May 21, 2010 10:48 pm

Lunch with the FT: Marc Jacobs

The fashion designer ditches his kilt and meets Vanessa Friedman at the Mercer in New York where he tells her that he’s as tortured as ever
Marc Jacobs

On the day of my lunch with Marc Jacobs, I am 10 minutes early, and he is 10 minutes late. This would not normally be worth mentioning, except that Jacobs – owner of the eponymous fashion label, creative director at Louis Vuitton, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, friend of Sofia Coppola and Victoria Beckham – has a complicated and personally symbolic relationship with time.

For years Jacobs, 47, was known for holding the most infamously late show during New York Fashion Week and, after he joined the French luxury-goods house Vuitton in 1997, the same thing happened in Paris. In 2007 his New York show was delayed by more than two hours, causing a number of editors to walk out. As a result, the following season (and following a short stint in rehab) Jacobs’ show started exactly on time, while the Vuitton show began a few minutes early – thus catching a number of editors unaware and causing them to miss the collection entirely. (In the fashion industry starting 30 minutes late is considered “on time”; actually starting at the specified time is unheard of.)

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Vanessa Friedman

The point is, Jacobs’ attitude towards scheduling, like his attitude towards everything in his life, is extreme. As he has often said (and said to me when I interviewed him previously), he’s an addict, no matter what the subject.

As I sit in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in New York his assistant calls, at 12pm on the dot, to let me know Jacobs is on his way – and a few minutes later, there he is, grinning. It all seems so ... normal.

“What’d you do?” he asks, gesturing at the cast on my right foot as I hobble to our table in the hotel lobby. The Mercer is one of those minimally chic places unimpressed – and thus favoured – by the famous; Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz has stayed here, as has Russell Crowe.

When I tell Jacobs that I have torn my Achilles tendon, he grimaces sympathetically and mentions that he has a torn rotator cuff on his shoulder and has to have surgery in a few weeks, so he hasn’t “been able to work out at all”. Jacobs famously transformed himself a few years ago from bespectacled, long-haired, neurotic schlub into an Adonis with sculpted hair and body (and, for that matter, sculpted body hair), and has been fanatic about his two-hour gym workouts ever since.

I ask what he does instead, since I expect him to have transferred his gym obsession to something else. “Well,” he thinks for a minute, then shrugs. “Nothing, really.”

This is surprising – as is the fact that today Jacobs is wearing jeans with his white button-down shirt instead of a kilt “skort”, a cross between a kilt and shorts that, since buying “on impulse” two years ago, he has worn compulsively in every public appearance. “Hey,” I say. “Where’s your kilt?”

“I just didn’t feel like wearing it.”

After mulling this over, I venture: “Are you buying a lot of art?”

This is not the conversational non sequitur it may seem. Thanks to accessory-designing collaborations with artists including Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince, Jacobs almost single-handedly made Vuitton the luxury brand most closely linked with the art world. Both company and designer have embraced this arty identity: Vuitton’s new London flagship store, which opens next week, will display work by Murakami and Gilbert & George, while Jacobs owns pieces by Ed Ruscha, Elizabeth Peyton, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Georges Braque. In the past, he has gone into debt to fund his passion. Maybe, I think, he has gone on a spending spree in place of his weightlifting regime.

“Actually, I haven’t bought anything for a long time,” he says as we sit side by side on our banquette. “The other day I bought a little 1962 Ellsworth Kelly at the Christie’s auction, but that’s it. It was a funny thing for me to buy, too.” Why? I ask.

“It’s just a white square with a yellow curve. Usually I like more figurative work – this is the sort of thing I’d look at and admire but not want to buy. But I just like it ... it makes me happy.”

Marc Jacobs, it turns out, is entering his mellow yellow period. And not just when it comes to paintings. I had assumed, for example, that we were meeting at the Mercer because that’s where Jacobs lives; after taking on the Vuitton job, he moved his base to Paris and commuted to New York for his own brand. Jacobs says he did use the hotel as a base for nine years but moved out two years ago and now rents a place in Chelsea. At the same time he is renovating a townhouse he has bought in a new West Village development by the architect Robert AM Stern.

