In the Nineties, grunge was the antithesis of the fashion typical of Madison Avenue. This week, it takes up residence on that tony New York shopping thoroughfare with the soft opening today of the Marc Jacobs store at No. 655. The store opens officially on Black Friday.
For the delivery he refuses to call resort, Jacobs re-created 26 looks from what is probably the single most famous collection in American fashion history, his spring 1993 effort for Perry Ellis. The lineup, dubbed “Redux Grunge,” is on full view, gallery style, at the store, a three-story, 8,100-square-foot site that once housed DKNY.
The Madison Avenue store could be described as a pop-up-plus, its concept experimental and part of a new business plan that places a premium on flexibility. The venue will remain a Marc Jacobs retail outpost for six months — far larger and more high-profile than the brand’s Prince Street location — and after Redux Grunge, will feature an installation of Jacobs’ fanciful, flamboyant spring 2019 runway collection.
For fashion lovers, this opening is an event. A must-see for fashion students, the grunge installation should also fascinate young civilian enthusiasts, many of whom weren’t born when the looks first hit the runway. For those who remember that moment, this do-over may register with personal poignancy. All can use grunge to ruminate on fashion’s place in the culture — where it fits into the grand scheme, why this particular strain played so caustically in 1992 (when it appeared on the runway), and what its remarkable currency says about today’s fashion and larger culture.
All of that should ensure ample store traffic. For the Marc Jacobs brand, the measure of success will be how the collection resonates, and not merely in terms of sell-through, although the bottom line matters a great deal. Bigger picture, will Redux Grunge and its new, uptown enclave register with enough power and clarity to begin to unravel the web of disarray that has spun around the brand for several years? Over that time, the company has been beset with problems — a shrinking profile on the global fashion scene; store closures and declining sales; internal mayhem and massive turnover of senior staff, and extreme customer confusion, sprung in no small measure from the obvious decline in business-side support for Jacobs’ runway collection.
Jacobs neither soft-sells those issues nor shows any interest in assessing blame. “Analyzing ‘How did we get here? Why is this the way it is?’” he mused. “You’re in the middle of a burning house. Do you ask why it’s on fire or do you try to put out the fire?”
Dousing the fire and redirecting the company toward prominence and profitability mean the world to Jacobs; he’s put his life into his work, and though he’s no longer an equal-stake owner to LVMH, his sense of emotional ownership remains unchecked. For LVMH, the Marc Jacobs business accounts for a tiny share of its fashion portfolio, so the stakes are quite different, yet also significant. In its most recent round of designer hires — Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, Hedi Slimane at Celine, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton men’s and back to Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior — the group has very clearly placed a premium on polished commercial savvy and/or marketing magic over the kinds of heart-stopping creative wonder that defined the best of John Galliano’s shows for Dior, and more recently, Riccardo Tisci’s best for Givenchy. True, Karl Lagerfeld sometimes swings fantastical at Fendi, Vuitton’s Nicholas Ghesquière at times gives in to his more flamboyant side, and Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson puts an artful spin on chic pragmatism. But while some high-intensity creative moments have dazzled, their delivery is not currently the primary goal of LVMH’s major brands. Meanwhile, the Kering competition features a true artist in Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton and a still-fascinating wackadoo phenomenon in Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. From the standpoint of compelling creativity-first output, LVMH’s roster could use an outlier that’s supported and nurtured. Currently, only the Jacobs business seems fit for that slot.
Together, the store opening and Redux Grunge signal a reset for the business, the first tangible indicators of the new direction charted by Jacobs and chief executive officer Eric Marechalle, who has until now remained mum on the company’s course and his hand in setting it.
Clearly, the two men come at the challenge from different perspectives — Jacobs’ name is on the door; Marechalle joined the company a year ago last month. They speak, if not different languages, then different dialects — one, that of a pure creator, and the other, a seasoned business executive. Yet for the business to turn around and thrive, clarity of vision and unified leadership are essential. In separate interviews, the two sounded very much on the same page. To call their plan a new blueprint requires an elastic interpretation of that word, typically indicative of clinical specificity. That’s because fluidity and experimentation are essential to the course Jacobs and Marechalle described, each using his own language to express the necessity for flexibility: Jacobs, “instinct” and Marechalle, “agility.”
