Designer Marc Jacobs is the last unconventional thinker in fashion. A conversation about provoking and steam locomotives.
Mr Jacobs, you had steam locomotives for your last Louis Vuitton fashion show. Is that sort of spectacle still up-to-date for this internet age?
Marc Jacobs: Oh yes. For me the shows are the forum, the important battle in which I want to get across what is important for me. After all it is about the vision of the whole season. Nothing manages to impress more than a direct performance. I can look at it as a little movie on the internet, but you will never feel the energy, the steam of the locomotive, the noise. Would you rather see an opera live or on television?
However, the whole thing is most definitely not cheap. Do your bosses let everything through on the nod, whatever you come up with?
You have to fight sometimes. Even though I even have a couple of people around me who do that fighting for me. But these things are gone rather quickly. We’ve had elevators and a merry-go-round in previous seasons. Smoking Kate Moss on the elevator was on all the covers. If it didn’t pay off, my boss Bernard Arnault would have long put me into place.
Do you always get what you want?
Yes, if I really want something it’s really hard to get me off that trail. But you have to pick your battles wisely, you can’t fight over everything. Some people did roll their eyes once I said that I wanted a train. There were arguments, but more about the party afterwards.
Because we also wanted the locomotive for the party after the show – but nobody wanted to pay for security. I mean: the locomotive is okay but you will then try to save money when it comes to the people who take care of it? I had to play the Drama Queen for a second there.
"You have to fight sometimes. Even though I even have a couple of people around me who do that fighting for me."
Tell us, how would that look? Do you stomp your feet, do you start crying?
No. I get a little b*tchy. I said: “So I’m not coming then.” I have no idea whether that made an impression or not. But a couple of days later I had my security people.
May it be that that is fun to you?
No, I actually don’t like pissing people off, at all. Quite the opposite, actually. I am very good-natured. There are people who are so much worse. I’m not going to mention names. But when I want my locomotive it might happen that I become a bit of a pain in the ass. You have to get people to listen to what you’ve got to say. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
People do giggle and laugh at all the megalomania of your shows. One always has the feeling you want to make a little fun of the business and its rituals.
No, I’m aiming at the surprise, the shock effect. I like the idea of touching people – even if it’s just for those seven minutes of a fashion show. It makes me feel like the director of a play that requires four months of work, has only one dress rehearsal, and will then never be played again. There are so many people involved: the technicians, the tailors, handbag makers, the models, the set designers. The energy that builds up over days and then gets unleashed in this on act – that’s what takes the audience. That’s when we have accomplished our goal.
And yet there is a subversive side to you work. Or why else would you, for instance, have Victoria Beckham disappear in a huge shopping bag? Is that still advertising or is it already some form of social criticism?
That is a form of indulgence that I can afford. Ideas like these come up in accordance with my friends Juergen Teller, who photographs these campaigns. We are united in a certain sense of the bizarre, the odd, the side of fashion that can be a little perverted at times. Different from Louis Vuitton, I do not have to adhere to certain guidelines when it comes to my own company. I don’t have to transport that luxury image all the time. We can do crazy things. We showed Helena Bonham Carter with stains in her face and put a handbag between her teeth.
What are you trying to say with that?
Fashion companies believe that advertisements are supposed to sell a product. They think like this: once women see a young and beautiful girl dressed in wonderful clothes, they will want to be just like her and buy the product. I, on the other hand, want to convey a certain spirit with these motives. Some sort of craziness that can also be found in my work.
You once said that you were an addictive person. That you were only able to think in extremes. Why is that?
I have no idea. It’s just the way I am; very ‘black or white.’ I either love things or I reject them altogether. I prefer that from just thinking of things as ‘okay.’ You can get a reaction out of people that way. I have always been like that. I don’t really know if that’s a good thing. I talk about that with my therapist very often, finding the middle. I have come to embrace the fact that I am that way. I believe that that is the destiny of creative people.
