And yet nothing has created a greater stir than his startling new look. Where he once had long greasy locks and the pallor of a shut-in, he now, at 45, has an iridescent blue crop, honking Harry Winston diamond studs, a gallery of tattoos, and a painstakingly ripped bod. After years of hiding in baggy sweatshirts while contemplating the beauty of others—of pondering any human facade but his own—Jacobs has discovered the consuming joy of narcissism. It's his new addiction. Some would say, his midlife crisis.
“I don't feel like I'm in crisis, and I don't know that it's the middle of my life,” Jacobs says, looking a little like Jeff Goldblum circa The Fly—large, dark, worried eyes weirdly belied by a dome physique. It's a measure of how closely he is watched and the stir he has caused that even a self-described attention whore like Jacobs is starting to weary of the scrutiny. “Why is there this division all of a sudden between people in support of me and people against me? How did this happen? I haven't done anything to anybody! I look at Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano—everybody has their shtick. And just because this wasn't my shtick two years ago, it's a problem.”
As Jacobs tells it, before now he simply had no budget in his psyche for self-maintenance: “I didn't care what I looked like, because I knew I'd be on the floor picking up pins or drawing all day.” It's a Friday afternoon in his cluttered, loftlike office in SoHo where boxes of Wheat Thins are stashed next to packs of Marlboro Lights and cheapo lighters. His hair juts like a Mohawk—the effect is thrusting, roosterish, in contrast to the Pre-Raphaelite languor of the long-haired Marc Jacobs in the photo on the wall behind him. “I thought, Who cares about my appearance? They only care about what I'm making.”
Then he got the existential bitch-slap of ulcerative colitis, the disease that led to his father's death when Jacobs was only 7. A nutritionist, Lindsey Duncan, recommended a monastic diet—no flour, dairy, sugar, or caffeine—as well as exercise. Jacobs was so enamored of the results he made the regimen his religion.
“The thing I love about the gym is not having to make choices,” he notes. “My trainer says, 'You're gonna lift this; you're gonna do that ten times.' Okay, great—just tell me what to do and I'll do it. It's the same thing with my nutritionist. All I have to do is follow instructions. I love that. This is not about 'Would it be better in red or blue?' There isn't a lot of abstract, circular thinking involved. And it's great. Those times are really nice for me.”
Because it's hard being the decider—the face of a $5 billion business, the guy whose whims about pants width and buttons and colors can create an enormously lucrative global ripple. It's hard being him. Torture, actually, much of the time.
for years now, the Jacobs universe has been where everyone wanted to be. It radiates from that simple, ubiquitous sans-serif logo—a guilelessness, a downtown ease that never postures or preens. Consider the Jacobs signatures—retro cardigans and high-water pants with trainers for guys who look like they've actually read a book; slouchy, deconstructed sweaters worn with long, bulky skirts and flats for girls who don't lead with their tits. The statement-making bags, the glamorizing of grunge, the pairing of fashion and anime.... If Ralph Lauren is a lifestyle, Marc Jacobs is an ethos. With his pitch-perfect instincts—say, using laconic, large-nosed Sofia Coppola in grainy, era-defining ads—he exerts an almost messianic pull.
But how can he be both a messiah and a mess? How can an industry titan, the most important person in fashion, be so fragile? Or is the fragility endemic to the success, the very thing that keeps us so riveted?
For a fixture in the haughtiest of worlds, Jacobs is curiously grounded about his work—he bristles when what he does is referred to as art. Whereas his competitors shroud themselves in mystique, Jacobs serves up his flaws and insecurities like canapés. “There are those gray, rainy days where it's sad and you just think, God, I'm so lonely and it's such a big world and there's so much to do,” he says. According to Jacobs's business partner of twenty-five years, Robert Duffy, “Marc is a very emotional person, and he takes his work extremely seriously. Some days it's hard and some days it's not—it depends on his mood swings. I don't know if you've ever worked with a drug addict,” Duffy tells me over the phone while Jacobs sketches a shoe a few feet away. “Even though he's been in recovery now for a while, it's not an easy process. There's the continual process of staying sober.”
