“Sometimes something will get on my nerves.”
If that sounds like an unusual observation within an instructional context, that’s exactly the point: The creative spark can come from countless sources, irritation included.
It’s one of the numerous points Marc Jacobs makes during his 18-lesson MasterClass fashion tutorial that launched last week. (The pique referred to here resulted in Jacobs’ spectacular Victorian surfer collection for spring 2014, a reaction to the truism that spring collections should be light and airy.) “I just said what I felt,” Jacobs said last week in a conversation about his approach to the class.
At MasterClass, Jacobs joins a high-gloss, high-profile faculty roster assembled from diverse, if mostly creative, disciplines, all-stars of their fields — among them are Annie Leibovitz, Ron Howard, Shonda Rhimes, James Patterson, Martin Scorsese, Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Steve Martin, and even Stephen Curry on how to shoot like a dream. (Creative? The guy’s an artiste.) And, as of this week, Diane von Furstenberg, with a course on Fashion Branding. (In the ongoing cultural comeuppance category, classes by Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey have been removed from the site.)
In its first week, Jacobs’ class has attracted a diverse student body, from young, aspiring designers to those currently working in the field, to a woman who, at 54, maintains “it’s never too late,” to the occasional math major. They hail from New York; Toronto; Bangkok; Jakarta; Mexico; Puerto Rico; the Philippines; Wellington, New Zealand, and Wilmington, Del.
The range comes as little surprise to David Rogier, the mastermind behind MasterClass, of which he is chief executive officer. As his program’s range of offerings grew (it now offers about 30 courses) he found it imperative to add a fashion component. “It is such an important part of our culture, of our lifestyle, of art,” Rogier said. “I felt it was really important [for fashion] to be one of the first of the 50 classes to be put out there.” It didn’t hurt that Rogier has something of an industry perspective: “A whole side of the family comes from textiles, my mom’s side. So, I was raised in warehouses full of fabrics.”
While including fashion design as a discipline seemed a no-brainer, whom to approach as the program’s first fashion design instructor was solidified based on the business world’s defining principle du jour: data. MasterClass staffers conducted research to gauge who among prominent designers would generate significant interest. They also sought out the opinions of various industry types. “Our team does a whole lot of work to try to better understand who people want to learn from,” Rogier explained. “So we do everything from polls to focus groups, and the top requested person in fashion design was Marc. We want to listen to our students.”
Yet Jacobs’ celebrity sparkle proved only part of his allure; another major component: the designer’s professional ethos. “Marc is an amazing designer,” Rogier said. “He has achieved commercial success, but he is also a true artist. And what better way to start that category than with somebody who is respected by both groups?”
Then, there’s the teaching aspect. Rogier ran off a series of traits — Jacobs “speaks from the heart,” “is authentic,” “is constantly trying to learn and evolve and adapt” — which he thought sounded like the characteristics of “an ideal teacher.”
For Jacobs’ part — hold the compliments. Though intrigued from the start by the MasterClass concept, an aspect of it gave him pause. “That’s the part that I struggled a little bit — the word teach,’” Jacobs said. Thus, he didn’t want to think of himself as instructing. “This is not a modest thing, but I was just sharing my personal experiences. I must have said it repeatedly throughout the whole course, that there is no right or wrong way. This is what I have done, this is how I work. And even how I work, there are variations within our process. I could only do it as sharing what I have done and what I have learned in the hopes that somebody gets something out of it.”
Savvy students should extract quite a bit — beginning with the value of complete immersion in the milieu. Jacobs recalls his youthful voracious fashion consumption. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “So if Perry Ellis was doing a trunk show, or if there was a designer speaking or there was a movie or there was a book or an interview or anything that I could gobble up from any of the people whose work I admired, I mean, I read it, I watched it, I saw it. I digested as much as I possibly could. So, for me, this MasterClass is a vehicle for somebody who’s interested to get a lot from somebody who is doing the thing that it is that [the student is] interested in doing or becoming or achieving.”
The course is structured as a series of lectures, each with an accompanying PDF chapter review and an assignment: delving into a reading list; going out into various locales to seek inspiration for a three to five-piece collection; deconstructing an old item of clothing to understand its component parts; redesigning an old sweater; planning the logistics of a show. Always, there’s a discussion element, and exchange with other students via the course hub.
According to Rogier, the MasterClass and Marc Jacobs camps worked together for months to develop the course content, covering everything from broad-stroke topics to which looks Jacobs would use as case studies. He preferred not to know all of the specifics to ensure a degree of conversational spontaneity — apparently, the MasterClass way. “We make sure it’s not scripted because that is very boring to watch,” Rogier says. To that end, Jacobs spoke extemporaneously in response to off-camera prompts. The class’ structure was determined during the editing process, each lesson focusing on a specific topic. Some address the creative side (Finding Inspiration; The Creative Process of Design); others, the nuts and bolts of creating collections (Sketching Your Ideas; Choosing Fabrics, Fabrics and Muslins).
Jacobs keeps that essential creative element in the forefront while focusing on the parts of fashion design that sound like a job — and a tough job. He acknowledges that his processes swing old-school, from frequent perusals of the old craft books, that might explain “how to do a flat-felt seam or how to do a boned bodice,” to the way in which he conceptualizes an outfit — by sketching, and the old-fashioned way to boot, with a No. 2 pencil on Xerox paper. (As for tablet sketching — he’s not a fan, nor of numerous other tech-driven options in fashion, but he acknowledges their power for those so inclined.)
In the lesson on sketching, Jacobs spends considerable time on croquis. (I hadn’t heard the word in years; it took me to my early years at WWD, when we still had a full staff of illustrators lead by Kenneth Paul Block and Steven Stipelman.) He defines “croqui” for his students: “a kind of template,” a blank figure the illustrator places underneath a piece of paper and draws over. He explains, too, why he always draws a consistent body type. (Yes, his is long and skinny.) Ultimately, the sketches go to the patternmakers, who must decode the designs into patterns. If drawn on figures of different shapes and sizes, it would confuse the communication about silhouette and proportion.
Throughout the course, Jacobs advises without advising, via his “this is my story” approach, for example, “It felt important that I had an understanding of sewing and knitting. I also have an interest in the construction of clothing. Craft is very important to me.”
Patternmaking included. While no star at the skill, his rudimentary knowledge helps immeasurably in communicating with his patternmakers, often charged with creating the blueprints for complicated constructions. Conversely, though not a fast sewer, he’s pretty good at it. Then again, he started early, in sixth grade home ec, when he made himself a boiler suit.
Throughout, Jacobs discusses inspiration, how to evaluate fabrics, garment construction, and the various creative and logistical elements involved in staging a show. Yet, if there was one key message he wanted to impart, it was that none of it happens in neat, sequential order. “I said repeatedly that it’s all nonlinear,” he said. “It doesn’t go that I had an idea — I chose the fabric, I picked the color, did the sketch, it went to become a pattern and that pattern became a garment. You have fittings, you go back, you change — even the inspiration evolves as you go along.”
One thing that doesn’t change: Jacobs’ belief in the essential role of the fashion show. In Lesson 14, he tells his students that the runway is far more than messaging platform from which to telegraph silhouette, texture and color. It is also, he says, “about emotion, about style, about spirit. It’s…a theatrical experience which, for me, is what inspires dreams.”
And teacher says that dreams reside at fashion’s core. As a designer, Jacobs tells his class, “you have to inspire, you have to delight, and you have to surprise.”