Commemorating a year of our FRONTPAGE series, we sat down with one of the biggest, most iconic figures in the fashion world – Marc Jacobs himself. In an immersive, career-spanning interview, the designer who essentially invented being a creative director tells all.
Marc Jacobs has always been ahead of his time. At just 24 years old, the New Yorker became the youngest designer ever to receive the fashion industry’s highest accolade, the CFDA’s Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent in 1987. Just two years later, following the passing of Ellis himself, Jacobs took over the helm of one of America’s most successful fashion houses, which at the time turned over upwards of $250 million a year. A rule breaker to the core, Jacobs was dismissed from his role at Perry Ellis in early 1993 after showing his infamous Spring/Summer 1993 “grunge” collection, one still widely celebrated by critics and moodboarders alike, yet a commercial flop when it hit the 1990s shopping floor.
Telling of a career to come, Jacobs’s grunge breakthrough was not an example of “designer genius,” but rather the force of his powers of perception. As the designer himself puts it, the collection was inspired by the work of a then-emerging school of enfant terrible photography ushered in by Corinne Day, Juergen Teller, and David Sims. Although Jacobs’ knack for bringing artistic ideas into fashion would later be perfected and supercharged by his legendary stint at Louis Vuitton, its roots clearly lie in his teenage years, sneaking into Studio 54 and rolling in a New York scene that freely collided celebrity and pop with dance, design, art, and music.
Since its inception in 1984, Jacobs’ own brand has been a torchbearer of New York attitude and its freewheeling approach to producing culture. Over the years, the brand’s campaigns have featured everyone from Missy Elliott, Anthony Kiedis, and Sky Ferreira to designer friends Victoria Beckham and Matty Bovan; photographer Ethan James Green; legendary models Alek Wek and Pat Cleveland; actresses Sandra Bernhard, Christina Ricci, and Juliette Lewis; and, of course, street-casted, ordinary citizens for his discontinued Marc by Marc Jacobs diffusion line.
In his long-standing “day job” as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton from 1997 to 2013, Jacobs’ penchant for colliding worlds — or, as his collaborator Takashi Murakami likes to call it, playing “catch ball” — took shape on the stage of the world’s largest luxury house. There, he invented the collaboration-fueled playbook of today’s fashion landscape and arguably the contemporary job of what we call a “creative director.” Under his tenure, generic fashion shows became theater with otherworldly show sets and soundtracks. Stores were transformed from gathering points for clients to palaces of luxury worship that took on the spectacular scale of a museum, even bedecked with gift shop merch in the form of coffee table books and limited edition fragrances.
“The idea of playing a curator and bringing together a community of creative people was very unlike the generation that came before. They created. They had their clients. They were in their ivory tower. And while that was really interesting to know, it wasn’t the role I wanted to play,” Jacobs says about his approach to Louis Vuitton. During his time there, he turned the luggage house into an incubator for artist-led fashion projects by the likes of Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Daniel Buren, and Richard Prince. He even had the foresight to seed the first fashion forays of the rapper-turned-luxury-juggernauts Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, having invited the former to design his first collection of sneakers in 2009.
From his new 6,000-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house in upstate New York (which Jacobs sold a large part of his personal art collection in order to acquire), we asked the designer to hop on a Zoom call with Hans Ulrich Obrist to talk about his formative years at Studio 54, the ever-evolving role of the creative director, and stepping into this role as a bona fide fashion industry legend.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did you first come to fashion? Was there an epiphany that set you off?
When I was young, I had a babysitter who would bring her friends to come look after us while my mother was out. She and her friends looked so cool to me. They were teenagers and were dressed in what was fashionable at the time, like early ’70s style clothes, bell-bottom jeans, and things like that. I was seduced by clothing. I think it took me a few years to realize that making and customizing clothing was actually a career; that I could aspire to be somebody who made fashionable clothes.
Could you tell me a little bit about Studio 54?
