On Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will give Marc Jacobs the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. Here's look at his career and his take on the award.
Call him a genius. Call him a junkie, an original, a shameless copycat, a winsome recluse, a brazen exhibitionist. Marc Jacobs has heard it all. And he has absorbed it all with a hard-won equanimity.
“You can live with the love, you can live with the hate,” Jacobs said the other day at his office in SoHo. He had placed his arms squarely on a wooden conference table so nondescript it might have been salvaged from a high school’s teachers’ lounge. “We’ve been bankrupt, we been fired,” he said. “We didn’t hang up our hat.”
He was talking about a checkered career that has seen the designer, now 48, ejected early on from a prestigious fashion post; undergoing repeated stints in rehab; and dodging, intermittently, the darts of tabloid gossips castigating him, among other things, for his vanity, his choice of sexual partners and his admitted struggles with sobriety.
Such experiences would have tested a lesser man’s flint. Not Jacobs, though. Dressed in a T-shirt and daisy-and-skull-patterned pants, he was the picture of high spirits and robust self-assurance.
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At this point, “It’s easy to get past the detractors,” he said evenly, alluding to insiders’ forever debating his relevance. Is Jacobs in his prime, they wonder, or has he coasted past his sell-by date? And, more pointedly, how much longer will he hang on to his status as New York fashion’s chief arbiter of hip?
As long as he cares to, Jacobs would like you to know. It takes a lot these days to shake his confidence or to get a rise out of him. But the announcement that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (www.cfda.com) would give him its Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday seems to have done the trick. “It should have been a half-lifetime award,” he was heard to grouse. He was joshing, right?
“It wasn’t a joke,” Jacobs replied, reddening perceptibly from his cheekbones to his neck and even, it seemed, through the SpongeBob SquarePants and Liz Taylor tattoos that decorate his biceps. “Lifetime achievement,” he repeated sourly. “That seems very final, like I’m done.
“But I’m not done.”
Indeed Jacobs, the wily Pied Piper of American fashion, is hardly played out. To many in the business, he is regarded as a cultural bellwether. His shows, in which models flash their panties, parade their bosoms in hourglass dresses or vamp — “Night Porter” style — in hot pants and harnesses, are as intently scrutinized as the Rosetta Stone.
His dossier seems all but unassailable. His string of stores on Bleecker Street, opened with Robert Duffy, his longtime business partner, has turned a retail backwater into lodestone for cool-seekers and busloads of style-obsessed tourists.
He has transformed the French fashion house Louis Vuitton, a once-musty purveyor of leather goods, into a cash cow. And, as he likes to remind you, legions of teenagers, aching to own a piece of his brand, snap up his flip-flops, fragrances and trinkets.
Jacobs’ inventiveness has earned him the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, his particular pride, and nine previous CFDA awards, among them the coveted women’s wear Designer of the Year title last year. “Awards generally mean stuff to other people more than they do to me,” he said. But, he added, gesturing expansively, “they give me a chance to thank those people publicly who are a part of all this.”
Through it all, Jacobs has marched to his own baton, pivoting, when the mood took him, on a polished heel. “We react to a whim,” he said last week, be that a fascination with the objectified eroticism of the photographer Guy Bourdin, with the social constraints of the Eisenhower era or with the druggy excesses of the Hollywood elite. Such whims have impelled him over the years to jettison the chaste fashions of his formative years for vividly sexy, voluminous dresses one season, and in the next, an aggressively streamlined, curve-clutching silhouette.
His habit of confounding expectations has made his show the reliable high point of every New York Fashion Week, a magnet for the likes of Debbie Harry, the artists John Currin and his wife, Rachel Feinstein, the porn star Michael Lucas and, on occasion, a Saudi noble or two. Those collections have nodded obliquely to rehab chic, to his fabled ode to grunge in the early 1990s and to post-Weimar Berlin. And they have spawned what passes in the fashion community for an intellectual spectator sport, with insiders splitting hairs over whether Jacobs is being brilliant, playfully trite — or just trite.
It depends on whom you ask. To his champions, he walks on water. “His shows have impact,” said Andre Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor at large. “They become the major, pivotal, prophetic moment of the season.”
But others insist he is merely treading water. “He feels to me less like a designer than a great producer or casting director, and there’s a lot to be said for that,” said Eric Gaskins, who comments blisteringly on some of fashion’s sacred cows in his blog The Emperor’s Old Clothes. “But at times, the overall message is pretty banal.”
Moreover, Gaskins said, “it’s difficult to encapsulate what he’s done as his own signature,” an observation echoed by industry veterans like David Wolfe, the creative director of the Doneger Group, a trend forecasting company. Wolfe says he admires Jacobs’ fine cultural antennas, he said, and his knack for “spinning a mystique.”
“But does he have a consistent identity? Absolutely not.”
Well, you know what they say about consistency. Jacobs shows no compunction to stick with a signature look. “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” he offered serenely. “If you stay with one look, people just say, ‘Oh, he does the same thing every season.’ If you do something different each time, you’re some kind of fashion impostor.”
Keeping up his credibility — and his cool quotient — would be a challenge, Jacobs allowed, if he could take the word “cool” seriously. “It’s one of those words that still make me stare at my feet,” he said. “It’s what other people can use to describe you.”
