Pleasure and pain — or just pain? Marc Jacobs, one of fashion’s great showmen, talks about the emotional business of reshaping his brand

I first met Marc Jacobs in July during couture week. Paris was broiling and Jacobs, 52, was agitating a bandaged hand, the result of an infection brought on by his compulsive nail-biting. It was painful, but it wasn’t impacting on his compulsive nicotine addiction, a habit he could still feed at 10-second intervals.

Marc Jacobs

The meeting had been arranged following the announcement of a radical restructure at the brand he founded, with Robert Duffy, in 1984. In March it was announced that Marc by Marc Jacobs, the diffusion line that followed the Marc Jacobs label in 2001 (and which reportedly went on to account for about 70 per cent of the house’s sales) would be merged with his eponymous label. Jacobs would remain creative director of a business streamlined into a one-man, one-brand entity.

So would the ownership be restructured. While LVMH and Marc Jacobs were private companies and do not comment on figures, it is believed that Duffy had orchestrated the sale of a 96 per cent share of Marc Jacobs to LVMH in 1997 (when Jacobs went to work for Louis Vuitton) but he and Jacobs retained control of Marc by Marc. Under the new terms, LVMH would have an 80 per cent stake in the combined company, and Jacobs and Duffy 10 per cent each. Duffy would be taking a step back from the business, assuming the role of deputy chairman. The new chief executive, Sebastian Suhl, who arrived from LVMH stablemate Givenchy last year, was realigning the businesses of Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs into a single luxury proposition.

Everything had changed. Everything appeared carefully focused, and yet I found Jacobs slumped over a small table in his Paris office (which he visits occasionally from his headquarters in New York), scratching his head. “I don’t know what’s going on, I really don’t,” he sighed theatrically when I asked him about the new vision. “There’ll be one collection but the offer will be broader and there will be a broader price range.”

He thought for a moment about the implications of the merger. “I mean, I like the idea of having one collection with singular focus but made up of pieces from the commercial to the runway.” He dragged on a cigarette. “It will be a very broad collection with different messages, different price points, different labels and all that stuff.” He examined the bandage. “On one level it feels like we’re starting clean, but then it’s also going back and looking at what we’ve been about, what we’ve said over the years and how we want to move forward.”

On the phone from New York, Suhl went further: “Historically, presently, and what we’re looking to in the future, is that contemporary is the majority of our business,” he explained. “We are a brand, therefore, that is contemporary in terms of the majority of what we sell, pricing-wise, but we are a fashion brand. We want to bring a real fashion statement to the table that will go across all categories.”

Jacobs was stressed. Working out the process and trying to reconcile a new aesthetic that ticked all the commercial boxes was making him edgy. “I don’t know how it feels . . .” he started. “More adult? But there’s still the idea of youth . . . But less silly — or funny,” he went on. “I don’t know . . .” More polished? “Polished. That’s a good word,” he said. “I mean, we feel like we’re in roughness now, but that roughness has to be done in a polished way.”

The SS16 collection was in the early stages of development and Jacobs felt awkward discussing it. “It’s not like I’ve got this ironclad concept and then we execute it.” After our conversation he was off to a therapy session — he’s been a dedicated servant of the psychiatric chair for more than 20 years. I wondered whether his process necessarily required creative pleasure and pain. “How about pain pain?” he laughed.

If I found him despondent, I should have known better. Jacobs, one of fashion’s great showmen, has an actor’s gift for drama. The master of the theatrical coup, his eye-popping spectacles for Louis Vuitton (where he was creative director of the ready-to-wear line for 16 years until 2013), were a masterclass in “wow”. As the architect of “grunge”, which he introduced on a Perry Ellis catwalk in 1992 and for which he was subsequently fired, he will always be remembered as a visionary and risk-taker.

He’s also an inveterate attention-seeker — a man who thrives under the glare of the klieg. Just the week before our meeting he had accidentally posted a naughty selfie to his then 191,000 followers on Instagram and the image had gone viral. However klutzy, it was a novel way to self-promote. He now has more than 300,000 Instagram followers. “I don’t know. I find it very playful and fun,” he said of his relationship with social media. “But I don’t really know if the people who are engaged in that conversation are customers. I don’t know about the dollars and cents it yields . . .”

