And so did Jacobs. The belief that united them was that no one was making high fashion for young, cool people. And so they launched Jacobs Duffy Designs, Inc. out of a small studio in the garment district, while Jacobs consulted for other brands (Iceberg, Kashiyama) to make money. Almost immediately, Jacobs’s aesthetic struck a chord with people in the fashion industry. He made expensive clothes look super-casual (those shrunken cashmere sweaters were priced at $1,200), which, for the time, was particularly novel. What kept Jacobs and Duffy afloat was the support of key people: Anna Wintour, for example, and the buying teams at Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s, which both began placing big orders. Models like Naomi, Christy, Linda would walk his runway for free.
But when it came to selling the clothes, they were plagued with the kind of disasters common to young, poorly financed companies: late deliveries, thefts, fires.
Somehow, Jacobs and Duffy decided to stick it out. “It better have happened,” says Duffy about his success. “There has never been one moment when I thought we would fail. So now it’s our moment and all I can say is, this better have happened. This is really, finally, our moment.”
In 1986, the designer Perry Ellis died, and that company’s attempts to promote two in-house assistants to the top design job proved disastrous. In 1988, acting on fashion-industry buzz, Perry Ellis hired Jacobs as creative director, and Duffy as president. Finally, they had the money and infrastructure they’d been dying for, even if it meant designing under another name.
It was hardly a smooth ride: Jacobs finally got what he wanted, and he was mortified; the fear fueled a bad drug habit and, as Jacobs puts it, “an awful lot of drinking.”
However afraid of failure, he never played it safe design-wise, exploring the ideas that have since become his signature: looking backward for inspiration, a sense of irony and wit, and the tendency—so familiar now, so remarkable then—to represent street clothes on the runway. Jacobs was in love with rock and roll—“the throwaway attitude of it,” says Anna Sui—and that was there, too.
In 1992, Jacobs showed a landmark collection, one that people still marvel over thirteen years later. Jacobs was into grunge, and he decided to put it on the runway: flannel shirts, thermals (his reimagined in cashmere, a Jacobs signature to this day), Doc Martens, layers and layers, all of it topped with a little crocheted skullcap.
The press was smitten. The powers at Perry Ellis, however, were not. Jacobs and Duffy were fired shortly thereafter—the executives weren’t convinced women would pay a lot of money for clothes that looked, as Jacobs has always been so fond of describing things, “a little fucked-up.”
Jacobs and Duffy rented a store on Mercer Street but couldn’t afford to do anything but leave it empty—and both were approached nonstop with job offers. “The best advice I ever got was that we should stay together,” Duffy says. He mortgaged his house for a second time. “Marc would’ve, too,” Duffy says, “but he didn’t have a house. We just kept thinking, This is how our friends dress, and we can’t be that crazy.”
The call came in 1996: Jacobs was in Italy working on the Iceberg collection, and Duffy picked up the phone to find Bernard Arnault on the line. He was in a wildly acquisitive mode: matchmaking hip designers to old French houses—he had John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Narciso Rodriguez at Loewe.
Arnault wanted to meet Jacobs and Duffy, to see their clothes. “I didn’t even bother telling Marc about it at first,” Duffy says. But soon the two were flown to Paris, where Arnault brought up the top jobs at Christian Dior and Givenchy. “We didn’t want to have to follow another designer; we’d done that at Perry Ellis,” Duffy explains. Duffy suggested Louis Vuitton, which, though internationally famous for its handbags, had no ready-to-wear.
Negotiations lasted eighteen months. Arnault at first didn’t want Duffy, and he didn’t always want to finance Jacobs’s own line. But without backing for the Marc Jacobs label, Jacobs and Duffy weren’t interested. Eventually, Arnault agreed to cough up a relatively small amount. “It was like they said, ‘Let’s just do this to shut them up,’ ” Duffy says. LVMH put up the money ($140,000) needed to open the Mercer Street store and produce the clothes and a few shows. LVMH now owns 96 percent of Marc Jacobs International, the holding company, and has a one-third stake in the trademark.
It hasn’t been an easy relationship. Duffy has often clashed with the Marc Jacobs CEOs installed by LVMH, and as a result they have been replaced almost annually. And as Duffy and Jacobs struggled constantly to keep up LVMH’s interest and cash flow in Marc Jacobs, they also complained that their personal salaries (under a million each) were way too low.