Jacobs's father was an agent at William Morris and his mother a receptionist. (His uncle was the president of the company, and Jacobs worked in the legendary mailroom during high school.) When I ask him what he remembers about his father, he rests his chin in his hand and stares off. There was a trip to Puerto Rico, to the circus... And then he was gone. Thus began a chaotic period of power dating and failed marriages for his mother.
Naturally, it's the clothes he remembers best. “I hate the term 'bad taste,' but my mother wasn't, like, a very chic person,” he says. “Jane Fonda in Klute was definitely one of her role models, much to my father's dismay. But when I'd watch my mother getting dressed up to go out on dates and she'd be putting on three rows of false eyelashes and some hideous fox-trimmed brocade coat with a wet-look miniskirt and knee-high boots, I thought she was fabulous.”
The feeling wouldn't last. After she relocated to be with one husband or another, Jacobs went to live with his grandmother in Manhattan, where he attended the High School of Art and Design. At a certain point he cut ties to his mother, as well as to his brother and sister, both of whom, he says, couldn't be less like him. Jacobs says they reached out some years ago—to borrow money. “But that's just a little detail from a story that's way more complicated,” he notes.
I cast around, trying to figure out what could have happened. Did they have a problem with his being gay? I ask.
Jacobs scoffs at the suggestion—as if it were anything that simple.
Not that he didn't struggle with his sexuality, with “being the only kid in a big group that doesn't want to play football and buy stereos and drive cars. When I went to sleepaway camp, I just kind of wanted to sit there and make an ashtray or do a lanyard necklace or paint my jeans,” he says. “And then to stand there and not be chosen for a baseball team—it's like, force me to do something and then don't choose me to do it. Okay, what am I supposed to enjoy about that process? How am I supposed to feel good about myself with all that going on?”
Clothes promised deliverance from all that, and Jacobs became obsessed with the possibilities. “I'd look at my babysitter and her boyfriend and long to be at an age where I could wear what they were wearing,” he says. Clothes had the stirring, transformative power of music—of rock, punk, and particularly grunge. “There was a beaten-down glamour about the whole thing,” Jacobs says, “something so kind of romantic and beautiful.”
In 1992, Jacobs, as vice president of women's design at Perry Ellis, conjured a daring ode to grunge—Seattle plaids in silk and waffle shirts in cashmere. Though the show was a commercial failure and quickly got him and Duffy fired, the collection was a Jacobs landmark in the way it mined a cultural moment and turned alienation into something sort of beautiful. In 1997, Jacobs and Duffy were named artistic director and studio director, respectively, of the musty luxury-goods house Louis Vuitton, the chief perk of which was that parent company LVMH agreed to bankroll a line bearing Jacobs's name.
Since then, the two have quadrupled Vuitton's business, thanks to pure-Jacobs masterstrokes that signaled a new exuberance for the century-old house, like collaborating with the artist Takashi Murakami on a line of leather goods at the height of our collective fetish for all things Japan; Murakami's candied, anime take on Vuitton's stately brown logo spurred $300 million in sales in 2003. (Jacobs, the minister at the lucrative marriage of fashion and art, has collaborated on another line of bags with kitsch-appropriator Richard Prince.)
I find myself wondering if the ultimate revenge on a tacky mother is to become a worldwide fashion icon, though the theory would surely leave Jacobs cold. He is also blasé on the subject of his success, but he's very clear on the role his own difficulties have played. Clothes, really, were the only thing he loved during a bleak and fractured childhood. “The pain,” he says, “is proportionate to the pleasure.”
I ask Jacobs if he's ever curious about his mother—where she is, what she's doing now. “Not at all,” he says mordantly. “Utterly cold on the subject. I never believed that idea that you're supposed to love the members of your family. I hate the idea of obliged feelings—I just think that's a huge waste of time. But I've had enough conversations with people to realize that I'm the oddball in this category. I can't think of anyone as detached from their family as I am. Or as detached as I say I am.”
it's thursday morning at New York's David Barton Gym, where Jacobs is starting his day in the usual way: with a two-and-a-half-hour workout. Small and wiry, he rolls up on the balls of his feet as he moves from one end of the gym floor to another, greeting strangers, inviting scrutiny.