Or not, as the case may be. “He’s not as cool as he used to be,” said Tracy L. Cox, a designer and Hollywood stylist whose high-profile client list includes Sarah Jessica Parker and Jessica Seinfeld. “Most of my friends who are fashion forward, that’s not one of the brands they look to.”
Despite Jacobs’ much-vaunted associations with celebrities like Sofia Coppola and the singer-turned-designer Victoria Beckham, he has not made much of a splash on the red carpet, that ersatz runway for the masses, which has made stars of designers like Elie Saab and Marchesa.
“His clothes don’t necessarily translate on the red carpet,” Cox said. “They kind of overwhelm the actress, as if they were wearing her.”
They are “a little bit avant-garde for the untrained eye to understand,” added June Ambrose, who dresses Missy Elliott and Mariah Carey. “They are not necessarily red carpet, strike-your-pose pieces.”
But then, Jacobs likes it that way, he said. “His strategy is different,” Ambrose said. “He aims to appeal to women who live in his clothes, wear them every day, and not just for the cameras.”
Marc Jacobs can be thin-skinned. Stung by criticism several seasons ago in the wake of a show that was three hours late, he responded the following season by starting precisely on time. Even then, he recalled, “people were angry.” Last year, he tweaked his audience once more, starting his spring 2011 in September two minutes early, leaving spectators scrambling for their seats.
Such antic behavior has not always sat well with his peers. But the designer dismisses the notion that he is contemptuous of the industry that has nurtured him since he introduced his label in 1986. “I don’t do anything out of malice,” he said. “I’m not clever enough to be that calculating.”
Really? It’s not always easy to take his measure. Merchants at stores including Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York and Nordstrom declined to comment on the designer’s performance. There are indications, however, that Jacobs has lost traction with the young — the sons and daughters and siblings of that indie generation that first embraced him a couple of decades ago as one of their own.
“We don’t hear as much about Marc Jacobs as we did five or six years ago,” said Irma Zandl, a youth marketing consultant with clients including Coca-Cola, Estee Lauder and the Disney Channel. “With the exception of his fragrances, he is less on people’s radar.”
Branding experts suggest that while consumer awareness of the Jacobs label remains high, its prestige has diminished. In a survey by the Luxury Institute in 2009 of about 600 high-income women, Jacobs’ label was ranked 11th in perceived value and prestige (www.marcjacobs.com). The brand plummeted to 25th in 2010. That slide would seem to indicate that “the brand is becoming more massified,” said Milton F. Pedraza, chief executive of the institute, an organization that does research on wealthy consumers. “If that isn’t a deliberate strategy, then something, the design or the craftsmanship, needs to change.”
Takishma Faison, 34, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is among the disaffected. “At one time, his style was very distinctive,” Faison said. “It had a recognizable look.” Today, she finds his offerings “kind of commercial, kind of watered down. They don’t look ‘designer,”‘ she said. She added that if she had the means, she would instead turn to Prada or Lanvin.
A fashion identity in constant flux has also sown confusion. “I feel like he’s kind of all over the place,” said Jenna Polito, a FIT design student. He offers “so many different styles, and when he takes inspiration from something, he takes it a little too far.”
Such early adapters are moving on, observers say, turning instead to cheap-and-chic outlets like H&M (www.hm.com/us) and Zara (www.zara.com), and to young-minded labels like Rag & Bone (www.rag-bone.com), Helmut Lang or Alexander Wang (www.alexanderwang.com). In their minds, “there are a lot of designers who are just hipper, better priced and more trend-driven,” said Bonnie Pressman, a retail and fashion consultant and a former Barneys executive. “They’ve really stepped up to offer more of what the consumer is wanting.”
That observation is reinforced by changes in Jacobs’ store real estate. At Bloomingdale’s, the Marc by Marc Jacobs label is somewhat lost in the mix of contemporary brands like Theory and Alice & Olivia, while at the Barneys Co-op store in SoHo, it has been exiled to the rear of the store, eclipsed by Carven, Phillip Lim and Wang.
Jacobs is not oblivious to criticism. “I’m going to be defensive here,” he said, shifting slightly in his chair. “People are always going to want newness in fashion, just like they want new pop stars.” Yet he conceded a touch wistfully, “Maybe there’s something I’m missing. I don’t know … “
He is flummoxed as well by the hostile reactions to his radical transformation a couple of years ago from doughy, ponytailed nerd to a tanned gym body given to posing in the buff in magazines and in his advertisements for Bang, his men’s fragrance.
Jenna Sauers, who writes about fashion on Jezebel (http://jezebel.com), the feminist blog, would happily trade in the streamlined, preening Jacobs, for the older, apparently gentler model. “There was something about him that was so endearing,” Sauers said in an interview. “He was kind of a schlub, and you felt he loved his work. I have a lot of affection for that Marc. I’m missing those vulnerable moments.”
But Jacobs dismissed his former “fat guy” as the product of a fragile self-esteem. “If my unhappiness was creating insecurities, and that is what people miss, I’m sorry,” he said coolly. “But I’m the same person, only stronger now, and more positive.”
Retreat, for the designer, is clearly not an option. Nor is it for those industry professionals who remain sanguine, or at least reconciled, to Jacobs’ continuing sway. “He is a juggernaut,” said Wolfe of the Doneger Group. “And a juggernaut is slow to lose momentum.”