How Marc Jacobs Fell Out of Fashion

Posted June 1, 2018 8:17 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Monday night, when some of fashion’s biggest names gather at the Brooklyn Museum for the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America awards — often called the Oscars of the fashion world — a familiar figure will again be celebrated: Marc Jacobs. He is nominated for the group’s top award, womenswear designer of the year, as he has been every year since 2013, winning in 2016. He was awarded the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

Those accolades, and the continuing presence of Jacobs on the annual list of the fashion industry’s most creatively successful designers, may come as a bit of a puzzle to anyone who has followed his career the past few years.

There was a time that Jacobs identified and attracted a new urban woman, one who mixed downtown attitude and uptown glamour. Celebrities like Sofia Coppola and Winona Ryder embodied the look, and not only wore Jacobs’ clothes (along with what was widely considered the “it” bag of mid-2000s) but also became his muses, the cool girls of the red carpet.

Now, there is a sense that Jacobs has lost his way. With turnover at the top and a designer who himself has suggested he no longer understands what customers want, the label is turning out clothes and accessories that lack a compelling point of view, failing to generate the excitement created by younger peers like Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra.

During an earnings call with investors in January 2017, while responding to questions about the business environment during the Trump presidency, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH, which owns a controlling stake in the fashion house, said, “I’m more concerned about Marc Jacobs than the U.S. president.” Later that year, the company’s chief financial officer, Jean-Jacques Guiony, said that Marc Jacobs was “probably one of the few negative performances we have in the group,” and shortly afterward LVMH shut down the label’s small menswear business as a cost-cutting measure.

In a recent interview, Luca Solca, the head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas, estimated that Marc Jacobs had been losing more than 50 million euros, or about $61 million, annually, for the past few years, with flat revenues over that time period.

In 2015, in what now looks like a telling moment, Marc Jacobs folded its popular, lower-priced Marc by Marc Jacobs line. The move baffled many fashion insiders because only two years earlier highly regarded British designers Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier were ceremoniously brought in to revamp the contemporary label. (“A little piece of our heart broke last week when we heard the news,” Refinery29, the fashion website, lamented when reports about the label’s closing became public.)

The company has also closed dozens of stores in the past few years, both in Europe and New York, including a near-decimation of the stretch of Bleecker Street once called “MarcLand” because of the ubiquity of the designer’s various shops. The quintessential New York fashion label now has no flagship in the city beyond a modest boutique in SoHo. Bookmarc, the one remaining Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker Street, sells books and branded trinkets.

As concerning as the store closings are, the corporate turmoil at the label is perhaps more troubling. In addition to the departures of Bartley and Hillier, and the layoffs of the majority of its European staff, there was the exit of Robert Duffy, widely regarded as the “driving force” behind Jacobs’ rise. Duffy first met Jacobs in 1983 at the designer’s graduation dinner from Parsons School of Design, when Duffy was a young executive at Reuben Thomas looking for new talent. “I called the school the next day and asked them to put us in touch,” Duffy told Port magazine in 2012. “Marc called me back, and we met that day and had lunch and shook hands. The next day we started working together.”

Over the next three decades, Duffy was both Jacobs’ business partner and his tireless champion, and in 1997 orchestrated LVMH’s investment in Marc Jacobs. But he stepped down from his leading role in 2015, ceding day-to-day duties. A representative for Duffy, who remains on the board of the company, said he was out of the country and unavailable for comment. A new chief executive, Sebastian Suhl, took the reins and unified the contemporary and ready-to-wear collections under a single brand. But after less than three years on the job, Suhl was replaced last year by the former Kenzo head, Eric Marechalle. Both Jacobs and Marechalle declined, through a company spokesman, several requests to be interviewed.

In January, Marc Jacobs hired Baja East designer John Targon to focus on the brand’s contemporary, or lower-priced, line. But two months into the job, Targon was let go. “John Targon is a talented designer and we appreciate the work he has done here,” the company said in a statement announcing his departure. “Ultimately, working together did not make sense for the brand and we wish him the best.”

Ron Frasch has followed Jacobs’ career with admiration. But like many, he is perplexed by the recent moves, including the folding of Marc by Marc Jacobs.

“Marc by Marc has always been the revenue engine behind the brand,” said Frasch, a former chief executive of Bergdorf Goodman and president of Saks Fifth Avenue, and who now focuses on luxury apparel at Castanea Partners, a private equity firm. “I don’t know how they made that decision. The storytelling is a little confusing to the customer.”

