It’s not easy to categorise fashion neatly into boxes, but there’s a clear consensus regarding the biggest fashion capitals in the world and the style that’s put forth by their luxury fashion houses. Paris is defined by its couture details and an air of nonchalance, while Milan is known for its opulence and luxurious use of materials. And London is where new and innovative designs evolve from British elegance and tailoring.
At the other end of the spectrum is American fashion. Sporty, easy and most importantly, wearable, the fashion capital is often best represented by brands such as Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg and a pre-Raf Simons Calvin Klein. Fashion coming out of America has largely been, for lack of a better word, safe. American sportswear—a term used to describe ready-to-wear clothes that are usually versatile separates—is the go-to concept for a semblance of commercial viability in every collection. Marc Jacobs on the other hand, was anything but safe.
Like most great artists, Jacobs’ early childhood wasn’t the typical carefree splendour. He was born in 1963 to Steve and Judy Jacobs, who were both working at the famed William Morris Agency in New York City. When Jacobs was seven years old, his father died of a longstanding battle with ulcerative colitis—an inflammatory bowel disease that targets the colon and rectum—leaving him behind with his mother, brother and sister.
According to a book by the New York Post’s Maureen Callahan, titled Champagne Supernovas, Jacobs’ mother battled with mental illness, which first manifested after she gave birth to him. Although Judy’s family had the means and access to the best medical practitioners, it was a time when mental illness wasn’t as extensively researched and understood. After years of neglect, social services stepped in and Jacobs was taken in by his paternal grandmother. It was then that his talent for fashion and the arts bloomed. Jacobs constantly referred to his grandmother Helen as his first fashion muse. She encouraged his potential and would brag to shop owners on the Upper West Side where they resided that Jacobs would be the ‘next Calvin Klein’.
While studying at Parsons School of Design, Jacobs was already noted for his talent. He was named Design Student of the Year 1984 and received the Perry Ellis Golden Thimble Award for his graduate collection, which featured sweaters hand-knitted by his grandmother.
Jacobs’ star shone even brighter upon graduation. He earned the financial backing of Japanese retail company Onward Kashiyama USA, Inc. in 1986 and used it to start his Marc Jacobs label. A year later, he was awarded the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent (now known as the Swarovski Emerging Talent Award) by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
The Marc Jacobs-Perry Ellis connection continued in 1988 as he took on the role of creative director and vice-president of the American brand’s women’s business. The relationship lasted until 1993 on the heels of the Perry Ellis spring 1993 collection, also known as the grunge collection—the collection that, if there was anyone at all who didn’t have their eye on Jacobs, certainly made them look. The reviews then were scathing, owing to the opinion that grunge was the anti-thesis to fashion, and that pricing such raw and rugged clothes (but made in the finest fabrics typical of Perry Ellis) at prices way above what the movement was all about seemed derivative.
In hindsight, that’s exactly what is happening in fashion right now. The anti-luxury luxury approach is rife at fashion houses such as Balenciaga, Gucci and Saint Laurent, led by cultural- sensitive creative directors. Jacobs’ grunge collection was an early example of referencing street culture and sentiments, but like most early adopters, was met with criticism. In 2015, renowned fashion critic Cathy Horyn retracted her harsh critic of that particular collection; an unnatural feat and clear indication of Jacobs’ originality.
Four years later, in 1997, Louis Vuitton signed Jacobs on as its first creative director to spearhead the luxury fashion house’s debut ready-to-wear line for men and women. The deal came with LVMH buying a stake in the Marc Jacobs brand, making it part of the luxury conglomerate’s portfolio. Within 10 years at Louis Vuitton, Jacobs helped to quadruple the house’s profits by bringing in collaborations with contemporary artists, and turning Louis Vuitton into a fashion force beyond luggage and trunks.
A longstanding partnership
If Yves Saint Laurent’s creativity was matched by Pierre Bergé’s business acumen, such was the case with Jacobs and business partner Robert Duffy; minus the romantic relationship. The partnership between the two began in 1983 after Jacobs’ graduation dinner. Duffy was an executive for the now-defunct sportswear company Reuben Thomas and was looking for fresh new talent to collaborate with.
