I’m really happy with the attention that we get. If people weren’t interested in the work then they wouldn’t really care about my personal life… If we built a pile of crap nobody would care what I ate for lunch.Marc Jacobs
Of course, New Yorkers have been living in a Marc Jacobs world for the past decade: His shops have changed the character of the entire West Village; his very public metamorphosis from hard-partying, behind-the-scenes wunderkind to post-rehab, gym-ripped extrovert with a superstar circle of friends and a sexy Brazilian boyfriend has been the fodder of gossip blogs; and his continual collaboration with artists and musicians at both Marc Jacobs, where he is Designer, and at Louis Vuitton, where he has been creative director for the past 13 years, has opened up the possibilities of fashion to a larger force. The 47-year-old Jacobs may be rightly called the reigning master of fashion, as much for how to create it as for how to promote, present, reinvent, and animate it. Jacobs proved this instinct in what would be his first contribution to fashion history—a grunge collection created during his brief stint at Perry Ellis in 1992 that was so revolutionary and right for the moment, it led to him being fired. Since, he’s had a track record with so many high notes it’s almost shocking that the man manages to turn out collection after collection at two of the most influential labels operating today (in fact, many consider Marc Jacobs to be the saving grace of New York fashion). The one person who has been a constant collaborator, champion, and partner for Jacobs over the years is Robert Duffy, who first teamed up with Jacobs 26 years ago when the world hardly seemed ready for a mix of young street and provocative high fashion. Since then they have built a company that now verges on an empire, comprising clothes, shoes, accessories, stores, fragrances, and even a new men’s scent, appropriately dubbed Bang. Duffy recently spoke to Jacobs, who was in Paris, about his love of attention, his romance with New York, and why getting naked is in line with every choice he’s ever made.
ROBERT DUFFY: How are you feeling?
MARC JACOBS: [groans] My neck, my shoulders, my back . . . It just sucks.
DUFFY: Be glad you’re not in New York, because it’s 103 degrees.
JACOBS: I’m happy to be in Paris. I just really don’t think I’ve felt this physically crappy in about four years. You know me—I’m so impatient. I’m now Skypeing my shrink and my surgeon, standing in front of the video screen and the doctor is seeing how much I can raise my arm. He says, “You’re probably doing too much.” I said, “I can’t be doing less! All I’m doing is stretching.” He says if I’m still in pain then I’m doing too much. But I’m going nuts. I’ve lost weight. It’s summer and I feel like being in a turtleneck. Isn’t life grand?! How are you?
DUFFY: Well, the Interview readers are probably not interested in any of your bowel movements or stomach problems or my corporate consultant stuff. I made a list of questions. You know what I did? I asked all the kids around here at our offices in Soho what they want to know about you, because the people in the stores don’t really know you and they just think—
JACOBS: That I don’t exist! [laughs]
DUFFY: One of the questions that most of them asked—because you have become such a celebrity and have courted the media for a long time—is whether that approach to fame ever backfired?
JACOBS: It’s funny to do this with you because you already know all my answers. But there was a whole period where I was very happy to stay in. I was in my studio for many hours a day—sometimes working and sometimes sleeping. But when I went through this physical transformation and my diet changed and I went to the gym, I felt much more confident about myself. I like being out there. As I’ve said before, I love attention. Sometimes that attention is great, like when we get attention for doing a great show or our sales are good or even attention for walking down the street and looking sexy. That’s all great. But unfortunately along with that comes a lot of negative comments: “Oh, we miss the old Marc.” “It was much better when he was grungy.” Da, da, da, da . . . Sometimes it hurts my feelings, but basically I’m really happy with the attention that we get. It’s more work-related than what I’m going through in my personal life. If people weren’t interested in the work then they wouldn’t really care about my personal life. So I think about it logically. The attention toward me is basically because of what we’ve built as a company. If we built a pile of crap then nobody would care what I ate for lunch. We live in a world where people are really hungry for information, and they’re not hungry for information on subjects that they’re not interested in.
DUFFY: As our company gets bigger, it becomes more corporate. For the first 25 years of our careers, no one wanted to hear from us, and now we have five million people who want to be involved somehow. I started Twittering and we had so many followers, but then the corporate lawyers took me off it. So how do you feel about that? As our company gets bigger, you and I seem to be more censored. It frustrates me. Does it frustrate you?
JACOBS: I think that anything that affects you affects me. I am Marc Jacobs by birth, but we are Marc Jacobs by the company that we built. So that’s been our relationship since I’ve known you from 20,000 years ago. Every action has a reaction, and with everything we do there is a consequence. Sometimes it’s not so bad and sometimes it sucks. But I know we both have our frustrations about this subject—probably you more than I because you protect me from all of it. It’s not like I have to deal with those people who are censoring us. You don’t censor my work—you actually support the choices I make. So I don’t feel as censored.