Sure! I was born and raised in New York, and my eye was always drawn to a certain visual glamor. I was taken by anyone who had more of an eclectic or eccentric sort of style. When I first went to Studio 54, I had already read about a lot of the people who would go there regularly. My grandmother would sometimes knit on a bench in Central Park, and I’d sit next to her with an Interview magazine which I bought at Fiorucci on 59th between Park and Lexington. I was so curious about all of these people who were making things or doing something in the city. Going into the Studio was very decadent and very glamorous, and it was also notoriously difficult to get in. You had to be somehow appealing for the doorman — Marc Benecke — to choose you from this enormous crowd. I was underage, but in New York the law was very flexible, especially when it came to nightlife.
So you met all these extraordinary people as a teenager, like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Were there any formative encounters?
Everything was formative, because you had this incredible mix of people. I would become a part of one group, then it would overlap into another. I met Patti Smith’s band and I met Jimmy Destri from Blondie, and later on I’d meet Debbie Harry, and Basquiat was at our table at The Odeon. You would find yourself at dinners or in clubs where you were with all kinds of people, from 80-year-old grandmothers to drag queens.
With visual artists, I’m always curious to know where the catalogue raisonné begins, the number one that marks the beginning of their work. I wondered if there was a show which you count as the start of your catalogue raisonné?
The first time I put clothes on a model and presented it to an audience was before iPhones or the Internet, so there’s very little documentation. I was inspired by Johnny Lydon saying, “Never trust a hippie,” which Malcolm McLaren had written for him. We had done these badly silk-screened smiley face T-shirts and hand-knit sweaters, and I did a small show with help from my friends. I think I only had three fabrics. There are images from that show that reappear constantly. One is me coming out on the runway with a girl in this polka dot little school dress. I’ve done a version of that dress every season since. The idea of a school-girl dress has always been the epitome of this kind of sweet, sexy, feminine, iconic thing that would go over to grunge many years later when you had Courtney Love in this dress from the ’30s, which was too tight.
That brings us to the grunge collection from the Perry Ellis years. Do you remember when you invented it?
It wasn’t really a day — it was a process. I had become enamored with the work of different photographers such as Corinne Day, Juergen Teller, and David Sims, who were working in a very different way to the glamorous photographers with all their lights and sets and everything like that. At the same time, I had been running around the city with girls who were wearing nightgowns and bras in the middle of the day, and poorly knitted, crocheted jackets. I had been listening to the music of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and L-Seven, so I was aware of this alternative music. I wouldn’t say the beginning of the process is deciding what we’re doing. The beginning of the process is starting to make choices and allowing ourselves to continue to make choices. We don’t start with the idea and execute it. We just execute our thoughts until it becomes the idea.
And was collaboration with artists something that you were doing then?
I wanted to end that show with the work of Robert Crumb — so I had to find him. It’s a funny story. I heard about two women who were living in Crumb’s San Francisco home through a friend of mine who was a dominatrix. I called them and got a number. He was living in the South of France in a house that someone who was a big fan had traded him for one of his sketchbooks. I said, “I’m doing this show and it would mean a lot to me if you would allow me to use some of your characters in these embroidered T-shirts. They’ll be done on a couture level. They’ll be thousands of dollars and beautifully done.” And he said, “Well, who’s going to buy that?” And I said, “No one. And that’s the point.” So, he was willing to allow me to use his figures because they were not for sale commercially. I think he loved the irony and the perversity of creating this couture version of his T-shirts. They were all hand-beaded with glass beads. They were extraordinary.
I heard that there was a kind of revelation for you in the process of starting at Louis Vuitton that has to do with Charlotte Gainsbourg and a suitcase.
I was looking for an apartment, and Charlotte Gainsbourg had just given birth. She was nursing her child and looking for somebody to rent her apartment. We went into the bedroom, and by the bed was a Vuitton trunk with the monogram painted over. I asked her about it and she said it was actually her father’s, and that he didn’t like the monogram, so he had painted it black. In my mind, it triggered this idea of L.H.O.O.Q., which was, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with the mustache. I thought how incredible it was that [Serge Gainsbourg] had defaced the monogram and created this new thing by painting over it, and how Duchamp had sort of done the same anarchic thing by putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. So, I asked Stephen Sprouse if he would come and deface the Louis Vuitton monogram with his graffiti, to make Vuitton much younger and cooler and a bit anarchic by basically doing what I was told I was never allowed to do — which was to deface this famous monogram. But by doing so, we created something new.