Since then, Duffy has been an integral force in furthering the Marc Jacobs business. In 1993, he and Jacobs officially founded Marc Jacobs International. It was Duffy who negotiated for LVMH to have a 96 percent investment in Marc Jacobs the brand, in order to proceed with hiring Jacobs. And most importantly, Duffy conceptualised Marc by Marc Jacobs—the lower-priced and younger line—which at its highest, accounted for 80 percent of total revenue for the company.
In a 2009 interview with British Vogue on the occasion of the opening of Marc by Marc Jacobs’ first London store, Duffy expressed: “I always wanted the company to be broad and wanted to reach out to a lot of people. It was difficult to convince people that it was necessary—to be a luxury brand but be all price points. But I knew I could do it and I’m proud we did it.”
After 16 years at the creative helm of Louis Vuitton, Jacobs announced in 2013, after the house’s spring/summer 2014 runway show, that it would be his last. The decision was reported to be mutual—Jacobs wanted to focus on his namesake brand and prepare it for an initial public offering—but after years of double- digit percentage growth, Louis Vuitton’s profits began to slow down. It wasn’t that the collections prior had been critically panned, but rather, after 16 years, Louis Vuitton was due for a creative change. Fashion is driven by newness and there was nothing new about a 16-year creative directorship.
However, the IPO never did come to fruition. The Marc Jacobs business has been in trouble since. Stores have shuttered, including its career-defining presence along New York’s Bleecker Street. At one point, Jacobs had six stores along a four-block stretch with each store dedicated to a different segment of the business—the women’s main line, the men’s main line, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Little Marc, Marc Jacobs Beauty and the branded trinket store Bookmarc. Save for the latter, the rest have been permanently closed since 2017.
Fashion is driven by newness and there was nothing new about a 16-year creative directorship.
In an effort to streamline the business, the more affordable Marc by Marc Jacobs line ceased operations in 2015. The offerings instead were folded into the main Marc Jacobs line, which has made the difference in merchandise mix and price points confusing for customers. And just this year, John Targon of Los Angeles-based fashion brand Baja East was hired to build and develop the lower-priced portion of Marc Jacobs. But Targon left after only two and a half months at the job.
The Marc Jacobs menswear line was the next to go.
It was after the closure of Marc by Marc Jacobs that it was revealed that Duffy had quietly stepped down from his leading role at Marc Jacobs. Duffy remains as the deputy chairman of the company’s board, but the direction of the brand has most recently been accorded to Eric Marechalle, the former CEO of Kenzo.
Marc Jacobs is still here
Despite the troubles, Jacobs is still regarded as one of fashion’s most brilliant designers. His seasonal runway shows—although noticeably downscaled—still impress fashion critics due to its high level of drama and showmanship. And the clothes speak volumes of Jacobs’ talent.
In a review of its autumn/winter 2018 collection, Business of Fashion’s Tim Blanks called the collection “his most pointed up-yours yet to all those people who’ve clouded his once glittering career with commercial nit-picking”. Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times celebrated Jacobs’ deft and unquestionable talent, but remarked that “it may still not be enough”.
It’s common for brands to fall out of style but resurgences are rare; the latter is more dependent on cultural shifts and design relevance. But for someone who used to be able to craft a collection that’s defined by the sign of the times, Jacobs has seemed to relegate his collections to nostalgic references without much commercial sense. The clothes might be beautiful and incredibly styled, but they don’t necessarily translate well in stores.
As puzzling as it may seem, fashion and its unrelenting pace might have been too much for Jacobs. In the business’ full scale before shuttering lines, Jacobs would have had more than 20 collections to oversee every year, not counting special projects. It could also be that having lost his more business-minded and disciplined partner, Jacobs needs time to refocus and channel his energy into figuring out who the Marc Jacobs client is at this time.
Or who she (or he) would want to be.
And for someone who imagined the original Louis Vuitton man and woman, and paved the way for Nicolas Ghesquière, Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh, there is still a part of Jacobs that is capable of doing just that.
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