Me and Marc in Shanghai
Watching Marc Jacobs’ recent spring/summer 2013 show reminded me of how integral his work is in shaping how we view fashion today. The collection was a modern riff on the 1960s with separates including a simple striped T-shirt worn with black briefs to buttoned up suit jackets matched with skirts or trousers slung low on the hips. The finale of maxi dresses covered in optical swirls or sequinned checks and stripes were a feast for the eyes. It captured an understated sexiness that fashion has been missing, but in a fresh and contemporary way.
I never really understood Jacobs’ creative genius until I became a fashion editor and was forced to analyse the thoughts and processes behind every one of his collections. What struck me the most was his incredible knack for translating what’s happening on the streets and transforming it into something luxurious, wearable and exciting for modern women. At the same time everything he creates has a personal connection to him, making you want to know more.
I was able to tap into his genius when I met him recently in Shanghai where he was attending the opening of Louis Vuitton’s first maison in China. Below is our interview – I hope it gives you a small glimpse into the complex mind of one of fashion’s most provocative designers.
Marc Jacobs spring/summer 2013 collection (images courtesy of style.com)
Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton’s Shanghai show
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs loves to make a scene, whether it means showing up in a see-through lace dress to one of fashion’s biggest events (see the Met Gala in New York last May) or sending out a custom made US$8 million dollar steam train as the centrepiece of his latest fashion show. In July, Shanghai was treated to the latter and a whole lot more when the designer and his posse descended upon China’s fastest growing city to open Louis Vuitton’s first maison in the country.
The two-day event kicked off with champagne cocktails to celebrate the opening of the boutique and the Louis Vuitton Express travel exhibition, followed by a spectacular party and fashion show the next evening. A replica of the original autumn/winter show staged in Paris in March, a larger than life train pulled into a large warehouse carrying 48 models decked out in jewel-covered jackets and trousers, complete with porters to carry their monogrammed luggage.
After the spectacle, Jacobs made an appearance wearing a smart tailored suit before posing for snaps like a happy tourist with local celebrities like Fan Bing Bing, Gong Li and “it” girls Alexa Chung and Poppy Delevingne. Later, Lana del Rey performed while the city’s monogrammed elite partied until dawn.
If luxury goods sales are slowing down in China as reports suggest, you certainly wouldn’t know it from the show Vuitton staged. In Jacobs world, the economy doesn’t matter much anyway.
“I don’t know if the economy is something I think about too much. There is such a huge audience for fashion, people really love it and there are so many options now. Fashion exists on so many levels and price points – there’ll always be a desire for luxury, for people to have something that feels exclusive or rare. You could be talking about a painting, or a diamond of a certain perfection – or a dress there is only one of. People like to be stimulated visually, express themselves through their clothes and take pleasure in having something that’s rare. I don’t see the future of fashion changing that much,” he says a few days earlier.
We’re in the middle of a massive suite at the Park Hyatt hotel which is enveloped by floor to ceiling windows overlooking Shanghai’s smog topped skyscrapers. Lounging on the white sofa is a rather small Jacobs, clad in his signature Comme des Garcons kilt, a black shirt and his favourite Prada creepers. He’s also sporting a new grownup hairstyle and a flesh-coloured bandaid above his eyebrow (“I tripped in my apartment in New York a few days ago, so I have to wear this until the stitches comes off,” he explains).
Even though Louis Vuitton has had a presence in China since the 1990s, Jacobs is visiting the mainland for the first time.
“It was breathtaking when we arrived last night. When I looked out the window and saw these strange structures and neon lights it looked so futuristic and crazy. I haven’t experienced much of it but it’s an energetic city and there is so much going on,” he says, taking a swig of Diet Coke and a drag of his cigarette.
“One of the reasons we were excited to bring the show here is because of what’s going on. There is this incredible passion for fashion here, a booming culture, and it all makes sense. You don’t have to be a brilliant mind to figure out [why China is so important]. It’s exciting to come to a place where what you want to do is wanted or desired. That’s what luxury is all about it – it’s not necessity, it’s what people want, desire and get obsessed for. If we did a show in a place where we had to drag people out of their houses it wouldn’t be the same,” he says.
Wild horses wouldn’t keep most people away from a Vuitton fashion show and that’s mainly due to Jacobs and his incessant desire to always outdo himself. For the past few years, the brand’s presentations have become the hottest ticket at Paris Fashion Week, thanks to theatrics including a live carrousel complete with dancing horses and gilded elevators carrying supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss clad in fetish inspired creations.
“[My team and I] were discussing how we can top this show. It’s gonna be tricky,” he says, lighting up another cigarette. “The great thing about fashion is that it changes all the time – you just get on it, you keep doing it. One thing that’s delightful is the fact that it’s not a lifelong commitment. Buying a dress is not like buying a couch. If you buy a wrong dress it just moves in the back of the closet.”