Closely tended by his trainer, Eric “Easy” Forlines, Jacobs grabs a pair of metal rings on the biceps machine, stares deeply into Easy's eyes, and pulls down hard.
“Exercising is fun—the best part of my day,” Jacobs says with effort. “I'm such a catastrophic thinker that when anything happens, I figure I better just live life to the fullest—buy a diamond necklace, get another tattoo, work out with Easy.”
Between sets, they compare new tattoos—Easy's got a Smith & Wesson revolver on his flank, while Jacobs reveals a midcentury-style couch, of all things, a couple of inches long, on the taut, tanned skin above his hip bone.
On the street after the workout, they swig protein drinks while reminiscing about the time they met, a year and a half ago, after a mutual hairstylist friend suggested they do so. At the time, the name Marc Jacobs meant little to Easy.
“Because my name wasn't Dolce or Gabbana, he had no idea who I was,” snarks Jacobs, crouching in a tweed Dior coat and a tangerine cashmere scarf, huddled like a regular around his Marlboro Light—his last vice since swearing off everything from heroin to absinthe years ago.
By the time they met, Jacobs was already dieting. “I never saw the bigger Marc,” Easy says, behind aviator shades etched with mj, a Louis Vuitton gym bag at his feet.
“The fat guy that I kicked?” says Jacobs.
“The fat guy that we'd beat up if we saw him on the street,” Easy laughs.
“The soft, blubbery Marc Jacobs,” says Marc Jacobs.
Over the course of their relationship, Easy has seen the Jacobs evolution up close. “The contact lenses were a big part,” he says. “Then the hair got shorter and shorter. Then it got really short, and he's like, 'Damn, it looks good.' Then the bling started happening. I was all for it. I said, 'Dawg, you're a superfamous fashion designer—like, what about some bling? Let's do it!' I can't do it, so I live vicariously through all the awesome jewelry that he has.”
“Nooo, you get some,” Jacobs notes.
Easy hesitates, then offers his wrist, which boasts a gold Rolex—a birthday present from Jacobs. On the back, it's inscribed love you dawg, mj. “I'm really proud of it,” Easy says quietly.
Then Jacobs holds up his own wrist, revealing the same watch, but with a black face. They put them together like power bracelets.
“We're BFFs,” says Jacobs, glancing at Easy—so grateful for a sherpa in the foreign land of self-love.
Jacobs is what you might call a framily man; lacking any meaningful blood ties, he's put himself in the hands of Team Jacobs (Easy, Dr. Duncan, his shrink, Duffy—even the chauffeur he affectionately refers to as “my boss”). He forges tight, obsessive relationships with people who can handle his compulsive need to share, the residue of years of therapy. Proponents of that work know it's all good, whatever “it” may be. Express it, get it out there, own it. Taking on Jacobs means taking on his...stuff, which includes falling off the wagon from time to time and trying to make it work with his club-loving sometime boyfriend, Jason Preston, who is seventeen years younger and has Jacobs's name inked the full length of his forearm.
Later in the afternoon, Jacobs is in the backseat of his silver Mercedes jeep, checking e-mails. We've just come from a few galleries in Chelsea, where red carpets are all but rolled out when he arrives. Jacobs's becoming a serious collector in recent years has coincided neatly with a roaring surge in the art market, although perhaps we shouldn't be surprised; pieces by John Currin, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, and Ed Ruscha fill his Paris duplex (his primary residence). Typically, it was the scene, not the work, that first drew him to art. “Maybe it's the same bullshit and politics,” Jacobs says, “maybe it's the same lies, but because it's not my world, it seemed great and amusing and beautiful, and I felt like the lives of these artists were so charmed.”
