THE DEEP SHALLOWNESS OF MARC JACOBS
With his famously manic-obsessive personality (drugs! drama!) and gift for mixing high fashion with low culture, Marc Jacobs built a global style empire. Now he has embarked on his most ambitious redesign yet: himself.
On a chilly night in New York, fashion designer Marc Jacobs is smoking a cigarette outside the Brooklyn Museum. His hair is dyed jet-black, his buff bod is encased in a bright-green suit, and he wears diamond earrings of an exceptional number of carats, like Puffy circa 1999. "The earrings cost $50,000, or $100,000, I don't know," says Jacobs, waving a hand. Indoors, there's an enormous party in honor of his collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, with whom he has created a line of handbags. But Jacobs doesn't want to go in. He prefers to snicker on the stoop as celebrity guests file into the galleries. Jacobs pulls out a camera. "I need some photographs for my MySpace page," he says. "I don't know how to post the pictures, so my assistant does it. MySpace makes people happy, which is cool. Also, I get very lonely, and MySpace makes me feel better." It's hard to imagine Jacobs feeling lonely, even if there is something très tragique about a famous 45-year-old gay guy who loves MySpace. As if on cue, Kristin Davis, the cute brunette from Sex and the City, dashes by. "I love Marc," she gushes. "He's just so kind, generous and honest." Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and one of his longtime champions, kisses him on the cheek. "Marc has always been a supporter of the arts, so this evening is full circle," she says, before Kanye West gathers Jacobs in a bear hug, camera in hand. "This guy's my idol," says West, handing the camera to his manager to snap them together. "I wish I could hang out with Marc all the time, because he's so cool. I want to be just like him."
Jacobs' collaborator Murakami is a pioneer of animé as fine art, a style that is called otaku, and all around the galleries people are dressed like his characters sprung to life. West hightails it past life-size fiberglass models of a lactating woman whose excretions form a jumprope and a masturbating boy with semen that has extended to form an improbable lasso. "I love the sculptures with the big boobs and the guy holding his penis, with his sperm in midair," he says excitedly. "Man, I want that in my apartment. That way, when people walk in, they know anything is possible."
In a way, Marc Jacobs is what made this scene possible. It is Jacobs, with bipolar tastes for high fashion (Louis Vuitton) and low celebrity (Lil' Kim), who helped popularize the current enthusiasm for perversity and art, overt cuteness (teddy bears!) combined with classic cool (Sonic Youth). Like West and Murakami, Jacobs has a pop artist's hunger to be adored by the right people, and by all the people at the same time, a desire for the kind of fame that is widely in conflict, and tends to foster personal insecurity.
Tonight, this modern sensibility is being celebrated. Midway through his fifth decade, Jacobs has become the rare designer whose aesthetic transcends the clothes he produces, whose name is known to the masses, is endlessly mythologized in the media and whose reach extends far beyond a label. Jacobs no longer dresses people for the world; he helps create the world itself.
"This is what's happening in fashion in America right now — all the kids look so animated and weird," Jacobs pronounces, referring to the museum crowd. Pausing, he adds a Warholian thought: "I feel like everyone should have a black outline drawn around them, like a cartoon."
EARLIER THIS DECADE, Jacobs came to prominence for essentially main streaming the trust fund chic of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for making androgynous girls in ballet flats and bespectacled boys in tucked-in shirts sexy, for mainstreaming prissy looks like Chloé Sevigny's. Now the head of a multibillion-dollar business that spans nearly all major fashion markets, with his own label and as the chief designer of Louis Vuitton, he is considered the only American fashion designer who matters, with Calvin, Ralph and Donna checked out. Sofia Coppola has long been his muse, and other Marco-lettes include Courtney Love and Winona Ryder, who famously shoplifted his clothes from Saks. "I love fallen angels," he has said. "There are certain girls who make mistakes, and I just love that. I love the strength to move forward. It's very hard to be someone publicly and then to be human and honest at the same time. It's a dark angel, not dark like an evil spirit, but a melancholy, broken soul. It's a good thing."
