It takes patience and passion to head the creative arm of the world’s most profitable fashion house. Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan talks to Marc Jacobs to find out more
“OKAY, five only. Come up now. One, two, three... Sit here, form a small group,” said the usher, rather hurriedly and impatiently, as we were shown a comfortable spot inside a train.
This was the Louis Vuitton Express, a blue and gold carriage that caused quite a stir when it stopped at The Louvre in Paris during Paris Fashion Week early this year.
In July, the coach was recreated in Shanghai where artistic director Marc Jacobs, 49, re-enacted the show, in the brand’s attempt to woo the affluent Chinese market, all ready and revved up to spend on luxury goods.
Seated next to us was Jacobs himself, smiling and laughing, in between receiving praises about the just concluded 15-minute glamorous show that saw models and porters parading the house’s latest luxury garments and carriers.
He gave a post-show interview to the Asian print media from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. So there we were, waiting, while everyone else asked for a moment of his time.
“Marc, can we take a photo?” asked one of a pack of photographers.
“Photo?” Jacobs repeated and obliged, sitting cross-legged, his back resting on the train window.
You could see from his frequent squints that he was uncomfortable with the blinding flashes targeted at his eyes but the smile never left his face.
They asked for a different shot and he stuck out his tongue in jest. He needed to make light of the situation. Fame and attention, which he is very much a part of, can be intrusive and discomforting. Such is life as a fashion designer.
DESIGNED FOR DIFFICULTY
Beneath the glitz of fashion ads and the glamour of red carpets is the constant demand of modern consumers to see fashion houses rolling out main collections every six months — excluding special collections, Pre-fall and Cruise.
Couple that with the need to sell clothes and ring up sales to impress profit-oriented shareholders, that clash that puts commerce over creativity often stresses these artists.
Balancing artistic work and churning money is a tall order. Some fashion houses either went out of business over the years or were sold to other companies for failing to meet this balance.
Many believed the conflict also led to the tragic suicide of Alexander McQueen, one of the most creative artists to grace British fashion.
But that night, in the stillness of the air at the impressive The Bund, Shanghai’s stylish focal point, Jacobs had nothing but positivity oozing out of him.
He described working for the French house, a job he has had since 1997, “a dream came true, a dream that I have had since I was a kid”.
He wore a midnight blue suit, perfectly cut for someone of his standing. His tie was polka dot, a nod to Yayoi Kusama’s collaboration with the house which saw Louis Vuitton’s boutiques’ windows being invaded with spots.
His oxfords were polished. He was very conservatively dressed, nothing like the Comme des Garcons lace shirt dress he wore to the Costume Institute Gala in New York in May.
He was elated. His boss, LVMH chief executive officer Bernard Arnault, sat in the front row of the show. The night before, they entertained stars and guests at the opening of the brand’s first megastore, or maison, in China.
“I love the show. My team and I are very proud of it, the clothes and the ambience. We wanted to come to Shanghai with a gift that we think will entertain people. I want to make people dream a little bit, think about where they can go, how glamorous they can be and how they can express themselves through clothing,” he said of the show which featured brocade coats with oversized jewelled buttons and feathered hats.
He might not give substantial quotes — what comes out of his mouth are descriptions much like a fashion release. He uses words like amazing, craftsmanship and luxury repeatedly.
But he knows how to give safe, politically correct answers and understands the power of a smile.
With 15 years in the hot seat — Louis Vuitton is the most profitable fashion brand on the planet — he is used to the excessive attention lavished on him. If he is uncomfortable with it, he doesn’t let it show.
In person, the diminutive designer is soft spoken and attentive. He looks you in the eyes and is willing to answer questions he must’ve heard million of times before.
Tonight, he talked about craftsmanship as the house veers toward couture-like clothes — brocade, embroidery and beading.
He felt that focusing on craft is a natural progression in his design. “When you learn something, you always have to learn something else. You have to give yourself a new challenge and you have to have curiosity about doing something.
“We learn about craft and we have been spending more and more time developing fabrics and learning embroidery techniques,” he says.
“We have amazing ateliers in Paris and we have people who do that (craft) because they love it so much. So to not take advantage of all the skills and all the craftsmanship is a shame.”
But that said, Jacobs says his style won’t be repetitive. “I think we won’t tell the same story next time, maybe there won’t be the embroidery in the same way, but there will be a lot of work because that’s something you find in France, in
Italy — this genuine appreciation of luxury and desire for design, fabrication and make,” he says.
When it comes to the breakneck speed of the fashion industry, Jacobs understands that a designer is as good as his last collection.
Success and failure must be treated equally. One mustn’t dwell on them too much. “There are ups and down, yes, but you’ll get over them. In fashion, you have to do a show every six months.
He says: “What remains is that I work with a great group of people. This is an amazing company, I have an amazing design team, the most incredible ateliers and we are all super passionate.
“We all have good and bad days and sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. But we come in the next day and we try again and we keep going and that’s what real passion is.
“That’s what integrity is and that’s what you can never take away.”
Despite the clothes being regal and lavish, Jacobs maintains that only the show is a fantasy. The clothes are wearable.
“These are real clothes in the store, objects of luxury for people to enjoy,” he says.
The usher walked towards us. “Okay, thank you. Please leave the train now,” he insisted.
We obliged and took our recorders. Our interview was hardly four minutes long.
Behind us was a group of TV reporters about to start their interview. Jacobs must’ve not known that there was another slot. “What, another one?” he asked.
I suppose he took a deep breath, put on a smile and went ahead answering questions from another set of reporters.
In a world with an endless and insatiable obsession about fashion, clothes, luxury brands and celebrities, a fashion designer is a star in his own right but fame is a double-edged sword.
But there’s nothing patience and a smile can’t fix.
Ride of your life
ONE of most dramatic shows in recent years, the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2012 show featured Louis Vuitton Express, from where impeccably dressed models descended and paraded the clothes.
It paid tribute to the popular mode of travelling of the 19th and early 20th Centuries when trains connected countries and continents.
The clothes were impressive. Beaded coats were decorated with jewel-like buttons and colourful stones were sewn on coats and pants.
Shoes were sky-high platforms with stone buckles and carriers were sequined and beaded.
American wonder boy in Paris
• Marc Jacobs graduated from New York’s Parsons School of Design in 1984, with a host of prizes including Design Student of the Year Award.
• Four years later, at 25, he joined fashion house Perry Ellis, placing him in the major league of designers.
• Uninhibited from the start, Jacobs made a grunge collection for the brand, breaking from conventional fashion dictates.
• The collection received rave reviews and started the craze for low-rise jeans. But his ideas came too early for consumers to accept, and he was fired from his job.
• In 1997, he was appointed artistic director for Louis Vuitton when the French brand wanted to diversify into ready-to-wear. He has held the position since.
• He has collaborated with artists like Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince which produced sell-out carriers like the Eye Love and Cherry Monogram Canvas.
(Source: Louis Vuiton Marc Jacobs, edited by Pamela Golbin)
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