Marc Jacobs concluded the WWD summit with a jolt of glamour, candor and unabashed enthusiasm for fashion. Taking questions from WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley and audience members, Jacobs revealed how he has been served by his creative instincts, unrelenting passion and enlightened refusal to pass judgment on people. The artistic force behind Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs stressed the power of tenacity and conviction. But he also acknowledged the randomness of inspiration, especially in the beginnings of the seasonal design process.
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
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“It’s the same in both places, at Marc Jacobs and Vuitton,” he said. “I’m usually so exhausted after a show that I leave [the teams] alone for a little while. They get a bunch of stuff together, I start to look at it, something sticks, and then it just develops and evolves. It’s funny when I read how people analyze a collection because I know for us, for me, it starts in this really arbitrary fashion. ‘We just did this, so let’s do something completely different.’ For fall, we had just shown this very Eighties, very tough [collection] with black and bright colors, a very graphic look; so for spring, we found ourselves looking at very feminine ruffles. And we said, ‘Well, it’s probably not right, but it’s different.’”
Jacobs’ contrarian nature drives him to create the unexpected.
“I have a very short attention span and I lose interest in things quickly,” the designer said. “I also think that what works — and maybe this is just an S&M relationship that I have with myself — but whatever I don’t like, or causes me pain, will usually end up yielding the best results. For me to embrace something that I find unappealing, it has to be the least like whatever I just did in order to sustain my interest for the next six months. But it’s really torturous,” he said.
Although it starts arbitrarily, he said, “at some point during the process, there’s a real conviction to what you’re doing. Even if you sort of jokingly walk in one day and go, I dunno, maybe we should just do ruffles, at some point there’s a real decision.”
His job is to reach a state of conviction, and he leaves it to business partner Robert Duffy and others to round out the merchandise and cover the required price points. Fixing the economy is left to economists.
“So we try not to sacrifice creativity, but to be more responsible in terms of the offer, the range of prices, because price seems to be the big issue,” he said.
Keeping the Marc Jacobs and Vuitton collections distinct is a natural result of channeling ideas through a six-month process of experimenting, adding and editing by the respective teams.
“If I love the color red, I’ll love it Monday in New York and still love it Friday in Paris, but that red could become burgundy in Paris or pink in New York. It manifests itself differently,” he said.
“I’m most at home in New York. I have so many friends and such a large creative community that I feel I’m a part of here. So my work in New York is very influenced by my personal relationships and what I’m doing, and what the people on my team are doing, while Paris is a bit of a bubble, a fantasy. It’s almost like I’m pretending to be a designer in Paris. I just think, ‘What would a French designer do?’”
That very question led him to the hugely successful collaborations with artists including Takashi Murakami.
“I fell in love with this premise, maybe a historic or nostalgic premise, that once upon a time, there was a great creative community in Paris, where people like [Coco] Chanel and [Elsa] Schiaparelli would collaborate with [Jean] Cocteau and [Pablo] Picasso on stage sets and dance costumes and all this stuff. My name is not Louis Vuitton….I’ve been brought in to respect what exists, but maneuver and add to it a little bit….That gave me a sense of freedom that I could bring in other people who I respected. What would Chanel or Schiaparelli have done? They would reach out to artists they respected and do things with them.”
Jacobs faces pressure from LVMH to repeat the success of those collaborations.
“Mr. [Bernard] Arnault almost weekly wants to know when we’re doing another one. I don’t have a crystal ball, and I couldn’t have told you the Takashi thing would be a success or the Sprouse graffiti or the Richard Prince thing. I just did what I felt. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. Sometimes they’re right; sometimes they’re wrong. But I can sleep at night and always do a better job in the morning if I just go with my gut, my heart. [My business partner] Robert Duffy and I are really that way. We try things. We have had successes; we’ve had failures. In terms of my relationship to artists at Vuitton, I make these choices because they feel right. I can’t do them by calculator, as much as everyone would like me to turn that out every season. It just doesn’t happen that way. It’s an organic experience when you find someone you really want to work with. It works because the stars align, but you can’t really contrive to do that. At least, I can’t.”
When he came to Vuitton, he resisted the LV logo because he felt it was too predictable, and instead created minimal, cerebral designs with no clear relevance to the brand.
“What appeals to people about Vuitton? It’s not that it’s the most practical luggage in the world or the easiest to pack. It’s identifiable. I realized that when you go through an airport and you see people with real or — God forbid — counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags, what they have in common is this human thing, which is that they want to be part of this club that people recognize. It’s like having a Lacoste alligator or a pair of Pumas or Adidas or whatever the logo is. I went through this in school, like most people did, where you want to become part of this tribe or group. There are people who think it’s the ultimate chic to be decked out in this logo. So for me, it became very clear that the idea was, going forward, to celebrate this iconic logo.”
Jacobs noted Vuitton’s business model is hard to imitate, as it does not go on sale and does not wholesale. Regardless, the Marc Jacobs business has benefited from LVMH, which enabled the brand to scale up through store openings, advertising and the launch of the contemporary Marc by Marc Jacobs line, he said.