DUFFY: That’s probably true. Here’s a question that you’re probably going to find lame but I’m going to ask you anyway. What is your honest take on New York fashion?
JACOBS: I feel like you and I have always felt a little bit outside of a community, or at least, speaking for myself, I have felt like that. There are other designers there who I respect in terms of their work, but I feel like we operate in our own world. We’ve never followed the same path, like, to show at the tents or have a store in a certain neighborhood. We’ve always followed the beat of our own drum. We moved downtown before other people did and we showed at the Armory while everyone else was showing at one central location. I don’t think we did it to be rebellious. We just did what we wanted to do. I can’t speak for the rest of New York. I just feel we are always at our best when we do what instinctively feels right . . . I’m very good at sidestepping questions. [laughs]
DUFFY: We both work at Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. People want to know if there is a conflict of interest in designing those separate brands. Do you prefer one over another? How do you keep them separate?
JACOBS: First of all there are two separate teams, so even if we have the same impulses within a given season, the ways they manifest themselves are so different. And, secondly, geographically they are in two different places. New York is where I was born and raised for most of my life. I think there’s a personal connection to New York. It’s a more personal place for me, so the momentum, the energy, and the attitude has a bit more of a romantic nature to it. Paris is more like fantasy. Also, with Marc Jacobs we have more autonomy over where things go after the show—for our shops and with the ads. Whereas at Vuitton, it only goes as far as the show and then it’s in everyone else’s hands.
DUFFY: I was explaining in a staff meeting the other day what a long process it was in launching our new men’s fragrance, Bang—it took two years and there were all these roadblocks. Some people asked, “Did Marc just want to make a statement about his body?” because you’re naked in the ads. I said, “Absolutely not. If you only knew the process we went through.” Maybe you want to talk about that.
JACOBS: You were the one who had the idea of having me in the ads. It was your suggestion. At first I thought, “Ohhh, I don’t know . . .” But then I thought, “Yeah, why not?” I came up with a reference, which is one of my historic references. If Yves Saint Laurent did it, it certainly isn’t a bad thing, you know? But I did feel physically proud of my body. We both knew it was going to meet with some resistance. Even on the day of the shoot with Juergen [Teller] we had to try it with jeans and a shirt, but it just never looked good with clothes on. You and I decided that the only way this would be a successful men’s fragrance is if it appealed to a young sensibility—we didn’t want to make a grandfather’s aftershave. It was more about coolness and hipness and it had to have integrity for us. And we felt strongly about the name. We felt strongly about everything and had to convince everybody else.
DUFFY: I was explaining to the kids—I always call the people who work here that because everyone is so young—that there are two things that go on when you’re doing this. You have an idea. And ideas never just fly through the corporate hierarchy. In the meetings no one was signing on for that name. But with Bang, we had the assignment of generating the biggest amount of press and excitement before it launched. So obviously I am thinking, Marc, you would be the best person to represent this, and if there’s a little bit of controversy, then people will get behind it. And it did create a lot of excitement. I had to run the first ad of you nude because nobody else would do that. We love the fragrance, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you get it in people’s hands. But I wanted the kids to know how much work that took. And we met a lot of resistance. But that also created excitement. So again, we love the fragrance, but that almost . . . doesn’t mean anything—you know what I mean?—unless you really get it in people’s hands and create some excitement. And I was explaining to them that everybody thinks you and I have such an easy time of doing this, but this is the most recent project that we’ve done, and that took about two years.
JACOBS: That seems to be the story of our lives, huh?
DUFFY: How has your celebrity status affected your personal life? Obviously your relationship with Lorenzo [Martone] has been meaningful for gay rights. But are there any drawbacks?
JACOBS: You know, I’ve been openly gay since I can remember. I don’t really want to get into a discussion on my relationship, but I have always been supportive of LGBT or Harvey Milk High School, and I think I’ve been as honest as I can be about my personal life when I’ve been asked about it. I don’t avoid those questions. I answer them. Some people come up to me on the street or at the gym or send notes and e-mails to the company saying, “It’s made such a difference. It’s helped me so much. I’m from middle America. You provide a positive role model. You’re so outspoken about how you behave . . .” I’ve been very open in terms of my past problems with drugs and alcohol and about my sexuality, so I think it benefits those who don’t have many role models who are so open.
DUFFY: Is there anything you miss about your old life now?
JACOBS: No! [laughs]
DUFFY: I was thinking about you when I was watching the news this morning about Lindsay Lohan. I was just thinking how lucky you are.
JACOBS: I don’t miss it. I don’t regret it because that would be silly and a waste of time. I don’t feel ashamed either. But I don’t miss it. I’m very happy to be healthier in every way—physically, mentally. I’m a better person to everyone around me who is so grateful and happy and passionate about work. To be useful to others and to be useful to myself is definitely a better place to be.
