WHO IS MARC JACOBS? VIA T MAGAZINE
THE TRENDSETTING FASHION DESIGNER FINDS HIMSELF AT A CROSSROADS.
By Sarah Nicole Prickett
HI, I’M MARC,” says a smiling, shortish, muscular man in a very white shirt and black trousers with even whiter socks. He has a housekeeper (“This is Reisa”) and a personal chef (“This is Lauren”), but he answers the door of his West Village townhouse himself, at least when reporters come over. He looks 38 or 39 and is definitely Jewish, but maybe he could also be Greek. “I thought it was so strange this morning,” says Marc, who is not going to say anything stranger than the fact that he’s actually 52, “but Nick said, ‘I left you a folder with Sarah, a picture of Sarah,’ and I was like, ‘Why, so I wouldn’t let someone else in the building?’ But no, the press office just did it. They put a picture of you, and like, who you wrote for. Like, as if that would change anything.”
Marc prefers not to use last names. In fact, he is bored with most ways of being identified. “I think it was after the Caitlyn Jenner thing,” he says, folding himself into a snail-colored sofa, “and I just said, like, can we just start calling people by their name? You know, not what they do for a living, not what their sexual preference is, not their age, not who they’re related to. It’s 2015. Just say, ‘Hi, I’m Caitlyn.’ ‘Hi, I’m Marc.’ It’s not like, ‘I’m Marc, homosexual Jew from New York.’ ” He laughs. “You know, ‘fashion designer.’ ”
If Marc isn’t a fan of the full introduction, it’s partly because he hasn’t needed one since at least 2008, when Page Six made him a fixture and the New Yorker profiled him for a second time. Twenty-four years before that, in 1984, a 21-year-old Marc met a 30-year-old Robert, who became his business partner and best friend for life. This past February, Marc entered his fourth decade on the runway with a fall collection of after-eight wear in every available shade of “deep,” littered with minks and sequins and inspired by Diana Vreeland’s memos. (Imagine her now: “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if we did away with last names altogether?”) To industry observers, the show was both a dramaturgic triumph and a commercial departure from his on-trend yet offbeat sensibility: an announcement that “Marc Jacobs” means serious business. The company is allegedly, finally, going public within the next several months, which means the designer famous for changing his mind with the seasons may soon be bound by expectations not for newness but for quarterly earnings.
Marc’s favorite work of art is Marcel Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q.,’ the Mona Lisa with a mustache, because anything is more interesting next to something that doesn’t seem to match.
“I was terrified last week,” he says when I ask how he’s sleeping. “I went to my shrink — it was a Wednesday morning — and I felt like I was having such a panic attack. I’d had one of my nightmares. It’s a recurring theme: I’m up against something uncomfortable or difficult, and just as I feel like I’m making some progress, there’s an end to the dream that says no, you’re not getting anywhere, you have to start over. This time, the nightmare was so bad that it felt like I was awake thinking about it, rather than asleep and dreaming. Which is another recurring thing, when I can’t differentiate between creating a scenario and dreaming it.”
Marc has been seeing shrinks since he was 7. From 11 or 12 to 19, he was raised in the Majestic, an acropolitan co-op on Central Park West, by his grandmother, Helen, who went around telling shop owners that her son’s son would be “the next Calvin.” She was right: Like Calvin, his name would become synonymous with youthful American sportswear, provocatively advertised. Unlike Calvin, who eventually settled into a repertoire of whistle-clean minimalism on the catwalk and heritage logowear on the street, Marc has kept his rangy mind on “next.” “If I think about the future,” he says, “I just become afraid.”