In the past couple of years, Jacobs has undergone a shocking physical transformation from a pudgy, Rufus Wainwright-loving nerd to a trim Chelsea boy patterned with 31 tattoos, in part because of his notions about where the culture is today (a midlife crisis might also have come into play). Surfaces are all that matter, and privacy doesn't exist. "Young people want to be exposed, and the idea of nobody being interested in your personal life is the worst horror," says Jacobs. "Whether they are Cameron Diaz or not, they want everything they do to feel as important as when you see a celebrity with a cup of Starbucks." The same could be said for Jacobs. "I'm very interested in Marc and his evolution," says Stefano Tonchi, style editor at The New York Times. "Going from that kind of shyness to Marc Jacobs the persona. I think Marc could talk about Marc Jacobs in the third person."
Jacobs is short and wiry, with a store-bought tan, zero-fat musculature and a nose made broader by artificial means ("I walked into a door once, and I thought it looked really hot," he says). He's aware that his new body is a great draw for guys. As the gay pickup scene has increasingly moved onto the Internet, nothing is more important than a photo of your six-pack, and that may have been part of the allure of the gym for Jacobs. He's dated a series of boy toys, most in their 20s, many of whom have warmed very quickly to the notion of dropping anecdotes about their lover to the gossip columns. Alleged threesomes with porn stars, fights on private jets, the guy he fought with in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire — it has been well-chronicled and extensively blogged about, particularly in the case of Jason Preston, a former rent boy, party promoter and Jacobs' long-term on-and-off boyfriend. Preston talked about getting married — "Wouldn't it be fierce if my bridesmaids were Mariah, Naomi Campbell and Lindsay?" Preston once asked — and Preston got Jacobs' name tattooed on his arm in the same type as the store logo. "The day I got the tattoo, Marc and I went to Debbie Harry's induction into the [Rock & Roll] Hall of Fame," Preston recalls now. "We totally stole the attention from the event, and she was so not having it." He cackles. "People think that Marc is a shy person, but he's totally wild. He loves the gossip about him."
"I've had boyfriends who were media whores, and God bless them, they were great people," says Jacobs, obliquely referring to Preston and then trailing off. "I shouldn't have said that, that wasn't nice to say." He pauses. "I was in a relationship for the past couple of years with someone who loved the attention of the media," he says. "I don't want to make the same mess again."
Although Jacobs' personal life may have edged toward the abyss where Perez Hilton and Lauren Conrad reside today, the collision between couture and raunch has continually fascinated Jacobs. Sonic Youth performed at his last fashion show, but Kevin Federline sat in the front row. He prices handbags at his stores from $20 to $8,000. He appliqués the word HARDCORE on the front of pastel cashmere sweaters. He dresses prim ingénues like Kirsten Dunst for the Golden Globes but recently selected Victoria Beckham for an ad campaign. Jacobs is also the only genuinely high-end fashion designer who has admitted that he might want a reality show, about "all the drama, the intrigue, the sex, the romance, the work." Why? "I'm a shameless human being," he said. In fact, he wants to have the word SHAMELESS tattooed over his heart.
JACOBS IS QUICK TO TELL anyone who will listen that he's horribly insecure, but he projects a diffident confidence. "Marc is like a kid, enjoying life but also marveling at the freakiness of meeting different celebrities, how surreal it all is," says Kim Gordon, a close friend. A few weeks after the museum event, he loafs around his messy Soho office in a crisp white shirt and tiny blue jeans (Jacobs splits his time between New York, where he lives in a hotel, and Paris, where he has a Champ de Mars apartment with a lavish modern-art collection). Plastic boxes are stacked high against the walls, filled with multicolored zipper parts and a zillion colors of grosgrain ribbon. Punk Pioneers, a photography book of the early scene, lays on a table for fashion reference, and the new Death Cab for Cutie album booms over an iPod sound system.
When Jacobs talks about design with his minions, a group of quiet girls and British boys, he uses a childish, singsong tone, which reminds one of the innocent pleasure he takes in his work: Dresses are "things," some designs need to be "less sweater-y," and on the whole, he wants pants to look more like "girl-y pants and less like boy-y pants."
A designer presents him with a pinned black muslin. "It's not really a thing yet," Jacobs says, grimacing, "and the thing it does look like is kind of horrendous."
This isn't said meanly at all, but it could not be said that Jacobs is in a good mood today. He's often up or down, and he can be a melancholy soul in general. A few days ago, Jacobs decided on a whim to stop smoking — "It was just time," he says vaguely — and he's chomping on tea-tree toothpicks to ease the pain. "I'm also thinking of getting a new tattoo," he says. "I want George and Martha. Or bears. Cute bears, I mean, grizzly ones, but not mean ones. I'd also like to get Nemo. My assistant printed me out a bunch of references."