“I like having a home,” he says. “I like that in Paris my house is filled with things I love. And I figured out I could have a balance between New York and Paris. Before, I used to think I had to be there to do Vuitton or here to do Marc Jacobs, and I was always dropping things and rushing off, but now I know I can do both no matter where I am, so I spend a few weeks here, and then go back there, and so on.”

Still, Jacobs is a quintessentially Manhattan designer. He grew up on the Upper West Side with his paternal grandmother and, as a teenager, was a denizen of the nightclub Studio 54. He graduated from Parsons design school and, in 1988, became women’s wear designer at Perry Ellis but, in 1992, was fired after showing his notorious “grunge” collection. These days he is the effective emperor of Bleecker Street in the West Village, where five stores house his main line, diffusion line Marc by Marc Jacobs and Little Marc Jacobs for children. He is about to open a sixth shop – a bookshop.

So Jacobs knows the Mercer well enough to order a non-listed grilled panini from the room service menu. I order fennel salad. He asks for a Diet Coke with ice and no lemon; I ask for one with lemon and no ice. Jacobs likes this.

“Well, aren’t we balanced!” he says. And though he was using the pronoun in its traditional sense, the more he talks the more I think the royal “we” would have been equally appropriate.

He tells me he is leaving for Paris again in a few days and then going to London for the store opening before coming back to New York for shoulder surgery. He says he’s excited to see Vuitton’s New Bond Street store, because it’s being touted as the most luxurious flagship yet, with a giant glass staircase, an art bookshop and exhibition space.

You don’t know what it looks like? I ask.

“No,” he grins. “My job is to create products. The funny thing is, I just saw Peter Marino [the store architect] at a dinner the art dealer Larry Gagosian gave for Richard Prince, and people were asking if I chose him for Vuitton, and I said I had nothing to do with it! We see each other socially, and we both work for the house [Vuitton] but we don’t work together.”

We are in an era when being the creative director of a fashion house has tended to mean being the “big picture” aesthetic dictator rather than working as a product specialist, so I am struck by Jacobs’ hands-off relationship with Vuitton’s retail business. “I can’t do everything, and I’m not good at everything,” he says, waiting patiently for his panini, which arrives after about 20 minutes.

“It’s very frustrating if you have the experience of being in control of everything, as I am when it comes to, for example, the show, or shoes – I’m not a control freak but I have the last word – and then you do something where it’s not your complete vision. I feel like what I do creates some sort of direction for the company, and that’s good, and then I can leave it to other people to interpret.”

Jacobs, however, does direct the fashion advertising. In the past he has featured Jennifer Lopez and Madonna in Vuitton ads but for this autumn/winter will showcase models Christy Turlington, Karen Elson and Natalia Voldianova, all also mothers, pictured “in a dressing room, looking gorgeous. This is what I wanted for this season: nothing tricky, nothing too fashion, just gorgeous; the kind of clothes non-fashion people like.”

The result, as seen at the Vuitton show in March, was a God Created Woman-esque fiesta of heaving bosoms, wasp waists and long, full skirts. Jacobs’ special fashion talent is sticking his thumb in the air, sensing the zeitgeist and then giving it sartorial form – whether it’s the grunge cashmere thermals of the 1990s that anticipated the backlash against conspicuous consumption, or last year’s 1980s New Wave collection, which signalled the recent nostalgia for less fraught financial days. So it seems only logical to ask whether he thinks beauty and accessibility will be the next big post-recession thing.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says easily. “It’s what I feel. But you know, as a designer, you make the clothes and put them out there and then they have to exist on their own. I learned long ago that people would come backstage after my shows and tell me what was going on, and I should not bother with correcting them, because what really mattered was their experience. Once clothes are in a shop, it really doesn’t matter what a designer was thinking; it doesn’t make a coat a better coat because it was inspired by turn-of-the-century England.”

