Jacobs is still awkward, but somehow his awkwardness has made him the coolest of cool kids. In the great high school of the adult world, Jacobs is the gifted artist who suddenly makes the football star look like a milquetoast. He’s the guy who knows about bands and writers and artists before everyone else, with exactly the kind of self-destructive streak that drives everyone around him to adopt a protective stance.
In 1997, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault hired Jacobs, along with his longtime business partner, Robert Duffy, to be creative director at Louis Vuitton, while also underwriting Jacobs’s own eponymous empire. Jacobs’s early tenure at LVMH was legendarily rocky—a tale of simultaneous success and excess. A patron like Arnault was what he’d always wanted. Still, Jacobs had a colossal fear of failure, as well as a deep ambivalence about finding himself on the inside of a culture he’d always coolly critiqued from a booth at a downtown rock show. “It was almost like he wanted the whole thing to disappear because it was just so much,” says his close friend Anna Sui.
He lived as hard as was possible for the creative head of a multi-billion-dollar fashion house, with cocaine and alcohol bingeing nightly. Finally, in 1999, Duffy and other friends persuaded Jacobs to go to rehab. He’s been clean now—if you don’t count nicotine and caffeine—for six years.
Jacobs is responsible for men’s and women’s collections at Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and the lower-priced Marc by Marc Jacobs label. Which means eight full-scale runway productions a year, not to mention the shoes, the bags, the gardenia-scented perfume. There’s a Marc Jacobs home collection, and plans for an even less-expensive collection, too. There are sixteen Marc Jacobs stores open now, with four more set to open soon (Moscow! Dubai! The Palais Royal in Paris!). It’s hard to name another American designer working today who’s as influential as Jacobs. In 1997, prior to Jacobs’s hire, Louis Vuitton’s revenues were $1.2 billion. Last year, they were $3.5 billion—thanks, in part, to Jacobs’s collaboration with Takashi Murakami (pop updates—luscious red cherries, neon logos—on the classic Vuitton pattern), which sold $300 million in handbags. In 2005, Marc Jacobs International has done about $400 million in sales.
There’s a strict line in Jacobs’s mind separating the Marc Jacobs woman from the woman who is very Vuitton. It’s the difference between being a siren and being shy, between finished and fucked-up. It’s the girls he relates to versus those who frighten him a bit—those Tom Ford girls. One need look no further than the company’s two ad campaigns to understand this split personality: Marc Jacobs ads are shot by Juergen Teller and are bleached out, grungy, un-retouched. They feature arty girls who cover up: Sofia Coppola, Rachel Feinstein, Winona Ryder. Vuitton ads are slick and brown, as if brushed with a heavy dose of self-tanner and then aggressively shellacked. They star international sex bombs like Jennifer Lopez and Uma Thurman. It’s hard to believe that the creative head who let loose Cindy Sherman with a makeup box for his eponymous line could find himself buffing J.Lo for Louis Vuitton.
Regarding Bernard Arnault, Jacobs says, “In so many ways, I’ve always felt like this little boy trying to please a father.”
Duffy lowers his voice and narrows his shoulders when he speaks of the ultimate Marc Jacobs muse. “She’s not a wallflower, exactly,” he says, but close to it. Or she’d like people to think she is, in her $4,000 dress and artfully mussed hair. Vuitton is all “hot starlet, homes all over the place, candy shell,” while the Marc Jacobs “girl” (and they always say “girl”) “is not going to suffer. She’s like, ‘I bought a nice dress, and I’m going to wear it tonight.’ She’s the awkward little sister.”
It makes sense that Jacobs has settled on Sofia Coppola as his muse. He brings her up a lot, and always with awe. He even, however slightly, pigeons his toes. To Jacobs, the 34-year-old Oscar-winning director, with her flat chest and skinny legs, is “young and sweet and innocent and beautiful. The epitome of this girl I fantasize of.”
Coppola may be Jacobs’s fantasy girl, but the most important person in his life, through thick and thin—and there have been plenty of earthquakes—is Robert Duffy. He’s part business partner, part brother, part father figure, part soul mate. Jacobs and Duffy met at a dinner thrown by Parsons School of Design, Jacobs’s alma mater, in 1984. “Love”—business love, that is—Duffy says, “at first sight.” Eight years older than Jacobs, Duffy is contained in every way that Jacobs is not: He’s tall, slim, and fastidious, but still happy to slide his feet out of flip-flops and wander his office barefoot. He was looking for a creative partner at the time, and something about Jacobs’s take on fashion clicked with him. “I was taking really expensive cashmere sweaters and shrinking them in the wash,” says Duffy. “I mean, I always thought that someone would pay for that kind of thing.”