He perks up a little. "I really have a good attitude about tattooing," says Jacobs. "When I first got one, two years ago, I was like, 'I'm not going to overthink this or what it means or what it's going to be like when I'm 80.1 want to get tattooed today, and in five weeks, I'll get a SpongeBob tattoo.' Will I regret it someday? I don't know, but I'm not going to deny myself this pleasure today because of what I don't know in the future, which may never happen."
Late in the afternoon, as Jacobs' attention starts to drift, relief appears in the form of larger-than-life photographs of himself made up as Andy Warhol, to be sent to his Los Angeles store for window displays. They're part of a series of photographs shot by Interview magazine for the 80th anniversary of Warhol's birth. The stylist brought in Warhol's real wig from a museum, but Jacobs felt weird about wearing it. "They chopped up a wig and kind of threw it on my head, so I was like, 'OK, this is more incidental, it will look cooler,'" says Jacobs. The photographer also set him up to pose as Annie Lennox, Lou Reed circa Transformer, and Edie Sedgwick.
"You're such a good model," I say, in the interest of paying a compliment. "These shots don't even look like you."
Jacobs snorts a little. "I don't know about that," he says, sticking a toothpick in his mouth. "They all totally look like me."
WHILE JACOBS may not be as insecure as he pretends, it took him a long time to gain confidence. He grew up a saddish moppet in Manhattan, with a talent agent father who died when Marc was seven and a mom whom he says dressed like Bree, the prostitute from the film Klute.
She remarried several times, subscribed to Playgirl and Viva, and checked in and out of hospitals. Jacobs was brought up by his grandmother, a stylish biddy with a fab apartment on the Upper West Side. He went to the High School of Art and Design, worked as a shirt folder at a chic boutique and took knitting lessons from his grandmother. He realized he was gay at camp, when he developed a massive crush on his counselor, but knew even earlier he wasn't like the other boys when he stole peeks at his mother's copies of Playgirl. After his grandmother's death, he cut ties to the rest of his family and claims to be "utterly cold" on the subject.
When Jacobs was 15, his uncle, the president of William Morris (where Marc's father had worked), arranged for him to work in the mailroom. "I met an agent who was covering music there, and he would ' get me on guest lists even though I was too young," says Jacobs. "I was too late for Max's, but I loved anything garage-y rough, the Speedies, the Screamers or Gang of Four." He focused on the bands' styles. "I loved the Stones instead of the Beatles because of the way the Stones looked," says Jacobs. "I would get turned on by a band's look first, and once I did, I found I actually liked the music." Jacobs is a huge music fan, and his ad campaigns often feature artists like Meg White and M.I.A. "I still have supercool leather boots that he gave me," says Stephen Malkmus, formerly of Pavement. "They look like something a French guy would wear in the Seventies, the kind of shoes Vincent Gallo is always wearing in his mind."
At Jacobs' senior-year fashion show at Parsons School of Design, his trapezoidal polka-dot sweaters were declared the work of genius and landed him a contract with a young businessman, Robert Duffy (Duffy remains with him today: A friend says that he's the reason "Marc doesn't live in a refrigerator box on the street"). They cast about for a benefactor for five years before landing at Perry Ellis, a famous house that had begun to design in a palette of "greige," as Jacobs calls it. In 1992, during his third season at the company, Jacobs created a collection for Ellis inspired by the Seattle grunge scene — big black boots, satin Birkenstocks, flannel shirts. Le grand monde was aghast, and he was fired. The parent company of Louis Vuitton was not as easily frightened and gave Jacobs backing for his own line, which was an immediate hit. He began to redesign the musty luggage brand, commissioning graffiti artist Stephen Sprouse to play off the famous logo for bags, which cost up to $4,500 and became a jet-set version of Hello Kitty.
Jacobs had been taking drugs and drinking heavily since he was a teenager, but things soon became ugly. "I'd be very drunk in Tokyo with a friend and start a machismo bet over absinthe about who could hold a cigarette to our skin longer," says Jacobs. "Or, when I was taking certain drugs, I would fall asleep holding a cigarette and wake up with burns." After pressure from Duffy, Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell, he went into rehab in 1999 and stayed clean. "I didn't want to go to rehab, at first, because I was high out of my mind," says Jacobs. "Naomi, as someone who struggled with her own demons and problems, was able to take me on." He sighs. "I'm sure the root of my problems goes much further back than before I was successful. When I was younger, all the kids I thought were cool smoked cigarettes, my favorite rock stars were heroin addicts and my favorite writers were taking acid. As a kid, what I thought looked cool was very dark and drug-oriented."