That said, there are two non-negotiable tenets from which everything else will emanate and drive the business going forward. First, the Marc Jacobs brand is rooted in the vision of its founder, one of fashion’s most elite creatives. The operational baseline is that all aspects of the business — design, product development, marketing, communications — will derive directly from that vision, whether in its most distilled form, as seen on the runway, or in more democratized incarnations, dubbed by Marechalle, “designed to wear.”
Second, the company will continue to espouse a one-brand strategy. Despite incessant rumors to the contrary, there are no plans to revive the Marc by Marc Jacobs label, founded in 2001 and discontinued in 2015.
On the first point, Marechalle sounded unwavering. “Marc is brilliant. Every day, I discover that,” he said. Agreeing to an interview only after being stalked for a year, the ceo disarmed with his easy manner and open dialogue. He answered questions about his still-brief tenure without hesitation, but declined to comment on company activity prior to his arrival — apart from several re-statings of his belief in Jacobs’ talent and building on the company’s creative foundation. He finds it “exciting to work with the creator of a maison,” and considers Jacobs’ approach that of “a real artist” who “wants to share his belief without any concession…My main goal is to organize the company in a more efficient manner in order to help him to share his vision with the world,” Marechalle offered.
About the single-brand concept, Marechalle and Jacobs are both committed to it, albeit with a considerable caveat. The collection will now be developed in two distinct parts, Runway (with a capital “R”) and, a larger, more accessibly priced component, the “designed to wear” offerings, with different labels. Runway looks from the show will read “Runway Marc Jacobs” on separate lines with the date of the show in between; commercialized looks will carry the word “Runway” but not the date. Designed-to-wear product will have specifically designed labels. Case in point: “Redux Grunge Collection 1993/2018 Marc Jacobs” stacked in five lines.
Both men realize that delivering on that concept will take a great deal of work and deft planning to achieve the desired breadth of pricing while retaining aesthetic integrity. It will also take the willingness to sometimes subvert convention (hello, Redux Grunge), and as much restraint, to resist plays that feel quick-buck friendly but creatively wanting. It won’t be easy and they know it, because the company tried it once and it became a mess.
While the fashion industry loves to extol the virtues of high-low, there’s a short list of companies currently having rollicking success at creating, marketing and selling across a broad range of price points within a single-brand construct. Top of head: None. People may dress high-low, but they shop across brands to do so. Jacobs is quick to point out that he and his longtime business partner Robert Duffy always believed in a broad price strategy. Back in the day, they oversaw a genuinely idiosyncratic company, often acting on pure instinct when developing product and opening stores. While some might argue reasonably that the approach was highly mercurial and ultimately unsustainable, it’s a fact that for several years, customers flocked to Bleecker Street for four-figure handbags; Marc by Marc prairie dresses; Stinky Rat Henleys; naked-celebrity, let’s-fight-skin-cancer tees; two-tone Vans sneakers; plastic key chains; kids’ clothes (a hit with real kids and petite, grown-up fashion girls), and cool art books. The diverse elements sold up a storm, while the designer customer hit the Mercer Street store — and major stores in a then-vibrant network of retail partners — for Violet Incredible and Victorian Pirate regalia. It all worked in concert and, for whatever reason, the customer wasn’t confused. Or more correctly, the company’s multiple customers, who ranged from kids wanting a piece of branded trinketry to fancy runway-or-bust ladies, weren’t confused.
But things started to change, as Jacobs said, “for whatever reasons,” and majority owner LVMH turned a new focus on the company. In October, 2013, Jacobs concluded his tenure at Louis Vuitton following the completion of his contract, with the intention of focusing his attentions solely on his own label, and preparing the brand for an IPO. That now seems off the table. Marechalle declined to address that issue, one of those before-his-time topics. “This topic, that is from the past. My job is really to work with Marc, to make this company successful,” he said.