Jacobs has always had an irreverent attitude. Born and raised in New York, his father died when he was seven. He left home as a teenager to live with his grandmother, whom he still cites as one of his greatest influences. After graduating from the High School of Art and Design he went on to study fashion at the renowned Parsons School of Design while partying at Studio 54 at night.
Despite this, he was still the perfect student, winning several awards including the Design Student of the Year and the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble Award. In fact his graduate collection – which featured a series of Op-Art sweaters knitted by his grandmother – got him noticed by entrepreneur Robert Duffy who later became his business partner, and remains so until today.
Jacobs launched his first collection in 1986 and quickly won his first CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) award in 1987. Two years later he joined famed American sportswear company Perry Ellis together with Duffy, and a very young Tom Ford, whom he hired. It was there that he created his most controversial and influential collection which was inspired by the Grunge culture gripping America at the time. It featured models in beanie hats, floral printed granny dresses, flannel shirts and chunky Doc Martens boots. The press loved it, but the powers that be didn’t so Jacobs was unceremoniously dumped from the label.
When he was appointed creative director at Louis Vuitton in 1997 – after more than 18 months negotiation – more than a few eyebrows were raised. He had little experience working at a luxury fashion brand and was known to be a notorious partier. He was also a New Yorker who had never been exposed to French culture. But what he did have was an amazing opportunity to build a luxury brand from scratch while securing financial backing for his own eponymous label from LVMH honcho Bernard Arnault.
While his first few years at the label were rocky, Jacobs soon hit his stride. Today Vuitton boasts 459 stores worldwide and has diversified into watches, fine jewellery, accessories and soon, a perfume – all under Jacobs watchful eye.
“I don’t think I’ve made the biggest contribution yet, it’s still to come,” he says. “I feel more confident and stronger than the beginning. I work with a wonderful team, our process has become more confident. We all push ourselves harder than we ever did before because we now do everything from shoes, bags, clothes to ads.
“The passion was always there but we are always up against ourselves and raise the bar each season. I feel we keep surpassing ourselves. There is finally this realisation that Vuitton is not just luggage. That’s why I brought there 15 years ago and we’ve done a good job of it. I have no regrets. You only regret what you don’t do.”
Although Jacobs broke plenty of new ground at Vuitton, what really put him on the map were his cheeky collaborations with artists. His own vast collection, which includes works by Warhol, Braque and Hockney, inspired him to ask American artist Stephen Sprouse to graffiti Vuitton’s elegant monogrammed handbags in 2001. Other collaborations followed with the likes of Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and most recently, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Perhaps a Chinese artist could be next?
“I don’t know much about Chinese art but I am open to collaborating. It isn’t about where someone is from. I have been very instinctive – when I see something that turns me on or makes me feel a certain thing, at the right time I approach that person. If I see something from an artist here and they are willing to do it, I would approach it like any other artist in the world,” he says frankly.
Collaborations aside, most insiders would agree that it’s Jacobs’ ready-to-wear collections that have made him one of the industry’s most influential designers. While names like Alber Elbaz create fantasies and dreams for women, Jacobs brings them back to earth. He works like a creative psychologist, pushing boundaries and debunking traditional notions of beauty (he describes the aforementioned autumn/winter collection as an “exploration of bad taste.”). He celebrates style and individuality, yet there is an underlying sense of irony in everything he does. These characteristics are most apparent in his eponymous label, which has also enjoyed plenty of commercial success.
“Marc Jacobs is probably more of a reflection of me. The distinction happens quite naturally. It’s two different teams, two different countries and cities. Also there is four weeks between each show – in fashion speak that’s an eternity. A lot can happen!
“My own collections are more personal and about my experiences, my connection to friends and New York. Paris is more of an imaginative thing, of me thinking of what a French fashion show is. The Vuitton woman is much more extroverted and wants everything that she chooses to be identifiable, iconic and glossy. There are separations in my head but also natural separations that happen. What we are able to do in New York and Paris is very different,” he says.
Like most high-profile designers, Jacobs’ road to success hasn’t been without a few bumps. After many years of indulging in fuelled alcohol and drug binges, the designer was forced to enter rehab in 2000. Then there was his highly documented personal makeover. In 2006 he revealed a new look of Extreme Makeover proportions – gone was the overweight, nerdy designer and in its place a chiselled Adonis complete with washboard abs. Proud of his new body (which he says is the result of daily two hour workouts and a strict diet) he posed naked, covered in oil, for the launch of his perfume Bang in 2010. The press had a new target and continue to document every detail of his life from his frolics on the beach to his latest red carpet appearance with his new porn star boyfriend, Harry Louis.