His fear is at odds with his reputation for effortlessly setting trends, yet his reputation belies his real talent: setting a trend on its head. In 1992 he showed his infamous “grunge collection” for Perry Ellis, perennially cited as the reason he was fired four months later and, since being fired made him sound like a rebel, as a groundbreaking moment in fashion. “I had no idea I’d be fired,” Marc tells me. He laughs. “I’d never had any idea I’d be fired. But it’s still my favorite collection, because it marked a time when I went with my instincts against instructions, and I turned out to be right. It came out of a genuine feeling for what I saw on the streets and all around me.” Indeed, grunge was already everywhere, from the streets to the malls to the collections of two other New York designers that very same season, but only Marc’s dream of the zeitgeist was so lucid, so precisely appropriated from what he saw, that the zeitgeist came to look like his creation. By taking $2 flannels from St. Marks Place and copying them in silk — a trick akin to his parents’ switching a “c” for “k” in his name — Marc made the familiar uncommon.
For lunch today, Lauren serves three courses, each essentially a deconstructed smoothie in a shallow bowl. We eat in Marc’s fragrant backyard, from which you can hear neither the dogs and their walkers on the street (his own dogs Neville and Daisy are at the office) nor the cars on the West Side Highway. He gives me one of his Marlboro Lights, since Lauren mistook my pack for an extra one of Marc’s and tidied it away. “I love smokers,” he murmurs appreciatively. An addict from his late teens on, Marc says he gave up drugs — heroin, cocaine — for good in 2007 after a second stint in rehab. In 2006, after being diagnosed with the ulcerative colitis that killed his father, he hired a nutritionist and began working out with a personal trainer, a man who changed his legal name to Easy and is now one of Marc’s closest friends. We agree that smoking is “decadent,” and Marc tells me that Decadence, the name of his upcoming fragrance, is about “an irreverent, self-indulgent taking of pleasure and luxury.” He elaborates: “If somebody is eating cherries and drinking champagne on a street corner in an expensive dress, it’s a decadent sort of behavior, but it’s kind of playing at something. You know what I mean.”
From 1998 to 2013, the clothes at Marc Jacobs could be delightfully unpredictable, and the ideas behind them occasionally unclear, but the branding was crystal. Juergen shot the print ads, which starred Sofia, Harmony, Chloë, Posh, Dakota, Winona and so on. The ads were all Juergen in their whitewashed debauchery and charm, but because Marc lent him a trust and a creative freedom that Juergen describes as unparalleled in fashion photography, they were also definitively Marc. In contrast, the print ads for Decadence star Adriana, the veteran Victoria’s Secret supermodel and the kind of unmysteriously sexy woman who was always a foil to the scatty-go-lucky “Marc Jacobs girl.” There’s hardly a trace of what Sofia describes as a hallmark of Marc’s personality: “a sly smile, which shows his sense of humor.”
In the fall of 2013, Marc left his 16-year tenure as the creative director at Louis Vuitton. LVMH, the parent company and a majority owner of Marc Jacobs International as well as a one-third stakeholder in the trademark, announced that Marc Jacobs International would spend the next three years preparing for an IPO. A new beauty line was launched. A new C.E.O. was installed. New designers were hired, most prominently Katie and Luella, to reinvent Marc by Marc Jacobs, which Robert had established in 2001 as a less expensive, dearly beloved kid sister to the women’s wear line. (“It was supposed to be just ‘Marc Jacobs’ — like, we tried to gray out the ‘Jacobs’ on the label, but it just didn’t photograph,” says Marc.) Katie and Luella did by all accounts a stellar job, but last March, it was confirmed that Marc by Marc Jacobs was folding. The next day, Marc joined Instagram, a month after saying he was appalled by the whole social media thing. (“It’s very addictive,” he says now.) Today, Marc is not only the head designer of Marc Jacobs, which he and Robert say will absorb the range of items and price points formerly available at Marc by Marc Jacobs, but also the creative director of Marc Jacobs International as a whole. He has never had more control over himself, his body, the way he lives or — ostensibly — his brand.
Marc himself says he doesn’t have a signature: There is no one silhouette, style or technique you can point to and say “that’s Marc.”