You’ve said that the only time you’ve ever made a difference is when you’re both respectful and disrespectful. How can one be both?
I think the person who could answer that question, unfortunately, is no longer alive, because that’s something I heard Karl Lagerfeld say. The way I understood him is that you’re not going to get anywhere by pleasing people. You can do as you’re told and be a nice boy, but you’re not going to disrupt anything. You’re not going to bring change if you’re too respectful. I think there has to be respect in terms of the admiration for the quality, the make, the skill, and maybe even the approach, but then you have to throw out everything you know. Hold on to quality and integrity — but move on. You can’t be too attached to history, and you can’t be too attached to rules.
So, this collaboration with Stephen Sprouse changed the rules of the game.
It did. It was hard for me in the beginning, because I thought what everyone expected of me was to put the monogram all over everything and just have LV LV LV. That’s what happens with most brands that have a recognizable status symbol — they just use the branding on everything. With the Sprouse collaboration, I realized in a sort of romantic sense that my job was to celebrate this thing I had tried so hard to work against, but that I could do it my own way. I didn’t have to do it by their rules — I could do it by mine. So, if I wanted to bring in Takashi Murakami or Richard Prince or Yayoi Kusama or Rei Kawakubo, I could. All of a sudden I was getting to celebrate this company, this name, Louis Vuitton, by bringing in the things that I was interested in, which, of course, felt like a really great thing. Even later with Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, I brought in all the people who were making art that I was interested in.
Joseph Beuys talked about the expanded notion of art — “der erweiterte Kunstbegriff.” I think during these years the notion of the designer expanded; the creative director does much more than just design clothes. Can you talk a little bit about the development of that idea? Is there an expanded notion of fashion?
For me, it probably gelled the most at Vuitton. The idea of playing a curator and bringing together a community of creative people was very unlike the generation that came before. They created. They had their clients. They were in their ivory tower. And while that was really interesting to know, it wasn’t the role I wanted to play. I didn’t have a vocabulary to describe what I felt my role was, but it was clear that in the world of fashion, for me and for some of my peers, you were part of a creative team that made clothes, but you also had the desire to communicate what you were making in different ways. That’s evolved through the Internet, and there’s a new generation for whom a designer is defined in a very different way. But for me, it meant I had to be somewhat approachable, meaning my life was something I shared just the same as I shared the clothes or accessories I worked on.
The years at Louis Vuitton saw you doing these collaborations not only on the products, but also on extra shows. One of the biggest was certainly the one with Takashi Murakami.
Again, the whole thing was very instinctive and accidental. I received a Christie’s catalog and on the back cover was Hiropon, a sculpture by Takashi. It sold at Christie’s and I remember reading an article about this statue, which was an anime woman squirting milk out of her breasts. Somehow, I then found myself at the Cartier Foundation and there was a show by this artist, Takashi Murakami. No matter what I read and no matter where I went, I was being bombarded by Takashi Murakami, Takashi Murakami, Takashi Murakami. So I went to work on a Monday after seeing the exhibition and immediately reached out to him about a collaboration. Before you knew it, he and his partner flew to Paris and came to my office. They had a look around and studied all the things tacked up onto my wall, and I began this relationship with Takashi, which he would refer to as “catch ball.” He would throw the ball to me based on what he saw, and I would throw the ball back. All summer, he would submit these works by email in a square as if they were a canvas, and then I would make comments and tell him what I loved and what I didn’t love. It evolved into these incredible sculptures of balloons outside the Parc André Citroën, where we had the show. Then it went into jewelry and an animated cartoon film that he did for Vuitton and many different mediums. He even did an art show where—
He brought the monograms into his paintings!