Fortunately Jacobs loves the attention – and is proud to admit it.
“People laugh at me sometimes because they say I love attention, but that’s the truth. I make absolutely no apologies for saying it. I do love attention – I certainly get hurt when people criticise me or say nasty things about me but ultimately I do like attention.
“I didn’t always feel that way – I kept away from all of that but [now] I like expressing how I feel through how I dress. I like being open in what I am doing. People wouldn’t be interested in my personal life if they weren’t interested in my work. I think we just live in a world where people are exhibitionists and voyeurs and I don’t mind it. Maybe it affects me in a positive way rather than a negative way,” he says.
Although Jacobs is happy to live out his life in the public eye, his private life is strictly reserved for close friends. Over the years has surrounded himself with the same group of confidants including Duffy, who has been his business partner since 1984, co-collaborator and uber stylist Katie Grand and muse and director Sofia Coppola. He also tends to shy away from “fashion” people, preferring to hang out with artists from different walks of life.
“There are plenty of designers that I feel comfortable with but I like to get on with it and do my won thing. I am not a fan of big fashion events – I am not uncomfortable attending them but it’s a bit boring. I am also a little jaded because I’ve been doing it a while.
“Given a preference I like being around people who maybe have an interest in fashion but it’s not their only interest. They are more well-rounded. A healthy rich and beautiful life for me is someone who’s interested in good art, food, wine, theatre and literature. All forms of aesthetics are interesting and the idea of being curious about sounds and sights, that’s all part of it. The attitude that fashion is the beginning and end of everything is a little flat,” he says raising his bandaged brow.
Another thing he has a strong opinion about is Haute Couture. In July he was spotted at Raf Simons first Haute Couture show for Christian Dior – a strange move considering that Vuitton does not offer Haute Couture.
“I’ve never had that dream that I want to do a couture show,” says Jacobs, setting the record straight. “What Raf did was great, I’m happy for Dior and him. But I like to see what we do be worn by people – I like to see out there, in shops, in advertising. Couture gets one picture in magazines, no windows in stores, no dresses in shops. I like to see it being used in the world. As much as I love the skill and craftsmanship I do want to see it but it’s so rarefied.
“Besides, there are certain elements of the Vuitton shows, especially the past few seasons, we sees us use the same ateliers and workmanship as couture. So many pieces are made in small numbers or made to measure – it’s practically couture anyway.”
So if couture holds no interest for Jacobs, what’s mountain can he conquer next? Peers and editors have been saying that he is already at the top of his game and last year he was awarded the CFDA Lifetime Achievement award.
“I want to continue achieving – I hated the title of Lifetime Achievement – it seems so final. I am still doing what I am doing – I will still be achieving. We are working on a fragrance, and I can’t wait to see how it evolves. As long as the passion and desire are there, there will always be an opportunity to try something new. I wouldn’t have known those to be the answers five years ago, and things just come up. My partner and I are quite instinctive people – we just recently started opening bookstores – so you never know where the idea comes from. We are open to any possibility – time will tell.”
Almost as if on cue, Jacobs holds up hand to reveal one of his favourite tattoos – the word “Perfect” written in block letters discreetly on his wrist.
“It’s a reminder. It comes from the saying, ‘I am a perfect being, in a perfect world, where everything that happens benefits me completely.’ It’s not about perfection but acceptance. It’s saying things are perfect the way they are regardless of how imperfect they may be or what I would like them to be. Everything is as it should be,” he explains.
“Striving for perfection – it’s an ideal – but I don’t ever want to achieve it or else I would be done. It’s always raising the bar – the goal is towards perfection but I think it would be terrible to achieve it,” he says.
As published in the South China Morning Post, August 2012
And quotes that didn’t make it in:
“I don’t think about business – that’s not my role in any of this. I trust the people around me but its not how I work of think. My team, what we do, is to make things, have shows and create.”
On pleasing the customer:
“We love it when people like what we do – I love to see people enjoying the things we make whether its shoes, bags or clothes. That’s why we do it – we are passionate about it but for other people to enjoy it too. It expresses the vision we had – its just as important if not more important that the audience has a response to it and that it creates some sort of desire, an urge to own, to have, to have a bit of that thing they have seen and experienced. That’s what its all about. It’s no different to an actor – they may love acting but they also love the applause cause it stimulates some feeling in the audience.”
On work/life balance:
“I have time to myself. I love to work, but there are days I don’t want to be there when things aren’t going the way I want to go. The period of the hyper moments before the show, as exhausting as it is, its when I feel most alive. I love the productivity and seeing things coming together. It’s the most rewarding. It’s balancing naturally.”
On the future:
“I am very happy at Vuitton and as long as they have me, I am happy to stay. I never had a plan B. I am not a frustrated musician, actor or artist – always wanted to be a designer.”