Peeling Back Time at Marc by Marc Jacobs

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Sitting front row at a fashion show Tuesday afternoon was designer Marc Jacobs, clad in Adidas track pants and surrounded by famous and powerful friends: Sofia Coppola, Alexa Chung, LVMH executive Delphine Arnault.

The surprise of it was, the show was Jacobs’ own — at least in name. The high-end Marc Jacobs collection, which Jacobs designs, will close New York Fashion Week on Thursday night. But Tuesday, the secondary collection, Marc by Marc Jacobs, was getting its airing, and Jacobs was, for the first time, not in the driver’s seat. (He remains involved as a designer.)

In May, the company announced that the longtime Marc by Marc Jacobs accessories consultant Katie Hillier would assume the mantle of creative director. Hillier in turn brought in Luella Bartley, of the much-missed London label Luella, as design director. Together, they represent the new public face of Marc by Marc, the first time that face had ever been any but Jacobs’ own.

The stakes of such a shift are high. According to the company president, Robert Duffy, Marc by Marc Jacobs represents as much as 70 percent of the business of Marc Jacobs International. It began in 2000 as a more affordable counterpart to Marc Jacobs, an irreverent, youthful gloss on its rebel spirit. But over time, Duffy freely admitted, the sibling line had grown stale.

“I think that we — I know that I — just ignored Marc by Marc to a certain extent because it was successful,” Duffy said, speaking for himself and Jacobs. “We were still working on Louis Vuitton, we were trying to develop cosmetics, we were trying to develop another fragrance, and trying to develop our children’s line. We were working on a lot of different things.”

They have since developed all of the above, and in October, after 16 years, Jacobs and Duffy left their positions as artistic director and studio director at Louis Vuitton in order to focus on the Marc Jacobs brand and, with co-owner LVMH, to prepare for an initial public offering. Part of that preparation entails expansion, which puts Marc by Marc, the family powerhouse, in a central position. It will be, Duffy said, “a new focus.”

That must amount to an atmosphere’s worth of pressure on Hillier and Bartley, but it didn’t show. The dust was effectively shaken from the label, and the presentation had a tough, crackling energy. It suggested a conference of girl gangs at a skate park, with little of the retro varnish of recent collections. From the opening looks, tomboyish racing suits printed with new logo graphics in manga-motocross style, to the last, exaggeratedly bow-tied and tulle-skirted, a new feistiness was evident throughout.

It was “twills and drills and canvas that hark back to the beginnings of Marc by Marc,” Bartley said at a preview a few days before the show. She had gone back to the early days of the line (pieces of which still hang in her closet) to refresh it.

“I always remember that first collection,” she added. “It was a tough nut.”

It appears her post-Luella sabbatical from fashion (“My wilderness years,” she called them, during which she wrote a book, rode and spent time with her partner, fashion photographer David Sims, and their children in Cornwall) did little to disengage her from the fashionable world. “You can’t get too far away from it,” she said. “Even on a horse in the middle of a field.”

She is now back in London, where she and Hillier have set up a small studio. They split their time between London and New York, but Marc by Marc is increasingly an English affair. The shows have always had an English stylist, Venetia Scott; but for this collection the designers brought in Judy Blame to design headbands dangling charms and bits of vinyl record, and Fergus Purcell, a designer for the skate-wear brand Palace, to do the graphics.

It lent a gang’s-all-here feeling to the proceedings that fit the mood of the show. (At the end, the models arranged themselves in like-dressed groups on the wooden risers.)

“I think that’s who we are: little tribes,” Hillier said. “Look at all Marc’s friends. They’re all like that. They’re all different personalities, from Sofia to Kim Gordon and Debbie Harry. That’s a whole gang.”

At the finale, the leaders gave a standing ovation and did something that might be frowned upon in many gangs. “I cried,” Duffy said backstage. “Marc cried, too.”