It’s hard to find some sort of a common theme in your work. You yourself put it like this: I change my collections every season. There are some who consider you a mere sampler, somebody who will only quote.
That’s part of the fun, never doing things twice. But I absolutely am a person who likes to make use of old ideas; it’s just that I apply them differently every time. The approach, however, remains the same.
How would you describe that approach?
I like to take things that I know and that I know about, no matter where they might come from. That might be something I like but also something I dislike. It’s not abstract. For instance, I like to pick up things from everyday life, things that are almost banal – like sweatshirts or t-shirts – and I will then ask myself: how can I make something romantic of that? Maybe by using lace? Or a certain color? Simple things like that are very often my starting point from which entire collections can arise. However, I never have a certain idea or formula that will only have to be executed. There is a lot of spontaneity involved in the process. Even mistakes can get you one step further.
"To me the creative is inseparably connected to the commercial. If you only make art for the sake of making art – you might as well do it on a lonely island, isolated, and all by yourself."
Would you say that that is typically American?
Maybe, yes. My love for western clothing; for sportswear. Even when I’m doing a flamboyant dress, I still like to have a certain trace of lightness and swagger in it. I am not an intellectual fashion designer. I care so much more about the contemporary. With me, almost everything can be traced back to certain influences that exist, mostly pieces of clothing or a person. I am not a person who just makes up fashion. I prefer to be guided by my instinct.
You are almost 50 now and have taken on the job of patron for the “Designer for Tomorrow” competition of P&C. What do you tell your protégés about the business? Has it changed?
It has. Nowadays many more people care about fashion than compared to back in the day. The audience has become larger. Just look at musicians or politicians. Michelle Obama will wear fashion by young designers. This might be the first time in the history of the United States that a First Lady is not outfitted by a couturier. Also, stars like Lady Gaga or rapper Nicki Minaj demonstratively wear young and daring fashion. There absolutely is a market for young people who express themselves through fashion and their style. When I started out,that was not the case.
What was it like then?
There was no Google, no Facebook, and there were no bloggers. The interest in fashion and communication about it were a lot less existent. High Fashion might still be accessible only to a few, due to the price. But today there are companies like H&M or Zara that are influenced by High Fashion and successfully make fashion that everybody can afford. There has been some sort of an opening process.
But also commercialization. Nowadays, fashion is, above all, business.
To me the creative is inseparably connected to the commercial. I have many friends in contemporary art and these people also want to have their paintings and sculptures sold. Authors want people to buy their books. Musicians want people to have their songs downloaded and they want their concerts to be sold out. That’s just normal. Only that way can they carry on doing what they do best. If you only make art for the sake of making art – you might as well do it on a lonely island, isolated, and all by yourself. If the big fashion houses didn’t sell so many fragrances and cosmetics in duty-free shops in airports, they’d have to close down their couture brands.
Put differently: there can only be creativity where the figures are right?
It’s like that in every area. A lawyer can only take on a very prestigious but unprofitable case if he has dozens of others that pay well. I do not believe that anybody, whatever the specific field, can be creative or work effectively when the financial basis isn’t right. I also do not see that as a compromise – it is a challenge. The trick is to use a part of the freedom that you have created for yourself, or at least the essence of it, for the big market, for the commercial side.
How often today have you been looked at awkwardly because of the kilt you are wearing?
Not yet at all. Were we in Scotland – you wouldn’t even have recognized it.
Sometimes you hop into a pigeon costume.
That was for a Halloween party. I don’t run around like that usually! I love dressing up and I love Halloween. Everybody is so uninhibited, so open. People show a side of themselves that normally remains covered and I always ask myself: why can’t you bring at least a little bit of it into everyday life? People are so caught up in their conventions. Fashion is such a beautiful form of expressing yourself. And the less you think about what others might think of you, the more relaxed you will go through life.
Photos: Courtesy of GETTY IMAGES, GORUNWAY, and TRUNK ARCHIVE