We arrive at the Mercer Hotel, where Jacobs lives when he's in New York. Before lunch we sit on the bench outside so he can enjoy a cigarette, Jacobs crunched up on the bench absentmindedly riveted by the footwear of virtually every passerby. Conversation turns to his ever growing collection of tattoos. When I ask the significance of getting a bright yellow SpongeBob on his biceps, a scene from Poltergeist between his shoulder blades, and of course, that couch, Jacobs pretty much shrugs—the images just struck him in the moment. He couldn't care less about the disfiguring permanence. When people say, “What about when you're 80?”—as in, how's that couch gonna look then?—he says, “I don't know if I'm even going to get to be 80. And who would want to see me at 80, anyway? But maybe somebody will—and maybe they'll be tattooed, too.”
This constant, almost compulsive tinkering with his appearance—I wonder where he'll draw the line. What about Botox and plastic surgery? I ask.
“I've learned at this point to never say never to anything,” Jacobs says. “I look at Tom [Ford] and he looks great. Whatever he's doing works for him. And I don't know if he does anything, but I'm not opposed. Whatever makes me feel good, I want more of. If work is going well, I want to do more clothes. If the gym thing is working for me, I want to be bigger. If getting my hair cut makes me look younger, I want to play with the color. So I could see myself slipping down that road so quickly.” He's already had a little work done on his nose, an approximation of the swelling that resulted when he ran into a glass door. “It got so swollen here,” he says, indicating the bridge, “and I thought, This is so hot.”
Twisting and slouching in the restaurant's banquette now, his shirt riding up to reveal a strip of diligently worked abdomen, Jacobs looks hungry—not for a meal, but for contact, connection, recognition. He scans the room—surely there must be someone he knows.... Superstar hairstylist Oribe has already come and gone; is there not a stranger here who'd care to drop by? Getting up to go have another cigarette, Jacobs turns to the woman at the next table.
“Nice dress,” he says.
“It's yours,” she replies.
“I know!” he says, delighted.
Lunch is grilled salmon, with a side of supplements and antioxidants. “He's never been such a healthy eater, although he still smokes five packs of cigarettes with all that healthy food,” says Duffy, who is as devoted to Jacobs as he is realistic. “There have been many times in the course of our relationship that he's been clean and sober—it's not my first time around the block with that, with him.”
That said, it's a long way from the days of being drunk enough to win a contest over who can hold a lit cigarette against the skin the longest, of getting kicked o planes because he'd passed out in the bathroom. Chalk it up to appallingly low self-esteem, the kind that comes from not having a parent repeatedly telling you you're the shit.
“I'd walk in a room and all I'd think about is, How many people in this room hate me right now?” Jacobs says. “They think I'm ugly, or whatever. It was the idea of not living in the moment, of thinking you can control results by your actions, of not feeling good-looking enough, not tall enough, not clever enough—I guess that's how I've felt pretty much most of my life.”
Hence the clothes that so viscerally appeal to anyone who's ever feinted, or compensated, or didn't quite fit; anyone who, like Jacobs, abhors the idea of popular, mandated notions of what's sexy or cool. But now that he's in lockstep with the gym rats, worshipping surfaces, using Posh Spice to sell clothes...now what? Shouldn't we all feel a little betrayed? In what sense does Jacobs, who once decried the idea of “oozing sexuality” as being too overt, too obvious, not now ooze sexuality?
“It's still only a facade,” he says. “I'm still the same person. My sex life, my sexual interests, my libido, are exactly the same as they always were. It hasn't changed my wiring or my instincts.” Which is to say, Jacobs is flaunting his stuff like he always has. It may look different—and it may look different still six months from now—but it's the same impulse, the same cri de coeur, from a stubbornly neurotic genius, who turns it all into the best clothes in town. As a shrink surely told him somewhere along the line, redemption is in admitting what you're up to.
“It's like saying, 'I want to look hot.' That is such a dumb thing to say,” Jacobs notes. “But what's so cool about it is that you can say it. Yeah, I want a bunch of muscle queens at David Barton Gym to think that my body looks dope. And I might think that was an awkward and dumb thing to say, but I still like that I'll throw it out there. Because it's true, you know?”