Fifteen years since Louis Vuitton took a gamble on a wild New Yorker, Marc Jacobs has lost none of his power to dazzle.
Designer Marc Jacobs Photo: GETTY
By the looks of it, Marc Jacobs has just come back from the gym. He is dressed in a black vest and sweat pants and white Adidas trainers, and is a little flushed.
He is surprisingly small, with the physique of a dancer. He sits at his desk, a huge diamond earring catching the light as he sips an espresso and inhales on a Marlboro Light.
We are in Jacobs’s office at the Paris headquarters of Louis Vuitton, where he has been the artistic director since 1997 – it is a temporary attic space in an annexe opposite the impossibly slick main LV building near the Pont Neuf.
‘We had to move out of our office across the street,’ he explains. ‘The air conditioning was not working and we had oily black goo leaking from the ceilings. It’s a little bit like Being John Malkovich here. I’m not tall and if I can touch the ceiling…’
He has made himself at home here. The office is lived-in and nicely messy, with shelves lined with a mish-mash of books, some bags from his collaboration with the pop artist Richard Prince, and a bunny creature made for him by one of his interns.
Jacobs, 48, talks quickly, pausing from time to time to light another cigarette, his thoughts tumbling out in a stream of consciousness. His design team is on the same floor – he leaves his door open so he can keep an eye on them and they can approach him at any time.
‘We like to share ideas,’ he says. ‘Each of us stimulates the other and although we all look to each other for that catalyst and inspiration, no one says, “Oh, that was my idea.” And I think that makes for a very nice creative environment. It’s the only kind of environment I can work in.’
Jacobs is putting the finishing touches to the new Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear collection, the highlight of the Paris shows and the grand finale of the show season.
‘Usually, at the end of the show, I am pretty emotional, and physically and mentally worn out, but I’m also very happy with the results of what we have done, regardless of what other people think.’
This year, the show marks the beginning of a whirlwind of Louis Vuitton activity in Paris. A major exhibition, ‘Louis Vuitton – Marc Jacobs’, will open at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs at the Louvre the following day.
The exhibition compares the lives and careers of Jacobs and Vuitton himself, who began working as an apprentice luggage packer in Paris in the 1820s and founded his own company in 1854. Jacobs seems humbled by it. ‘I’m someone who came to Paris as a teenager, and I dreamed of coming back to Paris as a visitor,’ he says. ‘I never dreamed of having a job at the biggest luxury house in Paris and, you know, 15 odd years later, I’m still here.’
Marc Jacobs was born in New York in 1963. His father, who worked at the William Morris talent agency, died when he was seven. He was never close to his mother (he says he hasn’t seen her or his brother or sister for years), and he left home as a teenager to live with his grandmother in the art deco Majestic apartment building on Central Park West.
While he was at the High School of Art and Design, he became a regular all-nighter at Studio 54. He went on to study fashion at Parsons School of Design, where he was a star student, winning the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble award as well as the Design Student of the Year award in 1984. The same year, the entrepreneurial Robert Duffy was looking for a young designer to work with and saw Jacobs’s graduation show. The two have worked together ever since. (Duffy has ‘1984’ tattooed on his right hand.)
The first Marc Jacobs collection was launched in 1986 and was greeted with approval by the fashion industry, which awarded him the Perry Ellis award for new fashion talent at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards in 1987. A year later, and two years after Perry Ellis died, Jacobs and Duffy joined the sportswear company Perry Ellis – then as important as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein – as vice president and president of women’s design. Jacobs’s grunge collection for them, shown in November 1992, has come to be regarded as one of the most influential in fashion history.
The collection of chiffon dresses that looked as though they had come from a thrift store, worn with beanie hats and chunky DMs, with flannel shirts tied round the waist and thermal underwear (remade in cashmere), was simply a reflection of what Jacobs saw around him on the street and in nightclubs. But his bosses at Perry Ellis didn’t understand it – they felt he had made their luxury sportswear look cheap. Jacobs’s increasing notoriety as a drunken, drug-taking party animal didn’t help. He was swiftly fired.
