Born: New York City, New York, 1964. Education: Graduated from Parsons School of Design, New York, 1984. Career: Designer, Sketchbook label, for Ruben Thomas Inc., New York, 1984-85; managed own firm, 1986-88; named vice president for womenswear, Perry Ellis, 1988; head designer, Perry Ellis, New York, 1989-93, Marc Jacobs, from 1994; Marc Jacobs Look, distributed by Mitsubishi and Renown Look, 1996; opened Marc Jacobs Boutique in SoHo, New York, 1997; artistic director, Louis Vuitton, from 1997; designed Stain Boy t-shirt to benefit Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, 2000; introduced Marc, line of mid-priced sportswear, 2001. Awards: Parsons School of Design Perry Ellis Golden Thimble award, 1984; Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1988; Womenswear Designer of the Year award, 1992, 1998. Address: 163 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10012, USA. Website: www.marcjacobs.com .
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Marc Jacobs was from the start a fashion legend, a prodigy of mythical talent, tribulation, and triumph who attained unequivocal success and authority. The legend is indisputably true, but the clothing tells a similar and instructive story in which a special genius is realized—encyclopedic in its sources, poignantly romantic, remarkably sophisticated, and yet impudent and joyous. Through a succession of labels and collections, Jacobs has consistently demonstrated a strong personal sensibility and has altered the history of clothing forever.
Jacobs' first collection was hand-knit sweaters produced by Charivari, the New York clothing store where he worked as stock boy. Fatefully, those sweaters earned him the Perry Ellis Golden Thimble award at Parsons. Upon graduation in 1984, he designed Sketchbook for Ruben Thomas through the fall of 1985. There he created a memorable collection based on the film Amadeus. In 1986 he began designing his own label, first with backing from Jack Atkins and later from Onward Kashiyama.
In late 1988, Jacobs was named vice president for womenswear at Perry Ellis, succeeding Patricia Pastor, who had worked with and succeeded Ellis. Along the way, there were Homeric afflictions and distress, ranging from a major theft at the Ruben Thomas showroom to a fire that gutted his Kashiyama studio and destroyed his fall 1988 collection and fabrics two months before showings. The appointment at Perry Ellis was, of course, only another trial for the 25-year-old designer. As Peggy Edersheim wrote in Manhattan, Inc., "Instead of staying one step ahead of the bill collector, he now has to worry about keeping up with Calvin Klein," a prodigious challenge in leadership for one of the principal sportswear houses in America. Jacobs, however, made a great critical success of Perry Ellis, reinstilling the firm with the bountiful energy and excitement of its founder.
Significantly, Jacobs' works reflected the design skills of Ellis before him. Jacobs did not perpetuate Ellis, but expanded on fundamental traits. For example, Ellis' imaginative palette was hauntingly revived in Jacobs' work, including extraordinary colors of fall in ocher, pumpkin, plum, camel, and rust, renewing the vitality of the Ellis spectrum. In fall 1991, Jacobs showed a grape princess coat over a brown cardigan, and a tangerine car coat with a butterscotch sweater and trousers with complete coloristic self-confidence. Ellis' sensuous fabrics were transmuted into Jacobs' hallmark sophistication: cashmere, camel, wool and angora, and mohair were soft, sumptuous materials.
Jacobs returns again and again to a basic vocabulary of design, treating each new interpretation of stripes, American flag, tartan, or gingham with a renewing luxury. His tailoring is also refined, returning to such classics as a Norfolk jacket or the eight-button double-breasted camel wool flannel suit for fall 1990 that appeared on the front page of Women's Wear Daily.
Jacobs' special interests include homages to other designers he admires in addition to Ellis. His "hugs" sequined dress of 1985 remembered Schiaparelli, and his spring 1990 English sycamore sequined short sheath "for Perry Ellis" was a touching tribute of the workroom and showroom environment of Perry Ellis, with its silver accents on blond sycamore. Jacobs has long loved the 1960s and returned not only in the early sweaters with happy faces but also in his voluminous mohair balloon sweaters for fall 1989. Suzy Menkes, reviewing his first collection at Perry Ellis, noted, "Jacobs' own-label collections have also been all-American, but much less innocent— celebrations of Miami Beach kitsch, sendups of the 1960s hippies and wacky versions of patchwork and down-home gingham."