In 2014, Duffy left his operational role when Sebastian Suhl became ceo. (Duffy remains on the board and retains a minority ownership stake.) Suhl quickly and dramatically imposed his one-brand vision, shuttering the Marc by Marc Jacobs label, which accounted for the lion’s share of the company’s sales, with the intention of incorporating that contemporary business under the single Marc Jacobs label. Assimilation proved other than seamless. If in hindsight, the decision to discontinue MBMJ seems made in haste, it’s too easy to Monday-morning quarterback. Marc by Marc Jacobs launched on the front end of the designer contemporary craze and before fast fashion exploded as an even more accessible option for budget-minded fashion lovers. Since then, the broader contemporary sector has been challenged, so to blame the fall-off of business fully on the dissolution of the Marc by Marc brand is to ignore other market realities. Still, Jacobs believes implementation of the fusion plan spun rapidly out of control. The first season, spring 2016, shown at the Ziegfeld Theatre, succeeded well enough, in his view — a rollicking ode to NYC and Americana, overstated and over the top — that offered both tony fare and T-shirts, with as much diversity as he’d ever shown on his runway. (This reviewer found it great fun, but lacking the kind of singular, passionate fashion message typical of Jacobs’ best work.) The collection found favor with top retailers, who placed it in its traditional home in their designer areas. But in subsequent seasons, the focus shifted even further from delivering a strong creative message to merch-mongering.
“I don’t know exactly where this was coming from,” Jacobs recalled. “We were told to include more lower-priced merchandise, more democratic type clothes that had the prints of the runway or the colors of the runway but not the clothes on the runway.” The overall takeaway was contemporary, with stores buying runway pieces for window dressing (literally). “I would go into Barneys and I would see a rack of T-shirts with the daisy print and I was like, ‘wait a second. That was not what the show was about.’”
Not one to mince words, Jacobs dubbed the approach a fashion “three-card monte,” a game for which the customer was too savvy. “You’re not really doing anybody a favor,” he said. “You’re not giving that few who want the fashion what they want, and you’re not kidding anybody with a printed T-shirt. It doesn’t mean that the printed T-shirt couldn’t exist, but in the past, we looked at them as different things. It was not, ‘Look here,’ and then, ship this.”
Jacobs believes passionately in the sanctity of the runway. “The only way forward is to do what you do,” he said. “We know that runway is by nature rare, and we don’t want to compromise that, we don’t want to change that. In order to not compromise that, one has to accept that by the nature of what it is — it is for a few,” he said. At the same time, he gets the business reality. “In order to be in business one does need to make other things to sell. That makes perfect sense. Like you’d have to be an idiot not to understand that.”
But in his world, the runway drives all, its significance pragmatic as well as creative. “This won’t be news to anybody, but accessories are usually where people make money,” Jacobs noted. “But I don’t know how to get to the accessories part of the process when there isn’t the fashion process — an inspiration and then a dream kind of situation. Then, many things can grow out of it. I just don’t know how to work it the other way around.”
Looking at “the reality of what is democratic, it has to reach people on the level of price and aesthetic…People still want to get something…having the runway as the destination gives a landing pad for a bunch of extraneous ideas.”
Marechalle agrees that the brand can no longer sacrifice creative authenticity to stock shelves. “We don’t want to have a big number of skus,” he said. “[The plan is] to share with the customer only the product which we believe has a strong identity and authenticity with Marc.” That might mean additional one-season plays such as Grunge, or the development of ongoing programs of “iconic product,” items like sweaters, thermals, camp shirts, that through the years have played significantly in Jacobs’ work while having wardrobe-basics appeal. “You go to the store to buy the Marc Jacobs cashmere sweater because you know what it is. That’s why I use ‘designed to wear.’ It’s not something like everybody [else’s], but something designed by Marc Jacobs and part of the history of Marc Jacobs. So when you buy the cashmere sweater of Marc Jacobs you buy also a part of the story of Marc Jacobs himself.”
As for other categories fueling the business, beauty has been a high point form the start. It features a wardrobe of several fragrances and a full range of color cosmetics. “We are very proud of it. It’s a good link with people who love the brand,” Marechalle said, while deflecting a question about specific product extensions in the works. “We are going step by step. I think we have again a lot of things to do in fragrances, in beauty. It’s just the beginning of the story.”
