Marc Jacobs: Portrait of an Iconoclast
Provocative, eccentric, ever evolving and a total nonconformist, Marc Jacobs has firmly established himself as one of the most talented designers of his generation.
by : Theodora Aspart- Sep 8th, 2021
Marc Jacobs had not presented a collection since February 2020, right before the world was radically turned upside down. Then, this past July, when New York was just beginning to get back to its former frenzy, the designer returned to the forefront with a spectacular runway presentation for fall/winter 2021/2022. Joy and wild creativity exuded from each striking silhouette for a truly exceptional fashion moment. It’s not surprising, though, as Jacobs is known for making a mark. He has been a successful designer for almost 40 years, and his work is still relevant, if not more groundbreaking than ever.
A born-and-bred New Yorker, Jacobs graduated as “Student of the Year” from Parsons School of Design in 1984. His graduation collection—a series of sweaters knit by his grandmother Helen—caught the eye of Robert Duffy, a thirtysomething businessman who’d recently created the brand Sketchbook after working for luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. Since their first meeting, their paths have been intertwined. Duffy started by hiring Jacobs as a stylist, and then he rebaptized Sketchbook as Marc Jacobs International a few months later, elevating Jacobs to business partner.
In 1989, Jacobs also became the artistic director of the ready-to-wear line at Perry Ellis, a pillar of American fashion since the 1960s. He was fired four months after his 1993 grunge-collection runway show, which broke from the brand’s very proper style. Suddenly, the designer had become a rebel.
But Jacobs’ life was never one of convention. His father, a talent agent, died when Jacobs was seven years old, leaving him with a bipolar mother with whom he cut ties when he became an adult. A foster family cared for his younger brother and sister while he lived in Central Park West with Helen, the grandmother he adored and who predicted he’d be “the next Calvin Klein.” Never shy about the fact that he’d seen therapists since childhood, he abused drugs from the end of his adolescence until 2007, the year of his second—and final—stay in rehab. From this point on, it can be said that he lived up to his grandmother’s prediction, creating a wardrobe tailored to youth and pairing it with provocative advertising while at the same time pushing into a universe that Calvin Klein had never explored: European luxurywear.
At the end of the 1990s, Jacobs and Duffy sold the majority of Marc Jacobs International shares to LVMH. At the time, Louis Vuitton, the group’s lead brand, was just getting into fashion, which is why the designer was invited by artistic director Bernard Arnault to join as creative director. Jacobs’ golden era lasted 16 years and helped establish Louis Vuitton as a top-tier fashion brand. “Marc was the right person at the right time,” says Julie de Libran, designer of her eponymous label, former artistic director at Sonia Rykiel and Jacobs’ former studio director at Louis Vuitton. “For such an institution, bringing him on was a strong welcoming gesture. But he was the one who initiated the collaborations with artists: Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Yayoi Kusama. They were ground-breaking, and they brought a cultural dimension to Louis Vuitton.” And their contributions reassured shareholders—the brand’s collaboration with Murakami in 2005 generated around $375 million in sales.
Like Karl Lagerfeld did for Chanel, Jacobs turned runway shows into entertainment. “There was a carousel [and another time] a reconstructed train station in the courtyard of the Louvre with a train that came through,” says de Libran. “Marc could spend hours on a detail, a finish, but those magnificent shows started—that dreamlike moment. Everything was theatrical, right up until the last show.” That last one was maybe even more dramatic than the others: The all-black collection was a deep dive into the archives of 16 years of design, presented among decorations from past shows that had been coated in black, as if he were slipping away under the cover of darkness. It was the most colourful colourless show imaginable.
Since then, the designer has been focused on his own brand, which includes a women’s line, a men’s line, fragrances (from the pretty Daisy to the intoxicating Decadence) and a line of makeup for which he’s both the best and the strangest ambassador. All this to say that it’s not easy to define the style of Marc Jacobs. What brings all the strands together, from one collection to the next, is the taste of something new—the sense of daring that tends to bring a smile to your face. Sometimes there’s a punk element, often a ’60s or ’70s vibe, and there always has to be some kind of aberration—a dissonant detail that upsets the harmony of the outfit.
In 2015, the Marc by Marc Jacobs line folded and was reborn the following year as The Marc Jacobs. This new capsule collection brought together some of the creator’s most emblematic pieces at more affordable prices, like the Grunge Cardigan, the Blouse and the Disco Dress. Offering accessible products has always been one of the marketing tools of the brand; what trendy fortysomething hasn’t made a pilgrimage to one of the Marc Jacobs boutiques in the West Village during their first trip to New York to snag indispensable goodies like a neon necklace, a rat-shaped key chain or a pen that looks like lip- stick—all priced at less than $20? Such an approach shows that this uninhibited designer doesn’t see luxury as existing in a bubble that’s disconnected from the rest of the world. “There’s something about Marc Jacobs that’s very unifying, very inclusive,” says de Libran. He’s also a man who isn’t mortified by his mistakes. The most obvious example might be from 2015, when he accidentally posted a photo of his naked backside on Instagram. The image, meant to be sent to a potential love interest, came with an eloquent caption: “It’s yours to try.” Jacobs’ subsequent tweet owned his blunder: “Yeah… I’m a gay man. I flirt with men online.” And that famous caption became the bio of his Twitter account and tag line for his brand. He has “Perfect” tattooed on his wrist to remind him that he’s exactly how he needs to be and “Shameless” on his torso to remind him that he has nothing to be ashamed of.
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