There is, however, a recognizable Marc Jacobs woman. She’s the guest at the party who everyone looks at like they know her but can’t think from where, and who looks around like she’s never known anyone. She appears more out of time than out of place: Her skirt is calf-length and conservative with unsexy heels, but her T-shirt is sequined and see-through. Or she’s wearing polka dots with broderie anglaise and dirty sneakers, or she’s dressed like a disco queen in Daria glasses. She has an arsenal of Peter Pan collars and colored furs and brooches, but her hair looks like it was cut in the dark and her handbag matches nothing exactly. If you had to pick a decade, you’d go with the ’70s. If you had to pick a name, you’d go with something supremely uncool and therefore chic, like Judith, which is a name that Marc doesn’t say because it belonged to his mother, who died in 2011 but to whom he hadn’t spoken in almost 20 years. Judith, or Judy, was the kind of woman who looked in the mirror after getting dressed and put one more thing on. Her fashion idol was Jane Fonda in 1971’s “Klute.” Her taste has been described by Marc as “bad.” It is a strange coincidence that the Marc by Marc Jacobs design team has made silver knee-high boots named Judith and a striped bomber named Judy, and that the Marc Jacobs Beauty designer made a freckle-brown nail polish named Klute, but the feeling remains that Judith is the ghost in Marc’s clothes. The problem of Judith, of a tacky, manic glamour shedding all over a depressive cotton housedress, is the problem we can’t help missing when Marc makes one of his technically perfect returns to the airtight decadence of the Majestic.
SIX DAYS AFTER OUR LUNCH, he accidentally leaks a picture of his naked butt to the 191,000 followers he has amassed in his first month on Instagram — a picture he meant to send to a potential lover via the app’s direct messaging feature — after which he responds to Tweets with a calm “Yeah… I’m a gay man. I flirt and chat with guys online.” Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs International changes its Twitter bio to the photo’s caption: “It’s yours to try.” It is a ready-made slogan, and the entire nonissue is yet another example of Marc and his team’s historical ingenuity, like the time in 2012 they turned an image of their vandalized Paris storefront into a series of $686 T-shirts.
Marc himself says he doesn’t have a signature: There is no one silhouette, style or technique you can point to and say, ‘that’s Marc.’
It’s a conflict to be both romantic and famous, and Marc has never seemed very romantic. But he does strike me as sentimental. The fall ad campaign features many women who have been close to him for decades, including Sofia and Winona. The captions accompanying his own “leaked” Instagrams of the images are long and sweet. Marc says the dresses he designed for the season are not meant to be dry-cleaned and preserved in garment bags, but worn out all night — a sign he is still more interested in bringing the party to American fashion in a way no designer has since Yves.
When something makes Marc feel good, he wants more of it, whether it’s drugs or food or sex or exercise or making clothes or getting tattooed. One of his tattoos is an all-caps “perfect” on his wrist, reminding him that he’s exactly who and where he’s supposed to be at that moment, and that everything is good because it’s there. It’s really about acceptance, not perfection. He wants to make precious things that people aren’t precious about. His favorite work of art is Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.,” the Mona Lisa with a mustache, because anything is more interesting next to something that doesn’t seem to match.
That day at lunch, 18 cigarettes or 90-some minutes into our conversation, he tells me that he often gets déjà vu, an experience he relates to the alternate realities of “The Matrix” (1999). This in turn reminds him that he’s a big fan of Lana, who directed the movie with her brother. During the 2000s, when Marc was trading his schlubby, bespectacled exterior for that of a tattooed and blue-haired gym rat, Lana was practically a recluse. She was also transitioning from Larry. In 2012, she appeared for the first time as a woman in a trailer for one of her co-productions. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Lana.” Later that year, she gave a reluctant, generous and self-baring speech in acceptance of the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award. She talked about her family, about the time she almost killed herself and about love. She didn’t have to talk about identity. Since Marc first saw it several months ago, he has watched it almost every week. I ask him to tell me one of her lines, and he does it verbatim: “There are some things that we have to do for ourselves, but there are other things that we do for other people.”
A beat or two passes. He seems to be thinking about what it means. Then Lauren comes to clear the second course, and it’s time for dessert.
A version of this article appears in print on August 23, 2015, on page M2244 of T Magazine with the headline: Who Is Marc Jacobs?