Jacobs didn't take care of himself when he was out of rehab. He chain-smoked, ate poorly and soon developed ulcerative colitis, a stomach ailment involving the chronic inflammation of the large intestine (his father died from complications relating to this disease). "It was really debilitating," says Jacobs. "I was in a lot of pain, and it kept getting worse, with more outbreaks and flare-ups. I lost so much time every day in the bathroom, uncomfortable and ill." He relapsed in 2006, but decided to try a different way to address his problem: He hired a nutritionist who advised a drastic lifestyle change, with no sugar, dairy, coffee or flour, plus exercise, macrobiotic food, a nap and sunshine every afternoon. "Instead of Wendy's five times a day at weird hours, and Coca-Cola after Coca-Cola, now I'm drinking six bottles of water, green vegetable juice and wheat-grass shots with ginger," he says, laughing.
Now he has a trainer named "EZ," to whom he has gifted a gold Rolex. He works out at David Barton Gym two hours a day, seven days a week. "I'm a true addict in every sense of the word," he says. "If something makes me feel good, I want more of it." He smiles. "I ran into Lenny Kravitz last week, and he was like, 'Wow, what are you eating, what are you not eating?'" he says proudly. "He didn't recognize me!" Also, says Jacobs, with a coy grin, "I get a lot of letters about how great I look on MySpace."
LOOKING AT THE SHOPPERS SCOOP-ing up $25 clip-on ties and expensive retro purses at Marc Jacobs' five stores in New York's Greenwich Village on a recent day, it's hard not to think: I'm confused. Are Jacobs' wearers really awkward? Did they really have those glasses back in the Eighties? Or is this just a costume? In hipster fashion today, it's almost impossible to square what is ironic with what is real, your true self and a pose. "There's always been that teenage thing where we want to look like the icon of the moment — boys wanted to look like Brando or Elvis when he was at the peak of his look, girls wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor," says Jacobs. "But today things are different — kids have this quite bold, graphic and 'go for it' style." He cocks his head. "You know, I recently bought these really weird shorts, like MC Hammer pants but shorts. I know where they originated:
They're typical in Morocco. In certain elite circles, people would say to me, 'Why are you wearing those weird Moroccan pants?' Other people ask, 'Why are you wearing those, period?' But kids are like, 'Those are fucking dope pants.' Young people are so open and cool about a superstyle-y attitude."
At Jacobs' ready-to-wear show in September, he constructed intricate pastiches of American sportswear — prairie skirts, metallic motorcycle jackets, magenta crushed-straw hats. The point was emphasized by a soundtrack of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the 1920s mash-up of American musical styles. This is Jacobs' vision of our country today — and for himself as well. His body has become a mash-up, an old guitar case that he's decorating with tattoos of pop culture. He's hoping that the sum of them will be an identity.
"You know, the Strokes have a certain sound, and when their first album came out, it felt, to an older generation that had been around for NewWave, No Wave and all that, that their music was referencing several different bands we remembered from another time," says Jacobs. "But I've heard that Julian [Casablancas] didn't know those bands. He had a vague idea of what that sound was, but he's not a student of it. So many references, older references, are lost on young people. They're part of their subconscious, but they don't really know where they come from, because everything has been so recycled and remixed and remastered."
Have we become so decadent as a culture that our prince of fashion is covering his flesh with dozens of tattoos? And what happens when the fashion flock moves on to the next look — will he be able to scratch them off so easily? A few months ago, Jacobs started dating Lorenzo Martone, an advertising professional, and the gossips started to say that the two of them might get married. "We figured out how it started, and we both laughed about it, but it was difficult for him, because of his career," he says. "I'm realizing that the people I know are hurt by gossip more than I am myself, and I find that really unfair." He even decided to take down his MySpace page. "There were too many dramas over it, and some people were turning into stalkers," says Jacobs. "Plus, there were all these fake pages pretending to be me popping up." He sighs. "I don't want imposter me's around."