Yes! It was such a crazy, full-circle thing. Then there was the Brooklyn Museum show. Because all of Murakami’s stuff had been counterfeited so heavily, we had the idea to set up a counterfeit situation in front of the museum that was selling authentic Vuitton bags done by Murakami.
So it went multiple directions, where you bring him into your work and he brings you into his — back and forth like a chain reaction.
Which is what he meant, I guess, by “catch ball.”
Can you tell us a little bit more about the collaborations with Pharrell Williams and Kanye West?
We had Marc Jacobs stores in the West Village and were doing a collaboration with Vans sneakers, which Kanye was really into. He kept calling my office in New York and I kept missing him. Either he called New York and I was in Paris, or he called Paris and I was in New York. Finally, my assistant at the time, Maureen, scheduled a call. He kept me on the phone for three hours. I’d never met him before. He was on tour in Australia calling from a hotel room and told me more about his life than I could ever imagine knowing. He was very curious. He had wanted to meet me because I was the name on the sneakers he was currently wearing. He also wanted to know about Murakami. He said, “How do you buy art? I’ve never bought art before. Like, how does one go about it?” He was very interested in how I started to collect art and how I got to meet artists.
I remember when he wanted to meet John Currin to do an album cover, then George Condo and James Turrell. He’s always displayed those obsessions so clearly. After the Pharrell collaboration, he said, “I’d love to collaborate with the men’s team on a sneaker.” So I said, “Great, that sounds terrific.” I introduced him to Fabrizio [Viti], who was working on the shoes, and he and Kanye would come to the office at Vuitton where they collaborated on this red sneaker. That was the beginning of that. With Pharrell, it was Emma Winter, who was working with me on the handbag team at Louis Vuitton. She was at a concert where she saw Pharrell and N.E.R.D perform. She met Pharrell backstage, and Pharrell said, “Tell Marc I would love to collaborate with him on the line of sunglasses.” So, Emma came back and she told me that, and I called Pharrell and said, “I think that’s a great idea! We’ve never done sunglasses with Vuitton. Let’s do it.” It was really just like that.
I always find it really fascinating that we know literally nothing about artists’ unrealized projects. Do you have any unrealized projects you could talk about?
I don’t think so. There are things we let go of, but I really insist that the project only becomes the project when it’s realized. It’s an idea by getting made, you know? Even with its mistakes or mishaps, I ultimately believe they’re exactly the way they were supposed to be. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an unrealized project. Maybe it was just never meant to be.
You don’t have projects outside the fashion world?
I don’t, really. I’ve never wanted to express myself outside of fashion and fashion shows. I’m not a frustrated filmmaker. I’m not a frustrated artist. I’m not a frustrated musician. I get to work in all of those fields doing what I do. I’ve never had a plan B. And I’ve worked with so many great artists and musicians and, you know, again, I have relationships with so many people in different creative fields that I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.
What, in 2020, would be your advice to a young designer?
I was always told, “Don’t give advice!” Just share your experiences. I think what my experience suggests is to remain curious and open-minded and trust your instincts. If I can share that with someone, and if that resonates, then that’s the best I could do.
One last question: You said once that you were often criticized for performing an about-face from one season to the next, as was Miuccia Prada, the wonderfully inspiring designer who you love so much. What do you say to those who fault you for being too noncommittal?
People in fashion love to make this argument that you need to be either one way or another. It’s so crazy to me, for art critics, for fashion designers, for creative people to insist on this rigid rule that you have to have a signature. I just don’t subscribe to that. It doesn’t need to be airtight. It doesn’t need to be one thought remade or reinvented each time. Myself and my team, we really love fashion. And part of what we love about fashion is the newness, taking on something we weren’t interested in before and exploring that and telling a new story.
So, at its core we’re making dresses, we’re making sweaters, we’re making pants, we’re making shirts. We know what they are — they’re clothes. And how we’re responding to the world around us that makes those clothes looks different each season. While it might look like an about-face, it’s not an about-face. It’s another expression of the same face.
Hans Ulrich Obrist