On the other hand, despite some major hits in the early-to-mid 2000s — the Stam Bag, the Mouse Flat — accessories have been severely underdeveloped, particularly so when the focus shifted from Collection to contemporary handbags. Recently, the company has found success with the Snapshot bag, introduced on the runway for spring 2016 and now viewed as an important cornerstone. Marechalle called its performance over the past year “incredible,” and used it as an example of translating authentic design for a broad audience. Higher-end accessories, meanwhile, have been virtually non-existent at recent retail, falling by the wayside in the shift to contemporary. Marechalle acknowledged the importance of correcting that void. “We have a very strong fashion statement with the show, which is also shoes, it’s also bags. For [the runway customer], you need to have shoes and bags…We can have a luxury bag and we can have more accessible bags. We need to have both.”
Doing “both” requires a large creative team. In February, the hiring of John Targon, codesigner of Baja East, caused a media ruckus, including speculation on whether that meant intensifying the firm’s contemporary focus. By April, he was gone. More recently, Olympia Le-Tan joined on. Word of the unannounced appointment trickled out, triggering more speculation about a potential relaunch of Marc by Marc. Marechalle finds the fascination much ado about basic business practices. “We have a pool of talent in this company. We are not [announcing every hire],” he said, unwilling to acknowledge that Targon and Le-Tan were not anonymous studio additions, but well-known designers whose arrivals would unlikely go unnoticed. “A lot of people want to work with Marc. A lot of people who have worked with him for a long time are very, very good, and we have new people arriving who are very talented. We have a strong creative [team].”
The long-timers remain central not only to executing Jacobs’ vision, but in defining and redefining it. Redux Grunge resulted from a heady meeting Jacobs held with a trusted circle, “people who I feel have a knowledge of this company when it was working in the way that I like to see it work. So we started talking.” Some of those present: design director of runway ready-to-wear, Joseph Carter; Jacobs’ publicist, Michael Ariano; his executive manager and executive assistant, Nick Newbold and Sean Donovan, respectively; and longtime collaborators, art director Peter Miles and editor Elissa Santisi. Conversation swerved both specific and existential, as calls for redos of beloved items morphed into a “more esoteric conversation of what are we as a style, what do we [stand for] …how do we hold onto the past that we believe in and how do we move forward?” Jacobs recalled. Later, at Marechalle’s request, Jacobs led a “pep rally” of sorts for the larger staff, new and not-so. Though leery at first, Jacobs ultimately agreed, so as to personally share his ethos more broadly with the staff. The takeaway: “Everybody was excited.”
That happened several months ago, and the rallying effort continues. Last week, as part of an orientation for new hires brought in to staff the Madison Avenue store, executive vice president of merchandising for runway ready-to-wear, Leslie Clements, who has been with Jacobs since the Perry Ellis days, gave an engrossing talk about history and currency. In an earlier session, Jacobs and Marechalle both spoke, Marechalle circling the room to shake each newcomer’s hand before taking questions. Revolutionary? Perhaps not. But after a long stretch during which vertical internal communication was wanting at best, it left staffers feeling proud, motivated and part of the solution.
Whether the renewed in-house excitement and sense of purpose work in the long run, only time will tell. Neither Marechalle nor Jacobs claimed to have every “I” dotted and “T” crossed. But then, to do so runs contrary to their stated platform of agility and working from instinct, at least some of the time. Jacobs articulated of the ongoing challenge: “If you still believe that the [original] essence was right and good and you still believe in it and you think it has integrity, how do you adapt it to the changes that exist now that didn’t exist then? So how do I, how do we here, do that? “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
“So this idea of bringing something back, this Redux Grunge, yes, I do think it looks great. Yes, I do have a romantic attachment to it. Yes, it does represent a style aesthetic that I believe in — that high and low, that mix, the beaded dress with a pair of Birkenstocks. Yes, it was the first time I was able to articulate that in a way that resonated in some way. And yes, I do think it’s still valid.” But how to continue the concept once this particular collection is in the rearview mirror? “That’s a work in progress, and we’ll see.”
As for the number of grunge looks now on view at 655 Madison — it’s an imperfect 26. Jacobs aimed for 25, one for each year since spring 1993 (never mind that the show was actually 26 years ago this past September). But after endless deliberation, one swing look refused to be ejected. “So,” Jacobs shrugged, “it was like, OK, it’s 25. And one for good luck.”