DUFFY: Good. Now I’m sure this is my fault but I have to ask you this. Some have criticized Marc Jacobs for “shopifying” the West Village. [Marc Jacobs currently has five stores in the West Village] Do you have any response to that? After all, you are opening a bookstore this fall in the West Village.
JACOBS: Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . Let’s turn the tables here. Why don’t I ask you that question.
As LONG as the CREATIVITY EXISTS, then I DON’T THINK it’s a SELLOUT. A SELLOUT is PUTTING YOUR NAME on ANY PIECE of CRAP and then EXPECTING PEOPLE to BUY it BECAUSE it’s GOT YOUR NAME on it. THAT’S WHAT a SELLOUT IS to ME. Marc Jacobs
DUFFY: I opened the Marc by Marc Jacobs store because it’s around the corner from my house. It’s very inexpensive. It used to be a dentist’s office. There was nothing there, and financially it turned out to be one of the most successful things we ever did. Because I live in the neighborhood, I’ve come to regret a little bit of it, but you know what? We all make mistakes. If I had to do it over, I probably would do it again.
JACOBS: I don’t think it was a mistake!
DUFFY: I think that when you live there and people throw eggs at you, you begin to think it was a mistake. But hey, you’re moving into the neighborhood—you’ll see what it feels like.
JACOBS: Yeah, probably in like 2015. [laughs]
DUFFY: It’ll still be there at this point. As for Bookmarc, there was always the Biography Bookstore on that corner, and they were moving because the lease was up. We didn’t force them out or anything like that. I’ve been living in the village for 30 years now. I’ve always wanted there to be a bookstore on that corner, so that’s why I took the lease. And that’s why we’re opening the bookstore.
JACOBS: I’m very excited about Bookmarc.
DUFFY: Back to my asking you. What would it take for you to feel as if you’d sold out as a designer?
JACOBS: If we didn’t believe in what we did, then I would feel that we sold out. As long as we do things with integrity and believe in them and are passionate, I don’t think we’ve sold out. Whether it’s an $11 flip-flop or a $2 key ring or a $2,000 dress, they’re all done with integrity. They’re all done with a design sense. As long as the creativity exists, then I don’t think it’s a sellout. A sellout is putting your name on any piece of crap and then expecting people to buy it because it’s got your name on it. That’s what a sellout is to me.
DUFFY: Like the Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes? Your Louis Vuitton fall collection was reminiscent of the ’50s and ’60s. You were also embracing a more realistic feminine shape. Is that an intentional attempt to accommodate a healthier view of the figure?
JACOBS: No. I think it was just the natural boredom of fashion. When you get tired of a certain thing, you move on to something else. In the case of Vuitton, we worked very closely with Katie Grand. It was part of the discussion from the very beginning that we were interested in a sexy, voluptuous woman. And we were thinking of an older idea of shape. Our criterion was that they have to be gorgeous. There has always been that kind of woman at Vuitton—with models like Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell, and Nadja Auermann. She’s always played a part.
DUFFY: What is currently turning you on, whether it be musically, visually, or sexually?
JACOBS: I love music. I don’t know much about classical music, but I’ve been enjoying listening to it lately. I find it very calming and with my energy not being as high as it often is, I guess I’ve just been enjoying the beauty of different composers. In terms of visuals, contemporary art stimulates me the most, although in working on the new house, I’ve been antique shopping, looking at rugs and fabrics for the interiors, and so I’ve been looking at a lot of interior magazines. I find gorgeous rooms to be extremely arousing at the moment.
DUFFY: Does that cover “sexually”?
JACOBS: It doesn’t give me a hard-on. But you know as well as I do that things that arouse me sexually are usually things that are unavailable to me. [both laugh]
DUFFY: A lot of people who have worked for us have gone on to do great things. Do you feel you’ve inspired a generation? Do you feel like our company is like an incubator for these kids?
JACOBS: In those days that I did Perry Ellis, there was Tom [Ford] and Tracy Reese. Tom has become a legend and certainly Tracy has done a really good business for herself. Then there have been a lot of interns who have worked with us. Jack [McCollough] from Proenza Schouler was an intern and so was Chris Benz. There was also Joseph Altuzarra. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve worked with a lot of super-talented people and we still work with a lot of talented people.
DUFFY: How has your perspective on fashion changed since you and I started working together back in 1984?
JACOBS: I think we’ve both learned a lot about the craft and about making clothes. I’ve learned a lot about doing accessories and making shoes and handbags. I don’t think my perspective has really changed. The subtlety of understanding yarns, what makes a fabric what it is—I’ve learned technical skills and more about the craft. And I’ve learned a lot about showmanship versus just making clothes, how fashion is about presentation and communication, and about putting yourself out there as a person. It’s not just clothes or design. That’s a huge part, but there is so much more than that.
DUFFY: It was nice talking to you. I hope we don’t sound as much like valley girls in print as we do in person.
JACOBS: You know me. I’m so valley.