New York-bred and street-smart, Jacobs is nimbly, naturally witty with a sliver of cynicism blended into his clothing. A spring 1990 redand-white tablecloth cotton shirt and jacket was accompanied by embroidered and beaded black ants; his early "Freudian slip" was a simple dress imprinted with the face of the Viennese master; fall 1991 showed sweaters with aphorisms borrowed from the tart embroideries of Elsie de Wolfe. Language, too, cropped up even in Jacobs' fall 1990 "fresh berries and cream" collection that included blueberry herringbone patterns on a cream field in wool jackets and the same design in short chiffon flirt skirts. His spring 1992 collection, focused on the Wild West and Southern California, was a smart synthesis of Hollywood glamor (including an Oscar? dress with the Academy Award? statue) and boot-stomping country-and-western cowgirls, a perfect combination of rodeo and Rodeo Drive.
For spring 1993 Jacobs introduced his now legendary "grunge" collection with flowered silk little-girl dresses paired with combat boots and $300 silk shirts printed to look like flannel. Though the sensational collection never made it into retail stores, it was highly regarded for its trendsetting individualism by the fashion press. But Perry Ellis executives discontinued their designer clothing lines shortly thereafter, trying to maintain their more tailored reputation rather than embracing Jacobs' more unconventional designs. This transition helped launch Marc Jacobs International, guided by long-time business partner Robert Duffy, and ultimately paved the way for Jacobs to take a position as artistic director for Louis Vuitton.
Prior to taking the prestigious post, however, Jacobs' designs gradually progressed from unconventional cool to urban couture. "His early work was characterized by a certain amount of high-concept whimsy but his designs in recent years have grown sleeker and subtler," wrote Zoe Heller of the New Yorker in 1997. Well-tailored striped pantsuits, knee-length skirts, and calf-length double-breasted satin coats were featured in his 1970s-inspired spring 1994 collection. A fitted wool jacket topped a silk floral dress, and jeweled cashmere cardigans framed taffeta slip dresses in his successful spring 1996 collection. Then in 1997, when 146-year-old luggage and handbag company Louis Vuitton decided to expand, luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH (which includes Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Christian Lacroix, and Louis Vuitton) chose Jacobs as its artistic director. His mission was to design a full line of ready-to-wear fashions for the first time.
Jacobs' designs for Louis Vuitton began with secret LV logos hidden beneath buttons, hems, and soles of shoes. Then came Damier-print pony-skin slingbacks, patent leather-embossed Bernis bags in Crayola hues, and stiff raincoats and trenches splattered with tiny LVs. "Jacobs has taken the house's signature and gone native," wrote Sally Singer in Vogue (February 2000). For spring 2000, Jacobs offered simple pleated trousers in lightweight wool adorned with bead-lined pockets and "fabulous swirly prints in 1960s colors that transform a low-key office dress into a sexy diva frock," according to Singer.
His fall 2001 menswear collection for Louis Vuitton broke through trends once again when Jacobs snubbed the widespread military theme. Instead he dressed the "neo-romantic gentleman" in black leather pea coats with red trimmed buttonholes and bold stripy shirts worn under high-necked sweatshirts. His fall/winter 2001-2002 womenswear collection was "sheer perfection," according to Dana Thomas of the Fashion Windows website, writing in August 2001. Reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy during her White House years, small fitted jackets had cropped sleeves and there were bell skirts, princess coats, and soft empire-waist dresses. Fabrics included cotton flannel, silk twill, denim, jersey, and sealskin. Striking details like mink-covered buttons and sexy leather lace-up boots finished off the collection.
For Jacobs' own line, the fall 2001 season portrayed girlish innocence dressed in elegance and sophistication. The crowdpleasers were cashmere coats using oversized, childlike buttons, colorful trompe l'oeil lapels, yellow mohair and sequin coats, and edgy jersey dresses. And as if four lines of clothing weren't enough, Jacobs debuted his Marc collection in 2001, creating a lineup for his creased front, hip-hugging jeans. For fall, the Marc line included heavily-buttoned military coats mixed with multiple tiered skirts, pink and yellow striped jeans, and graffiti sweatshirts.
"Talents like Mr. Jacobs have become exceptional," wrote Amy Spindler of the New York Times. "He has become the most consistently strong, individualistic, real, live, kicking designer in New York." The legend of fashion prodigy is probably inseparably attached to Jacobs; that he has performed prodigiously as a leading master of American style in an immediate and seamless transition is indeed a marvel.
updated by Jodi Essey-Stapleton