“And I’ve grown a lot by being in Paris,” Jacobs added. “I feel so blessed to have both New York and Paris. Getting to work with the artisans there. The passion for fashion in France or in Paris is like none other in the world.”
Partly because of his bicontinental life, he doesn’t identify strongly with the American fashion community — but then again, he never has.
“Sometimes I get really adamant when I hear designers make blanket statements like ‘American fashion should be…’ It gets my rebellious hairs up or something. I go, ‘Nah, I don’t think that’s true.’ This whole idea of American fashion or Seventh Avenue fashion is nonsense. It’s archaic and old, and we don’t have to subscribe to those rules. We work out of a loft in SoHo and we show wherever we want. So if we want to show a dress made of 50 yards of taffeta, who says that has to be couture?
“I think fashion is fashion. I think everything is sort of global at this point, I mean in that sense. I don’t really love words like ‘global.’ And I mean, American? I don’t know what American is any more. What is an American? I don’t know. I travel; most people I know travel. The people I know who love fashion also love music, they love art, they love theater, they like the art of living. And things that aren’t necessity are just such a wonderful thing. And fashion being one of them, I think, again, it’s just human. I always bring up this example. I mean, I don’t know if record stores even exist anymore, but the last time I went to buy a CD, 100 years ago, there were these categories like ‘rock ’n’ roll.’ And I thought, ‘When was the last time anyone used that?’ Or ‘alternative.’ Isn’t everything an alternative to something else? So these categories or labels, I feel, are very outdated,” he said.
That partly explains his ambivalence about the Council of Fashion Designers of America and its annual awards. Speculating about why he has not won in the women’s wear category for several years, he remarked, “Because they’re stupid! No, it’s not true. I’m really not this egomaniacal monster that you might think I am. My team and I, we’ve gone to the CFDA awards year after year after year, and we always feel we’ve done the best collection. That’s not to say there aren’t other great collections….I don’t believe in these prizes. I don’t watch the Academy Awards or the Emmys or the Tonys. I only go to the CFDAs because if I don’t go, Anna Wintour calls up and says, ‘You have to go because you’re part of the American fashion industry, da da da da da,’ and you can’t say no to her. So you sit through this thing as everyone tells you you’re going to get it, and then you don’t get it, and then everyone tells you it should have been you. You’re like, whatever. You go home empty handed one more time, and it’s fine. We have nine of them,” including from years when they were perhaps not as well deserved, he said.
“There’s now the CFDA fund, which I know is set to help young people. I had a big issue with the CFDA back in my Perry Ellis days, because I really didn’t see what they were doing for the designers. I went to a meeting, and Ralph [Lauren] was there and Donna [Karan] was there, and everyone thought they should be the one to choose the best photographer of the year. I just felt this is not for me. I just didn’t want to be part of their reindeer games. And I didn’t feel part of this self-congratulatory American fashion industry thing. I didn’t mind if they wanted to do it; I just didn’t find it that interesting. But maybe in some way it gives people encouragement,” he said.
Asked to name the next Ralph or Donna, he declined, saying many young people have talent and passion, then mentioned Alexander Wang. When a question about celebrity designers came up, Jacobs noted Lindsay Lohan’s failure at Ungaro, but complimented Victoria Beckham. “She is someone who has always wanted to design clothes. She knows the body, she loves it and she’s working her ass off,” he said. “It’s too easy to say nobody who’s celebrated for something else shouldn’t do fashion.”
Jacobs similarly refuses to bemoan tabloid culture, digital information or the end of fashion’s mystique.
“Again, where do you want to put your energy? This idea of trying to slow things down, and, ‘Oh aren’t we bombarded with too much information, and aren’t things too readily available, where’s the sense of exclusivity?’ OK, you want to take this on? You want to invest your time and energy into slowing time? Good luck! God bless you. Or do you embrace it? This is the way of the world….I just think it is what it is, and just get on with it. The energy is better spent doing something else.”
Jacobs likened social media to glass buildings that serve to bring people attention, which he believes people are hardwired to desire from birth.
“Maybe sometimes that desire gets blown way out of proportion, but people do want attention. And they also like to say they don’t want attention. They think it’s cool to say, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be noticed, I don’t need to be praised.’ But I think that’s [false]. I mean, to different degrees. We largely as a society are interested in what other people are doing. I’m not interested in the Kardashians, but I found myself watching two hours of Khloé’s wedding last night,” he said.
Similarly, Jacobs thinks the notion of discreet luxury is a somewhat false pretense, but a perfectly acceptable one.
“There’s the snobbism of this discreet luxury, and there’s the overt, blatant in-your-face thing. It’s all good. It’s all fine. If you enjoy it, enjoy it. If you enjoy pretending it’s no big deal, then enjoy pretending. If you’re enjoying showing it off, then get out there and show it off. It’s all good. A-OK.
“The only thing that looks wrong on anybody is insecurity. I probably shouldn’t be sitting here in a kilt, but I don’t care. I’ve got good calves and I’m happy. I’m happy when I see people wearing something we’ve made. I don’t care if they wear it inside out, backwards, cut in half or busting out the side seams. God bless you if you’re happy — that’s the most important thing. I’d hate for someone to tell me I shouldn’t be wearing something. I don’t ‘should’ on people.”