say, “My grandson is going to be the next Calvin Klein.” And I’d blush and wish I wasn’t alive at that moment. But it made her happy.
WWD: Did you sketch at the time?
M.J.: Oh yeah. I wanted all the fashion magazines and she would buy me all the American fashion magazines, all the European fashion magazines. I started to sketch and I went to the High School of Art and Design and majored in fashion and went to Parsons. She was very encouraging.
WWD: Your dad died when you were very young.
M.J.: Very young.
WWD: Why didn’t you live with your mother?
M.J.: Long story. Do you really want to hear it?
WWD: Not if you don’t want to tell. OK.
WWD: What surprises you most about the person you’ve become?
M.J.: I guess that I’m still excited. Even when I feel really stressed and I do go up and down. I’m very black and white. I know we’re working on a project now and I get very excited every time we have a meeting. We’re working with Sephora on a beauty line and it’s not that I don’t get excited about fashion shows, but I think, Is there really going to be something else that we’re going to do that I’m going to want to do and that I’m going to enjoy? And then something does come along and you’re like, “Wow. This is really great.” Or after doing some of these collaborations with Louis Vuitton…when we started doing Yayoi Kusama, whose work I always loved, in the beginning I thought, “It’s another one. Is this really going to work?” But then we got into it and we saw how happy she was with it and then we saw the reaction of the customers. Of course, Vuitton is thrilled with the numbers but I was thrilled with the type of people. Mr. Arnault was telling me that Marie-Josée Kravis showed up to a lunch and she was carrying one of the Yayoi bags and it made me feel very good. There is still pleasure in this. Even when I think that I’m jaded and I’m doing this again, I can still get excited.
WWD: What’s the timing for the beauty line?
M.J.: I think it’s launching this year. We are in 2013. This fall.
WWD: Robert Duffy — We hear so often about how important it is to have the right partnership. What has made your partnership work?
M.J.: First of all, Robert is the greatest person. We’ve never been lovers, we’ve had no love relationship but he’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had with anyone. And there are days when he wants to throw in the towel, and I’m like, “No, you can’t. We can do this. We’ll get through it.” And vice versa and he’ll be the encouraging one. He’s great to all the people in the company. We both drive each other crazy but we both love each other to death and we both have such respect and such trust. Within our company, there’s a sort of family feeling. Robert just threw a huge New Year’s Eve party at his house in Savannah and a lot of people flew in for it. I just thought it was a wonderful thing. That’s how Robert is. Anyone who has come to work for us can start out as a receptionist and end up in the art department or styling or doing windows. He promotes from within and he believes in people who a lot of people in other companies wouldn’t give that chance to.
WWD: If you were advising a designer looking for a partner, is there a checklist? A gut check?
M.J.: I don’t know. Luckily he found me and it’s lasted through good and bad and ups and downs. It’s work, but Giancarlo [Giammetti] and Valentino found each other. Yves [Saint Laurent] and [Pierre] Bergé found each other for better or worse. I guess Calvin [Klein] and Barry Schwartz. There have been a lot of successful fashion couples.
WWD: What’s your relationship with Mr. Arnault?
M.J.: I tell this story all the time: I always feel like Babe, the pig. Mr. Arnault is the farmer and will say, “That’ll do, pig.” After the most illustrious show, the grand production with the train, he was like, “Oh, magnificent! It’s incredible!” So he’s been a lot more forthcoming, but there was a good 10 or 15 years where it was, “That’ll do, pig.” I like to please people and I can’t please everyone, but he is my boss. He is the one who gave me the opportunity and he gave Robert the opportunity, so if I have to get one “That’ll do,” he’s the one I want it from.
WWD: You said early on, you were told, “No, no, no” [at Vuitton when he joined]. Not necessarily by Mr. Arnault but by people who worked for Mr. Arnault. So you had to break the rules. Now it seems there are trains, extravaganzas in Shanghai, escalators and elevators. Is “no, no, no” no longer in the language?
M.J.: For the time being. But who knows? There may come some crazy trip I want to go on and they say no. I don’t know.
WWD: Why does fashion matter?
M.J.: Let’s see. It’s part of the art of living. Why does makeup matter? Why does fragrance matter? Why does fashion matter? Why does it matter to have beautiful furniture and nice interiors and books to read and good wine to drink and good food to eat? These are all luxuries and it’s human nature to want them, to desire them, to enjoy them, enjoy looking at them, wearing them. I think it’s just human nature. We want things to please us and make us feel good and maybe attract other people to us or just make us feel good about ourselves.
There were then questions from the floor, some of which are below:
QUESTION: Are there shows you look back at you wish you could change?
M.J.: Well, there are shows that I look back at I wish I hadn’t done and, no, I wouldn’t want to redo those. It’s better just to move forward. Yeah, I think there are things that went wrong that I feel like I could do again that would make sense now. But, no, I don’t want to go back and redo.
QUESTION: Is there a show you don’t like?
M.J.: There are a lot of them. For a long time I had this feeling that I was really excited about the show until I watched the video and was like, that dress is on backward and one of the skirts was on front to back. And I thought this was going to be the show where nothing went wrong and you just have to move on. The last few I’ve been very happy with.
QUESTION: What does it feel like to be the man you are today coming from knitting those sweaters in your grandmother’s house?
M.J.: It’s exciting. I’m happy to be here. I love my life. I can’t believe I work in New York and Paris. That I work for Louis Vuitton. That I work for Marc Jacobs. It seems really weird every time I say my full name — like, that’s me, and every time I hear the receptionist say my name, it’s still weird. Actually, before every show I say to Robert, “I can’t believe that we’re here.” After being at beer festivals in Milwaukee on the “Sally Jessy Raphael Show.” Somebody wrote that he’s had more comebacks than Jamie Lee Curtis in “Friday the 13th” [Curtis actually appeared in “Halloween”]. We’ve been in and out of business, so many ups and downs, it’s remarkable.
QUESTION: Was there a single hardest moment?
M.J.: I don’t know. This has been kind of a hard year. The last couple of months have been hard. Some personal things, although the work this year has been great. But it’s been a hard year emotionally. So I will escape into fashion land and forget about all that.
QUESTION: If you could design something other than apparel, a car or a building or something else, what would it be?
M.J.: No, no. Fashion. I’m not a frustrated architect, I don’t want to do costumes for a movie, I don’t want to do furniture or decorate houses, that’s for sure. It’s really actually the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
QUESTION: Do you have a sense of what makes you so relatable, so easy and inspiring to work with? A lot of European designers admire you. You’re the kind of person who is apart from anything else.
M.J.: I don’t know. Maybe it’s that, you know, there’s nothing you can’t ask me. I will say anything. I get blasted by people for changing direction this season and that season. Some people don’t like that. I get plenty of criticism but I do think the passion and love for something different and desire to please an audience and make a new collection comes from who I am. But it’s not only myself but the people around me who are very straightforward, honest people. If there is respect and admiration, the work is the reflection of the people it comes from.
Martha Stewart then said she had tweeted her followers and they asked two questions:
QUESTION: Who or what is your greatest inspiration and if you cook?
M.J.: I love red. I don’t cook, although I eat very well. Who inspired me — well, all the people I work with inspire me and my friends inspire me. I’m lucky to have friends in film and music and art who constantly inspire me.
QUESTION: Who’s your favorite ex-male porn star?
M.J.: Wow. My favorite ex-male porn star is a guy named Eddie?