At this point, Jacobs seems satisfied with having eaten half his panini, and wants to go outside for a cigarette. There was a time when he smoked non-stop but he’s not even doing that with the same fervour anymore. He has also given up on social media after a brief foray into MySpace – “There are tons of fake mes on Facebook; people come up to me all the time and say, ‘Why are you blanking me, we have such great Facebook conversations?’ and I have to tell them, ‘That’s not me!’” – but he won’t deride it and even named a handbag after a fashion blogger, BryanBoy.

He has also been the subject of endless online gossip – according to which he has been married to his boyfriend, publicist Lorenzo Martone, and also broken up with him several times. Jacobs says he is not married, though he wishes he was, and says that half the information about him on Wikipedia is wrong.

“All the gossip makes me a little sad, sometimes,” he acknowledges, waving his cigarette, “but I try not to let it affect me; I don’t want to be a guarded person.” He bites his nails and when I tell him to stop doesn’t look at all concerned but notes he needs a manicure. He is so ... serene about all this, so matter-of-fact, that by the time we are back inside and have ordered our coffees, I can’t help saying, “You seem very untortured.”

“Oh no,” he says. “I’m as tortured as ever, I see my shrink once a week, have all the same mood swings, I can sit there the night before a show and think, ‘What if they hate it? What if my life is over and I am homeless?’ I can catastrophise with the best of them. I have sat over on that couch” – he gestures at a couch across the room – “with [artist] John Currin and he’ll say, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’ll say, ‘I have no idea’, and then he’ll talk about a smile he’s repainted 16 times. But I also have a certain amount of self-awareness at this point, and I recognise all those neuroses are just human. It’s why I think now I am attracted to yellow. It’s positive; it’s the optimistic choice.”

I look at my watch and realise we have been talking for 40 minutes longer than the allotted time. But Jacobs doesn’t look at all concerned. “I’d like to say we are at the start of a new era but that would be silly,” he continues. “You know, this is fashion. Things change.”

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor. Read her column on Sex and the City

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Mercer Hotel

147 Mercer Street, Soho, New York

Diet Coke x 2 $7

Fennel salad $9

Grilled mozzarella and prosciutto panini $12

Decaf cappuccino $5

Espresso $4

Total (including service) $47.68 (£34)

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How Marc made his mark

April 1963 Born to a Jewish family in New York. Jacobs’ father (an agent at the William Morris talent agency) dies when Marc is seven. Unhappy at home, he eventually leaves and is brought up by his paternal grandmother.

1984 Graduates in fashion design from New York’s Parsons design school.

1988 Hired as creative director at Perry Ellis, then one of the leading casual wear labels in the US.

1992 Shows a critically acclaimed grunge-inspired show for Perry Ellis, featuring Doc Martens and cartoon T-shirts, that launches the look of the 1990s. The company is so shocked it fires him.

1994 Sets up his own label, Marc Jacobs. A young, preppy diffusion line, Marc by Marc Jacobs, follows in 2001.

1997 Bernard Arnault, chairman of luxury goods group LVMH, hires Jacobs as creative director of Louis Vuitton, the 155-year-old leather goods label. Jacobs introduces ready-to-wear collections and makes leather goods bearing the famous LV emblem fashionable once more.

1999 Long-time business partner Robert Duffy and other friends persuade him to check into rehab for drink and drug reasons.

2000 Commissions cult 1980s designer Stephen Sprouse to lend a graffiti signature to Vuitton’s classic “Speedy Bag” – it becomes a sell-out sensation. Sprouse’s designs have been translated to heels, luggage and scarves.

2007 Second spell in rehab. Also a year of physical transformation.

2008 Hires Victoria Beckham for an advertising campaign for his spring/summer own-label collection. In playful style, the pictures have Beckham dumped in an oversized Marc Jacobs carrier bag with her legs akimbo.

2009 Chairs the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Ball, an event considered the Oscars of the fashion industry, alongside US Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Kate Moss. For the event, Moss wears Marc Jacobs; Madonna wears Louis Vuitton.

Libby Richardson

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