Marc Jacobs: Threading Risks for Over Three Decades
If ever there was a problem that plagued fashion designers, it's this: how do you balance commerce and creativity? Marc Jacobs is the personification of the latter, yet has rarely cared for the former. “I’ve never been a business person, nor have I ever pretended to understand the first thing about it,” he once told the Financial Times. So how has he survived three decades outside the burning pit of bankruptcy and irrelevance while so many others have succumbed?
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Jacobs—now 56 years old—has, dare I say it, been the arbiter of many financial failures. 1993 saw his firing from Perry Ellis after an unsuccessful grunge-inspired collection. (Ironically, said collection was recently reissued to much fanfare). Once thought to be responsible for 70 percent of sale, his more affordable line, Marc by Marc Jacobs, folded in 2015.
In April 2014, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault said the brand was making a billion dollars in retail revenue a year. Fast forward to January 2017 and Arnault was telling investors he was "more concerned about Marc Jacobs than the US president." No more than a year later, investment company Exane BNP Paribas estimated Marc Jacobs' own brand had, in recent years, been losing around $60 million annually, reported the New York Times.
But in between all that, Jacobs became the greatest ringmaster of the fashion circus. He gave Louis Vuitton a seat at the luxury fashion table; he provided tedious fashion weeks with a spectacle not to be missed; he proved the power of collaborations before Supreme even entered the mainstream ring. Plus, he and his dog Neville are undeniable Instagram sensations. Just ask their 1.4 million combined followers.
Rather than sinking under the weight of them, his defeats are what propel him to his next success. That Perry Ellis dismissal turned into a sharp focus on his namesake brand and ultimately a 16-year tenure as the head of Louis Vuitton. Even apparent failure—the demise of Marc by Marc Jacobs, has paved the way for his new everyday line, The Marc Jacobs.
Jacobs, however, will almost certainly be remembered for elevating Louis Vuitton from a luggage brand to a full-steam-ahead luxury powerhouse. “He possesses a commercial Midas touch,” the Guardian wrote in 2008 alongside news that Jacobs had quadrupled Louis Vuitton sales in the 10 years since his nomination.
Appointed in 1997 as creative director, the designer quickly bridged the gap between art and fashion; a risk that paid off over and over again. For Spring/Summer 2001, Jacobs teamed up with artist Stephen Sprouse, infusing the traditional LV monogram bags with a fluorescent graffiti spirit. (The house’s first-ever waiting list occurred as a result). Takashi Murakami lent his hand to the Spring/Summer 2003 accessories; the multicolored monogram became an instant hit with the noughties It girls. Yayoi Kusama and Richard Prince are also likely to have caused a sales surge with their respective spot prints and warped humor. Murakami’s input alone is said to have boosted sales by around $300 million.
The seasonal extravaganzas orchestrated by Jacobs only served to strengthen Louis Vuitton’s reputation. Money-wise, his carousels, escalators, water fountains, steam trains, and final funereal swansong cost a fortune. Yet clients and industry folk alike knew to expect a cinematic-type masterpiece that would remain etched in their memories. Ready-to-wear wasn’t even always “ready to wear” under Jacobs, as Fall 2011’s see-through fetish gear proved. But his artistic accessories were all that the brand needed to turn a profit.
Throughout his time at Vuitton, Jacobs’ personal popularity grew. Anna Wintour became just one champion, joining his “cool girl” posse which boasted Kate Moss, Chloe Sevigny, Sofia Coppola, Naomi Campbell and more. And despite calling himself a “kind of Luddite,” he embraced modern life wholeheartedly.
He was reportedly the first designer to get on board with MySpace, later showing every aspect of his life on Instagram. (In one accidental case, a little too much. He named a Marc Jacobs bag after blogger BryanBoy, cast Kendall Jenner when few other designers would, and temporarily severed a working relationship with photographer Juergen Teller Page after insisting that Miley Cyrus be the face of his Spring 2014 campaign. Politics even entered the fray with the release of a t-shirt, urging for the legalization of gay marriage. Most recently, he partnered with Cyrus for a hoodie that will donate all proceeds to reproductive healthcare via Planned Parenthood.
"[They] knew to expect a cinematic-type masterpiece..."
This openness is no doubt endearing. And coupled with Jacobs’ enthusiasm for all facets of the industry (he is a fan of knockoff copies and still finds it thrilling when people wear his designs), it’s no wonder the crowd flocks to his name. Of course, his former business partner Robert Duffy can be credited with keeping artistry and profitability in check — especially in the case of Jacobs’ eponymous line. Otherwise known as the creative splurge of a true designer’s brain.
Often exaggerated beyond belief, Jacobs’ namesake clothes — which, in recent collections, have involved humongous boxy shoulders, utilitarian smocks and stripy granny socks — are rarely pretty. Modern goths, over-the-top retro queens, and decadent, camp attire have played out in theater settings and pink playhouse backdrops. Worries that he has lost his way are voiced from time to time (particularly during periods of financial turmoil or cultural appropriation accusations). Appropriation aside, you can’t fault a person for trying to fight the consistency that binds us all.