‘It was a moment when people questioned what was beautiful,’ Jacobs says now. ‘I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfect – they are much more interesting.’ In a way, it has simply taken the fashion world a long time to catch up with him. ‘There is more freedom in the idea of what glamour is and what beauty is and what is right and what is wrong. It’s all changed. It’s a different world – all those old cliched definitions have morphed into something less definable.’
When Jacobs arrived at Vuitton in 1997 there was no fashion at the brand, no ‘It bags’, no Stephen Sprouse graffiti, not even a shoe. In 1987 Louis Vuitton had merged with the champagne manufacturer Moët et Chandon and the cognac company Hennessy to form the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.
In the 1990s Yves Carcelle became the president of Louis Vuitton and he began to oversee a steady expansion and development of the brand. It was he who appointed Jacobs to create the company’s first ready-to-wear collection, a move that mirrored the similarly daring appointments of John Galliano at Givenchy in 1995 (followed by Dior in 1996) and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy in 1996.
The French establishment was not convinced. Jacobs had a pretty chequered history and no track record with a luxury goods house. Yet here he was, the nerdy, scruffy New Yorker with his long-haired clubby friends, his drug-fuelled partying and his inappropriate boyfriends at the stuffy Parisian brand known for its perfectly elitist, perfectly unfashionable luggage. But along with Duffy and under the guidance of Carcelle, Jacobs has created a luxury fashion house from scratch.
‘When Mr Arnaud [Bernard, the chairman of LVMH] invited Robert and me here, I had made this presentation of all the things I thought Vuitton could eventually be,’ Jacobs says. ‘As a New Yorker, I was very impatient and I thought those things had to happen within a very short period of time. Fifteen years is a very long time and they still haven’t all happened – but it is really remarkable to see how ready-to-wear has grown from one store to five, to seven, to 30…’
Vuitton now has 459 stores in 64 countries. ‘The design team has grown, too, and the shoe business has grown [the company has four shoe workshops in Italy]. I had this idea once to do a very beautiful charm bracelet as a symbol of souvenirs and now there is going to be a fine jewellery shop in Place Vendôme. It sounds like it has taken for ever, but it’s all gone so quickly.’
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition will reveal just how far the brand has come. The show is being overseen by Pamela Golbin, the museum’s chief curator of fashion and textiles, who has spent the past two years researching the contribution of Vuitton and Jacobs to the company.
‘The exhibition is really the story of two men,’ Golbin says. ‘You forget that there was actually a founder whose name was Louis Vuitton. Louis was not revolutionary, he wasn’t ahead of his time – he was a man of his time. To me, Marc is also that. He’s always saying, “I’m not the Wizard of Oz, it’s not like I have a crystal ball.” But they each brought to their prospective areas exactly what was needed.’
Vuitton worked for 17 years for a packer and trunk-maker called Maréchal. His job was to go to the houses of some of the most wealthy women in Paris and pack their clothes, which could easily number 70-plus items, when they needed to travel.
‘You actually wore your crinoline,’ Golbin explains, ‘but there would sometimes be a second one for the evening for the ballgown because it had to be even bigger. It was like a concertina; it had a special bag that was fitted to the trunk. You had to change five to six times a day and there were six to seven layers each time.’
Vuitton was one of about 400 men doing the same job, but Maréchal had clients who would ask for him personally. What singled him out, Golbin says, was an ability to be in the right place at the right time. When he set up his business specialising in packing clothes in 1854, he chose a shop next to Place Vendôme. Four years later, Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture, moved in across the street. It afforded Vuitton an inside knowledge of what was going on in fashion, which allowed him to innovate and keep one step ahead. ‘Haute couture was about to explode so Louis became very well known in his field,’ Golbin says.
The exhibition will be divided over two floors, one devoted to Vuitton, the other to Jacobs. The Jacobs floor will undoubtedly be the crowd-puller, divided into themes – sparkles, Afro, exotic – and with sections dedicated to the collaborations with the artists Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. And, of course, endless bags.
These days, every look has its own bag, but Jacobs’s first collection for Vuitton in 1998 featured only one: an anonymous, functional white messenger bag, like a cycle courier’s.
