Design star Marc Jacobs resigned from Louis Vuitton this month to focus on his namesake label. Rachel Marie Walsh looks back at his transformative tenure with the luxury fashion house.
Marc Jacobs once compared his relationship with LVMH Moët Hennessy boss Bernard Arnault to the bond between Babe the Pig and Farmer Hoggett. When Arnault suggested he resign as artistic director of Louis Vuitton, the group’s major profit and revenue contributor, to focus on Marc Jacobs International, he certainly listened. He has already been replaced by Nicolas Ghesquière, late of Balenciaga. This is not a sad split. Marc Jacobs left to prepare for the public offering of his eponymous company, itself majority-owned by LVMH. Over sixteen years, he spurred Louis Vuitton’s transformation from fusty luggage company to the world’s most valuable luxury brand. Louis Vuitton’s Paris Fashion Week show this month was indulgent, replete with references to Jacobs’s “greatest hits” at the house. It was a sentimental ending to the tale of a very special American in Paris.
Jacobs began his career remarkably early, once joking with Vogue that “I was 25 when I was 12.” At 13, the New Yorker got a job folding clothes at Charivari, a chic boutique frequented by the coolest designers of the day. One such was Perry Ellis, a luxury sportswear designer who embodied hip for the teenager. Ellis encouraged him to enrol at the prestigious Parsons School of Design after high school. His graduate collection of Op-Art sweaters charmed clothing manufacturing executive Robert Duffy, with whom he founded his namesake label in 1984. Before Perry Ellis died in 1986, he expressed a desire for the pair to join his label.
Appointed creative director of Perry Ellis in 1988, his youthful take on the clothes went down well until he sent out his Spring 1993 offering. The grungy, Kurt and Courtney-esque looks perfectly captured the mood of young America. They were a huge critical success and the show is now regarded as a seminal moment for New York fashion. It looked like teen spirit. Perry Ellis’s management was furious at Jacobs’ break with the brand’s image and sacked him. By this point, Jacobs’ influence was such that when Yves Carcelle, CEO of Louis Vuitton, sought a designer to breathe life into the brand, he was the inspired choice.
Marc Jacobs was one of three foreigners parachuted into venerable French houses around this time. McQueen began designing at Givenchy and John Galliano went to Dior. Jacobs lasted longest and leaves on the best terms, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. His beginning was very promising.
The ready-to-wear clothing was a collection he began from scratch, so he had no spectre of a grand couturier looming over him. His first Louis Vuitton collection, Spring/Summer 1998, was boyish, urban and anti-glamour. The show was revolutionary for its simplicity. The models carried the slim canvas messenger bags he wore in life. More feminine work followed but he retained that youthful insouciance.
“With much hoo-ha over his corporate teething pains, the darling of New York’s fashion anti-establishment has transformed an arch-bourgeois luggage company, ravaged by a zillion knockoffs, into an impossibly hip purveyor of haute ready-to-wear,” wrote Vogue’s Sally Singer in 2000.
The clothes are a fraction of what Jacobs brought to Louis Vuitton. His collaborations with artists gave a cool — though controversially commercial — currency to their work and greater cultural significance to Vuitton. Suddenly women were sporting graffiti by New York artist Stephen Sprouse or Manga-meets-pop Takashi Murakami prints on their Louis Vuitton “Speedy” totes. Jacobs’ creativity extended to the proliferation of LV stores worldwide and the brand hired top architects like Peter Marino and Eric Carlson on his advice.
He also sprinkled stardust on the 159-year-old fashion house. Marc Jacobs is an A-list celebrity and top-class flirt (Tom Ford, one of his early hires at Perry Ellis, learned from a master). At Vuitton, his many muses included Sofia Coppola, Kate Moss, Chloe Sevigny and Uma Thurman. He chose Hollywood’s hotties like Jennifer Lopez and Scarlett Johansson for major ad campaigns, photographed variously by Steven Meisel, Annie Leibowitz, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Tabloids and bloggers tracked his raucous social life and relationships, including his on/off romance with porn star Harry Louis. He openly admits to loving attention, especially since reaping the benefits of his post-rehab workout regime.
“If people weren’t interested in the work then they wouldn’t really care about my personal life,” he told Interview in 2010. “So I think about it logically. The attention toward me is basically because of what we’ve built as a company. If we built a pile of crap then nobody would care what I ate for lunch.”
The pressures of designing multiple collections for two major fashion brands — plus his Marc by Marc Jacobs diffusion line — exacerbated the effects of his work hard/play harder lifestyle. In 1999, at the urging of Duffy and friends like Naomi Campbell and Anna Wintour, he checked into rehab. “I was a crazy person. I was working and partying, working and partying,” he later told Vanity Fair. “I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking ‘This one does it, and that one does it, so I can, too. Because all designers are like that, and we’re creative people, and that’s how artists are.” He relapsed in 2007. On both occasions, he was back in the atelier within six months.
Despite his celebrity fan base, he’s never been a red carpet favourite. The clothes just aren’t traditional, safe choices for stylists. “I think people become all the same, it’s like everyone posing from the three-quarter angle in some low-cut, fitted dress, it’s all the same,” he told The Telegraph this year.
“I long for the days of Cher showing up in something transparent, you know, crazy hairdo or something like that, I’d much rather see that: an individuality.”
His talent for creating “fashion moments” yields forests of press anyway. Some notable catwalk stunts include giant escalators, a full-sized carousel, Kate Moss smoking while strutting, a real steam engine and supermodels dressed in PVC nurses uniform.
Jacobs’s irreverence attracted women to Louis Vuitton young and kept them hooked. Unpretentious about design references for such expensive clothes and accessories, he incorporated Spongebob Squarepants, Mickey Mouse, graffiti and magic mushrooms.
A knack for combining the fun of a throwaway fad with the desirability of a cheap-ish designer tchotchke made him a major asset to the company. Kitschy accessories like souvenir charm-bracelets, toy robot bag-fobs and floppy-bow headbands, made Louis Vuitton millions worldwide.
Now fifty, Marc Jacobs is poised to create a legacy in his own name, having left Louis Vuitton with annual sales of nearly £7bn (€8.2bn), according to Reuters. At the end of his final show, Bernard Arnault gave him a solemn standing ovation. That’ll do, Mr Jacobs. That’ll do.
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