A look from the SS16 Marc Jacobs collection
A look from his SS16 collection © Edward James

Six weeks later, the lights went up on Marc Jacobs’ second act. The label’s press night was held in the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, about as nostalgic and perfectly kitsch a New York venue as one could wish for: grown-up, silly, fun and polished. “I saw Milos Forman’s Hair here seven times in one day,” said Jacobs backstage. “I love this place.” Drag queens tottered around touting Marc Jacobs T-shirts; there was Marc Jacobs popcorn and a Marc Jacobs printed playbill on the cinema seats.

The show, an exuberant odyssey around New York circa 1970s Bette Midler in her Continental Baths era, was a high-low celebration of everything Americana: denim cut-offs, On the Town-style sailor suits, varsity jackets, plaid shirts and majestic sequin power gowns. And all staged as a premiere with models strutting between the aisles before a big brass band. It was brilliantly conceived and executed. No way had Jacobs not been planning it for months.

Afterwards, and dizzy with adrenalin, I found Jacobs a different person to the anxious soul I’d met in Paris: effusive, noisy and basking in that moment of ecstasy that hits between pre-show nerves and post-show comedown. Ironically, the idea for the event had come to him via the bombardment of visual references on Instagram. “I kept thinking of what America is for me,” he said of its theme. “For me, America is New York.”

So had he enjoyed mixing price points — “reasonably priced” sportswear, shoes and shirts — in all the looks, save the final “full-on evening” ones? He insisted they had lavished the same level of attention on every piece, “from the sole of a shoe to the stitching on a sole of a shoe”, to keep them authentic and maintain their integrity.

In hindsight, the Marc Jacobs rebrand may have been brilliantly forward-thinking. The change has come at a time when other houses are also consolidating their labels and examining new ways to bring merchandise to market faster and more frequently: Just Cavalli is now just Roberto Cavalli, Donna Karan is DKNY. At London Fashion Week, Christopher Bailey of Burberry had “borrowed” ideas he might ordinarily have put in the less expensive Brit collection for his catwalk show. Moreover, who differentiates between fashion lines any more? Is the diffusion label dead?

“We did quantitative research,” says Suhl, “that found over half the people in our stores were confused about which store they were going to . . . Very few distinguished or looked out for the name Marc Jacobs.” Even more fascinatingly: “Only 11 per cent of online keyword searches were for Marc by Marc Jacobs. Almost all were either ‘Marc Jacobs’, which was about half of it, and the balance of the rest of it was ‘Marc Jacobs bags’, ‘Marc Jacobs fragrance’.”

Marc Jacobs, £245 bag

The internet has forced brands to simplify their message. “Yes, it’s 2015,” says Suhl. “But what made us successful in the beginning was one name and one general style. That’s not to say you had the same items at $1,000 and $100 but you had the same hand. It felt like the same world, because it was the same world.”

In this same world, however, there are still lots of shops. And several of them say Marc by Marc Jacobs over the door. I asked Suhl what they were going to do about these stores, many of which are leased. “Well, retail has always been a significant factor in the business, and it’s one of the areas where we’ve been quite innovative,” he started. “Bookmarc [Jacobs’ bookshop on Bleecker Street] is a great concept, and Marc and Robert did it 12 years ago. And Marc, along with Robert, opened the Mercer Street store [in SoHo] in 1997 when it was all sex shops and antiques . . . But we do have a fair number of shops,” he admitted. “In some cases they’ll be rebranded. In some cases we’ll have to consolidate.”

Jacobs, for his part, would love to roll out a lifestyle concept store but admits he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for it: “I’ve never been a business person, nor have I ever pretended to understand the first thing about it.” When I told him I was fascinated to discover that around 60 per cent of his sales came from overseas, he looked at me wide-eyed. “Do they?” he asked politely.

And what of the label’s intention to launch an IPO? “Well, Mr Arnault [LVMH chairman and chief executive] announced that, and it’s not for me to comment,” said Suhl. “But it’s not something that’s going to happen in the next two months. When we work, we don’t think about that. We think about getting everything right and when one serves the other . . .”

Getting everything right will be no easy journey. And things are only just beginning. But in New York I felt a palpable excitement around the brand’s future. Suhl and Jacobs make a compelling partnership. Between them, they could really make their Marc.

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