A Conversation With Marc Jacobs

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Photo: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

When one is possessed of extraordinary talent, there are those who seek to bottle and distill it. Marc Jacobs has become one of the most sought-after names in the fashion industry on the strength of such talent, and spent the better part of two decades building not one, but two fashion empires. The first is his own, which began in 1986 immediately following his graduation from Parsons. Industry purse holders quickly took notice of the provocative spitfire who turned slacker-grunge into commerce. Before long, the CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, heeded the commotion Jacobs and his business partner Robert Duffy were causing on the New York fashion scene. For the past 16 years, Jacobs and Duffy have overseen what is now the most important luxury retail brand in the world, Louis Vuitton, and are responsible for elevating the label to cult status on a global scale. All the while, Jacobs has maintained his eponymous brand, even expanding its reach with a diffusion line Marc by Marc Jacobs, henceforth known as MBMJ, as Jacobs reportedly “hated the previous name”.

His personal empire continued to grow, but it was Jacobs’ dream to find the time to focus on it solely. On October 2, 2013, he announced his departure from Louis Vuitton, sending shockwaves through the fashion community. With the eventful announcement came the news that Jacobs would spend his time focusing on his own label, a dream come true for a designer who has long split his focus between two enormous roles. However, running the Marc Jacobs empire will have a new set of demands now that the company plans to launch an IPO that could rocket him to the ranks of overnight billionaire. Although Jacobs rarely conducts interviews, he gives here an intimate exploration of his thoughts and feelings regarding the changing of the guard, the IPO, and his final collection for Louis Vuitton. Read on for an illuminating and personal introduction to the world of Marc Jacobs in the designer’s own words.

Are you feeling wistful?
It seems like everyone is asking me, “Are you OK? Are you upset?” I’m like, “No, I’m really not.” And no matter what you say, no matter how you explain the situation — for Robert [Duffy] and me, it’s all really super positive. And if I weren’t OK, I would be the first to say that I’m not OK. I’m not good at hiding my feelings. I’m also not good at lying. I’m very open about everything. We’re both really hopeful. We both really believe in what Mr. Arnault said, and we all made this choice. We signed our contracts for the changing situation in the Marc Jacobs company with LVMH.

Has Marc Jacobs always been your first priority?
Robert has always said to me, “When you think back to when we met Mr. Arnault and LVMH, they were willing to invest in Marc Jacobs because they wanted us to do Vuitton.” They were willing to make a smaller investment to keep Marc Jacobs going if that was the cost to get us to do Vuitton. Robert would say to me, “I know you love Vuitton, I know you gave your heart to it, but Marc Jacobs is our future and Marc Jacobs is what we built. The reason we’re here in Paris is to keep what we started alive.” Robert was the voice of reason in this; he has always has been the practical one.

You say he’s always been the practical one. Was it practical to say that the far-smaller business is the priority? Or is that more emotional than practical?
I think it was practical. Whatever part of my heart or my brain that took to do this, and whatever energy it took on Robert’s side, we started it. Before LVMH came into our lives, we were doing other things. I was working at Iceberg, doing this Japanese consulting job, and Robert was mortgaging his house. We would do what we had to do to continue our collections. And then the wonderful opportunity of Vuitton came along. As much as I loved it, it was supporting the other thing, Marc Jacobs. Robert never lost sight of that.

Tell us about the Spring/Summer 2014 Marc Jacobs set.
There was a shoot Steven Meisel did many years ago that looked like a Martha’s Vineyard or Hamptons beach, but there was something strange about these dark clothes on a sort of gray beach. It wasn’t girls in midriffs and cutoff jeans playing volleyball. It wasn’t spring break. This was a beach scene that had a very sulky, still, melancholy mood. You almost wondered, “what is wrong with this picture?” And then, the idea of the Burning Man festival. I looked at a lot of images. There was this Paul McCarthy exhibition that I absolutely loved. It was an installation called “WS”, which was his reversal of Snow White, so White Snow. We started talking about the set, and that’s how it happened.

A number of people asked if the heat in the venue on the day of the show was intentional.
Everybody thought it was and my friend Roger said, “You should tell them it was.” No, the heat was not intentional. Suffering wasn’t my intention for anybody. The Armory is incredibly hard and expensive to air condition. The whole week was super humid and super hot. And again, it was definitely not our intention.

Why would people think you would have them swelter intentionally?
I’m not sure. You know how many people come back after a show and tell me what their reading was? I know the catalysts, the inspirations, the thoughts, but I don’t ever want to negate anybody for seeing in it what they see. I don’t want to stand in front of a painting and say, “This is what that artist was thinking.” I don’t know what it is. It’s what I see in it that matters to me, and whatever he was thinking and feeling is fine. One of the wonderful things about watching a movie or listening to music is that you really don’t need any education whatsoever. You don’t need to know anything. You don’t need to be part of a cultural elite if you honor your feelings. If a child stands in front of a painting and says, “I love that, the colors are pretty”, it’s a very fair, valid comment. But once you’ve been conditioned into society, you are meant to understand and think things. People say things like “The heat was intentional” or “That’s his last show”. It’s fine. Whatever you saw in it, that’s fine… Far be it from me to argue with what you felt and saw.

You’re not known for sexy shoes. Is it possible to have an IPO without a sexy shoe business?
I don’t know, but I’d like to believe that one doesn’t have to do the same thing everyone else does to have success. Tory Burch has a flat shoe.

Speaking of flat shoes – those tiny-paillette moccasin boots. Where did they come from?
I used to wear Minnetonkas. It’s a ballet flat; a little unconstructed suede moccasin. It was a random thought. The idea of ethnic seems interesting, but I’ve never been one to do an ethnic-inspired collection. I thought, “What would I think if a girl were walking down the street in an evening dress and those cheap suede moccasins?” Then I decided we had to elevate it. Take something that you know and change three things. All of a sudden, they were embroidered with all those micro-sequins and all the colors changed. That’s what I love. That’s what I think is new and modern: looking at something and changing it or morphing it or putting it in the wrong context. It goes back to all of my favorite artists. It goes back to Duchamp, who took a urinal and said, “Why can’t a urinal be art?” Why is a cheap moccasin not fashion? Why is it any different than a ballerina flat? Why did Saint Laurent make a crocodile motorcycle jacket? Because Elvis Presley was wearing a motorcycle jacket. It was cool. Chanel always said the tweed came from fishermen, and the ease of the cardigans that she saw men wearing. These things, you take them, you appropriate them, and you make them your own. Everyone is talking about tribal, so this was my own little funny way of saying, “Well, we knew that was happening, too.”

Are you willing to make certain creative compromises on this path to the IPO?
Of course. I’ve always said that, even at Vuitton. Mr. Arnault has come to me over the years with products or things or ideas that he’s seen elsewhere and he’d say, “So-and-so has a canvas bag.” And I’d say, “Why don’t you let me try and come up with what a Louis Vuitton canvas bag would be?” I don’t have any problem with trying to rise to a creative challenge. That doesn’t seem like a compromise. You may be successful with it or you may not, but I don’t mind approaching it.

It’s been said that clothes have become the accessories to the accessories. What do you think about that?
It doesn’t seem quite that way anymore. Accessories may drive the business, but they’re no longer the press, darling. The red carpet thing became this “thing”. It’s all about evening dresses and borrowed jewelry. When did red carpet overpower “It” bags? “It” bags were the red carpet before the red carpet. You want to know what Madonna’s new record is, but you also want to know who is going to be the new Madonna. We want new music from the people we love, but we also want new music.

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