The name Marc Jacobs is now synonymous with the aesthetic of avant-garde fashion with a streetwear twist. Labelled as “one of the world’s most influential designers”, the magic behind his brand essentially stems from the fact that he does not follow the rules. Jacobs’ anti-establishment, anti-adult and anti-slick attitude has become a cornerstone of his eponymous high-fashion label.
The brand is marketed toward the urban woman, who mixes downtown attitude and uptown glamour. The cool girls of the Red Carpet. From grunge to Louis Vuitton.
For more than two decades, Marc Jacobs has reigned as one of the most exciting and talented American designers of his generation, and along with Tom Ford and Alexander Wang is one of the only true successors to the American fashion mantle of Calvin, Donna and Ralph.
But once upon a time he was just Marc Jacobs, a kid from a non-observant Jewish family in central New York. Growing up, Jacob’s never had it easy. His father died when Jacobs was just seven and his mother, who had been married three times, was mentally ill and largely absent.
By the time Jacobs became a teenager, he had been whisked off to live with his paternal grandma. Where he finally experienced all the glitz and glamour he had been missing in his adolescence.
Now residing in an apartment aptly named ‘The Majestic’ on the Upper West Side in the late 70’s, Jacobs was just a stone throw away from all that New York City had to offer. And New York in the 70’s had a lot to offer. Revered for it’s dangerous, edgy and exciting aesthetic, it was a time when outcasts flocked to the city for a fresh start. As long as you were willing to brave the blistering cold winters and accept the fact that a mugging or two was part of the lifestyle, then New York didn’t discriminate.
In fact, the wilder the hair, clothes and personality; the better. It was during these years that Jacob’s spent in Manhattan where he began to foster an interest in fashion.
He attended the High School of Art and Design while also working as a stock-boy at a clothing boutique called Charivari.
Described as the cult boutique of fashions cutting edge, Charivari brought avant-garde clothes to the previously unfashionable Upper West Side of Manhattan. And in the process, helped revolutionise retail and fashion itself. Originating from humble beginnings, Charivari sold respectable clothes in a less than respected neighbourhood. It was the perfect blend of the streets and culture. It’s rise to prominence coincided with the gentrification with the Upper West Side.
Jacobs got in at the ground floor and witnessed first-hand the powerful combination of street style and high fashion. And while the avant-garde boutique has long been defunct, it’s aesthetic has lived on through Jacob’s himself.
Jacobs career really began to kickstart when he attended the famed Parsons School of Design. Where he launched his first line of hand-knit sweaters through Reuben Thomas, Inc., under the Sketchbook label.
Jacobs then joined business partner Robert Duffy to start Jacobs Duffy Designs Inc. in 1986. The same year, he launched the first collection under his eponymous brand ‘MARC JACOBS’ and became the youngest designer to ever be awarded the CFDA Perris Ellis award for new fashion talent in 1987.
The following year, Jacobs and Robert Duffy joined the women’s design unit of Perry Ellis as creative director/vice president and president respectively. Jacobs worked for the brand for four years, before he was infamously fired for a “grunge” inspired collection that failed.
Though while most people would be deterred by the failure, Jacobs has instead made grunge a recurring theme throughout his designs. Correctly guessing its popularity with his main demographic: people who wear his clothes from day to night, rather than those who wear designer clothes once, only to dry clean them and preserve them in a garment bag for all of eternity.
From the depths of dismissal, Jacobs soared. Alongside his growing brand, he was also made creative director of Louis Vuitton for over a decade, where he transformed the French trunk maker into a full-fledged high fashion label. It could be said that he was the very first fashion taste maker or ‘hired gun’ brought in from the outside to bring life back to a moribund Maison.
It was this period of time where Marc Jacobs really reigned supreme. During both New York and also Paris fashion weeks, the entire world looked to him to capture the zeitgeist and amaze them, and with his rock concert-style runway shows- he delivered. Season after season.
With edgy collaborations from Japanese contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami and fellow designer Stephen Sprouse, Jacobs tenure at the helm of Louis Vuitton saw a quadrupling of business. Together, Jacobs and Stephen Sprouse pioneered a new kind of high fashion handbag; one that was outfitted in scrawled graffiti, the words LOUIS VUITTON proudly contrast against the edgy street art style.
The Graffiti collection was again emulated in the Fall/Autumn? Of 2006 and 2008 when Jacobs utilised Sprouse’s 1987 graffiti leopard images for handbags, shoes and scarfs. Which sold out instantaneously.
Jacobs continued to pursue new collaborations with cutting edge artists throughout his time at Louis Vuitton. In 2002, he began what became a longstanding collaboration with Takashi Murakami. The partnership first arose when Jacobs sought to inject a bit of colour and a new sense of style into Louis Vuitton’s famous bags. Which had traditionally leaned towards a black and brown aesthetic.
Together, Jacobs and Takashi Murakami released a multicore collection that featured a reinterpretation of Louis Vuitton’s classic monogram in pink, greens, blues and yellow on both black and white canvas. The new collection quickly became a hit, and it showed up on the arms of Jessica Simpson, Naomi Campbell and countless other 00’s (naughties) darlings.
But what really defined Jacob’s time with Louis Vuitton was his introduction of women’s clothing to the luggage brand, particularly through his development of his ‘Ready to wear line’. A minimalist collection consisting of neutral colours and few bags. This new compilation was made to fit the conventional woman, with clothing categorised by standardised sizing, rather than custom made fits.