‘The funny thing is,’ Jacobs recalls, ‘I was working with [the stylist] Joe McKenna that first season and both Joe and I carried all our stuff in messenger bags, so when it came time to do a bag I thought it should just be something we use every day. It was not about the “It bag” or anything. All of that came afterwards, with the collaborations with Sprouse, Murakami, creating new styles, new bag crazes. But in the beginning it was all about something we take for granted. We couldn’t figure out how to start it any other way.’
That first show was minimal in its production, a straight-up-and-down floor-level runway without any of the theatricals that have become Louis Vuitton’s signature. ‘The first season I tortured myself mentally: “What should we do? What do people expect? Well, we shouldn’t give them what they expect. What is luxury?” We looked at this grey trunk [the original Louis Vuitton design] and thought, “We’ve got to start somewhere.” There is no archive of clothes. We had to start from a blank page. So [the model] Kirsten Owen, with that white messenger bag, was the beginning. Everything was internal – the Vuitton label was underneath the buttons. The luxury was hidden, not in your face.’
A lot has changed since then. In October, the show for spring/summer took place on an old-fashioned carousel that had been specially built inside a tent in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, with 48 white dancing horses, carrying 48 immaculate girls dressed in the frothiest, lightest, sweetest confections it is possible to make. Dresses of broderie anglaise in shades of sugared almonds with bags to match, biker jackets spiked with the most downy ostrich feathers and blouses made from organza with lacy collars buttoned up tight. Kate Moss provided the finale. It was a blow-the-budget extravaganza, and the critics loved it. Jacobs’s satisfaction was short-lived. ‘I got the one day to enjoy it,’ he says, ‘then I thought, “How are we going to top that?”‘
The carousel at the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2012 show. Picture: Getty
For a while it seemed as if he would have to top it by moving jobs. Last autumn, Jacobs’s future at the house seemed uncertain. There was wild speculation about who would succeed John Galliano, who had been fired from his position at Dior – Jacobs seemed to be the number-one candidate.
I ask if he is relieved the speculation is all over. ‘Oh yeah, I am very happy here,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s a great honour to be considered [for Dior]. But what I have here that is different than what I would have anywhere else is that, before me, there was nobody in this role. With Robert [Duffy] and my team, we’ve built this and I feel a kind of pride and I don’t feel that we’re done yet… I just think there is so much more to do.’ So was it his choice to stay put? ‘Well…’ he pauses for a moment. ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but we agreed that it was probably best for everyone.’
Despite the inescapable luxury of what Jacobs does now for Vuitton, he still has the irreverent attitude he had 20 years ago. ‘I still appreciate individuality,’ he says. ‘Style is much more interesting than fashion, really.’
Jacobs divides his time almost equally between this office in Paris and New York, and continues to run his own eponymous line with 239 (as of summer 2011) Marc Jacobs retail stores in 60 countries, selling the Marc Jacobs Collection, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Little Marc, a children’s line. He recently finished renovating a townhouse in the West Village which he bought in 2009, having spent a decade living in the Mercer Hotel. New York remains his home.
The new house gives him somewhere to hang the substantial art collection he began about nine years ago. He has work by Andy Warhol, Georges Braque, John Currin, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince. The last piece he bought was by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer from the Sadie Coles Gallery, where he likes to go whenever he is in London. It’s hanging in his dining-room. When I ask if he is running out of space to hang his art he gives me a look that says I obviously have no idea of the scale of his townhouse. ‘No,’ he says. ‘There’s plenty of wall space.’
Whether it was the right decision for Jacobs to remain at Vuitton, time will tell. Certainly, Jacobs is a commercial designer. He has the rare ability to please both the press (though not all of the time) and the buyers. ‘Vuitton don’t seem to have been affected [by the recession],’ he says. ‘It’s been a great year here, knock wood. I think there is something about luxury – it’s not something people need, but it’s what they want. It really pulls at their heart. We don’t need fashion to survive, we just desire it so much.’
Jacobs prefers not to intellectualise his own work. ‘We don’t design by calculator or by demographics or anything like that. We really are a group of creative, sensitive people. We have our charmed little world where we get to make things. We’re really lucky.’
‘Louis Vuitton – Marc Jacobs’ is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs , 107 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, from March 9 to September 16