Jacob’s distinctive fashion week shows are another core feature of his legacy which has continued to elevate the brand to its place of American fashion royalty. His new ready-to-wear line is often the hero of the show, with Jacobs continuing to push expectations and boundaries. But a Marc Jacobs Fashion Week show is as much about the spectacle as it is the clothing. In 2006, Jacob’s enlisted a Penn State marching band to start the show with their rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Of course, Jacobs showed a collection which echoed the theme of the band, including school uniforms and classic American pieces.
In a similar vein of awe-inspiring theatrics, Jacobs 2012 show was outfitted with a giant, 3D paper castle. With the help of artist Rachel Feinstein, the set was transformed into one that resembled a castle made out of construction paper in shades of blue and grey. The runway curved away from the masterpiece in a white version of the yellow brick road, with paper fountains lining the walkway. The accompanying collection did not disappoint. The 2012 ready-to-wear line was similarly outfitted with shades of grey, blue and white- though a much-needed pop of colour was expertly woven through the collection through oversized mink hats and big buckled shoes. Think Alice in Wonderland but in the blistering cold.
Jacob’s created pieces for women that they didn’t even know they needed yet. When a bibbed, tea-length Peter Pan-collared dress in a deep cerulean lace sauntered down the runway in the fall/autumn? of 2004, it suddenly became a hot commodity. Likewise, only Marc Jacobs can sell a short-sleeved pyjama sundress, covered in iridescent pink sequins. This is because Jacob’s made American luxury newly relevant while also making it accessible.
Jacobs held the position as the creative director at the LV house for a record breaking 16 years, but after reworking Louis Vuitton’s image, designing the ready to wear line and collaborating with some of the best contemporary artists of the era, he decided to leave in 2014 to focus on his own brands; MARC JACOBS and MARC by Marc Jacobs.
Unfortunately, in the last decade, Marc Jacob’s reign has begun to crumble. Some pundits have sensed that he started to lose his way. For decades, Jacobs had a remarkable ability to predict what people wanted before they knew themselves, but now- he is the one who seems to not know. In recent years, he admitted he felt “out of touch with what today really looks like”.
In 2018, it was estimated that Jacob’s brand had been losing more than $61 million USD, annually, for the past few years. In 2015, Marc by Marc Jacobs folded. Soon followed by a plethora of Marc Jacobs retail stores worldwide. In fact, for the epitome of a New York fashion label, it now has no flagship in the city beyond a modest boutique in SoHo. But perhaps what is the most damning indictment that the Marc Jacobs brand is struggling, is the departure of Robert Duffy- Jacob’s long-time business partner and the “driving force” behind Jacob’s rise.
Duffy and Jacob’s collaboration has spawned more than three decades and began before either of them achieved the fashion notoriety that they hold today. A representative for Mr. Duffy remains on the board, but his day-to-day duties were ceded in 2015.
Despite recent struggles, there is no doubt that Marc Jacobs holds a coveted role in the contemporary history of American fashion. Jacobs has carved out his brand as a major fashion label with the successful releases of his ready to wear clothing. But it was his expansion into perfumes and cosmetics that has kept the brand afloat in this contemporary zeitgeist; with signature scents ‘Marc Jacobs for women’, ‘Daisy’, ‘Lola’, and ‘Honey’ all dominating the perfume market. As well as cosmetics such as the renowned ‘Remarcable’ foundation, powder blushes and lipsticks rivalling even the top makeup brands.
His latest release in February 2018, the Shameless foundation, is inspired by Jacob’s shameless attitude and his tattoo that serves as a daily reminder to never apologise for being you. It reflects Jacobs belief that everyone should be proud of their personal appearance and display their so-called “quirks” with pride.
Jacobs specifically asked British Model and activist, Adwoa Aboah to model the line, as he believed her beautifully freckled complexion would best express the line’s message.
“That your skin (and real self) is celebrated with this product.”
Jacobs and Adwoa Aboah are long time collaborators, so it was no surprise that she became the face of his newest product line. In fact, it was Jacobs who gave Aboah her first ever fashion show in New York City. Additionally, it is the philosophies they seem to share which has really solidified the collaboration.
“Diversity is something that’s important to me and it’s something you always see with casting for Marc’s shows,” said Aboah, who founded Gurls Talk and has been a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Adwoa Aboah is just one of many atypical models that Jacobs has opted to work with over the traditional archetype. Jacobs has a long history of working with more well-known figures over fashion models, his celebrity friends including; Sofia Coppola, Cher, Winona Ryder, and Miley Cyrus.
These are figures that shape the zeitgeist that he reflects in his fashion, so it only makes sense that he pays homage to them by modelling his works on them.
Jacobs is the counter-culture but highly respected name in fashion that we have all come to admire. As much for his aesthetic as the message behind what he chooses to represent and highlight as beautiful. Through Jacob’s illustrious career, he has never lost his gritty New York beginnings, or that 70’s ideology where what is weird is wonderful. Though his brand may have stumbled in recent years, what has ultimately kept it above water is Marc Jacobs celebration of uniqueness.
A forefather in the 21st centuries face of fashion, Marc Jacobs is amongst the most celebrated American designers of his generation.
Discover more of Marc Jacobs’ story in Fashion Industry Broadcast’s Masters of Fashion Vol. 31 “Americans”. Available via Amazon – worldwide!
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