LVMH declined to make any of its executive available for interviews, but it issued a statement. “The turnaround is underway at Marc Jacobs International and we are seeing very encouraging signs of progress,” the company said. “It’s realizing some of the benefits of the tough actions taken to right-size the business.”

“Year-to-date we are seeing some positive signs from retailers and customers, and substantial improvement on the bottom line,” it added. “The company needs to stay focused but it is heading in the right direction.”

From Grunge to Louis Vuitton

For more than two decades, ever since he dressed models in flannel for his 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, which sharply divided critics (and then was fired a year later), Marc Jacobs has been regarded as by far the most exciting and talented U.S. designer of his generation, the only true successor to Calvin, Donna and Ralph.

In 1997, while earning accolades (although little profit) at his own label, Jacobs took on the role of creative director at Louis Vuitton. He transformed the French trunk maker into a full-scale fashion house, creating sensational runway shows, bringing in collaborators like artist Takashi Murakami and quadrupling business. Simultaneously, with the powerful backing of LVMH, Jacobs and Duffy took the Marc Jacobs brand global, with estimated sales of around $300 million by 2006 and new stores colonizing upscale shopping districts from Paris to Tokyo.

As Frasch put it, “They created fashion excitement. It wasn’t a formula. Something new was going to happen every season. Marc wasn’t in a box like some brands are.”

During New York Fashion Week, members of the entire fashion world looked to Jacobs to capture the zeitgeist and amaze them — and he delivered, season after season, with standing-room-only, rock-concert-like runway shows. A designer hits big when his personal vision coincides with the moment. Amanda Mull, a 32-year-old managing editor for the PurseBlog, was in college during Jacobs’ glory days, and she remembers saving up for his $1,300 “Stam” bag. Named for model Jessica Stam, the purse was made of sumptuous quilted leather with a chain-link strap, a novel and instantly recognizable design.

In those days, she said, Jacobs created pieces that “managed to be a little punk rock but still super luxurious. It appealed to the girl who isn’t the typical fashion girl, who’s interested in being a little subversive.”

As a young, fashion-forward, creative professional living in Brooklyn, Mull would be the target Marc Jacobs customer, but she can’t recall the last piece she bought by the designer, nor can she pin down what the label represents these days.

“At one time, there were things that exemplified the femininity that he built his brand around,” Mull said. “Whereas I don’t know what a Marc Jacobs outfit would look like now. His current stuff feels a little too focus-grouped contemporary, like they’re trying to figure out what trend can be played to.”

Of course, Jacobs continues to have loyal fans and friends in high places — in the words of Anna Wintour, he is “a great, great designer.” (And Jacobs can still rock the red carpet: This year Janelle Monáe accompanied him to the Met Gala; in 2015 Cher was his date.) But along the way, something seemed to go wrong.

Jacobs’ dramatic physical transformation from “a withdrawn schlump in eyeglasses,” as a 2008 New Yorker profile of him said, into someone “muscular, bronzed, shining with diamonds,” seemed to presage a new era, one that not all fans embraced. In 2011, Jenna Sauers, a writer for Jezebel, told The New York Times that she missed the “old” Marc. “There was something about him that was so endearing,” Sauers said. “He was kind of a schlub and you felt he loved his work. I have a lot of affection for that Marc.”

Jacobs bristled at such criticism. “If my unhappiness was creating insecurities and that is what people miss, I’m sorry,” he responded in that article. “But I’m the same person, only stronger now, and more positive.”

Meanwhile, his history of erratic behavior — including announcing he was entering rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, a very public relationship with a former porn star and accidentally posting a photo of his bare bottom to Instagram — continued to raise concerns about Jacobs’ ability to run a large company, doubts that have never really gone away. (Although at 55, the designer may finally be settling down; he made news in April by proposing to his fiancé, Char Defrancesco, at a Chipotle.)

In 2014, Jacobs stepped down from his role at Louis Vuitton after 16 years, ostensibly to allow him to concentrate on his own label ahead of a planned initial public offering.

Speaking to The New York Times at the time, Michael Burke, chief executive of Louis Vuitton, hinted there was more to the designer’s departure than a corporate maneuver, saying the label was “not as focused as it needed to be” under Jacobs.

Burke went on to grumble about Jacobs’ last-minute, chaotic, costly approach to presenting a collection (“Literally a few days before the show, he could completely change his mind because it was not of this week”) and to praise his successor at Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière (“Nicolas does not work that way”).

And what of the IPO? It has barely been mentioned since, and the current troubles make it unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.

Losing That Magic Touch

The problems extend to the creative side, as well. For years, Jacobs seemed to know exactly what people wanted, and then, quite suddenly, he seemed to not know.

Perhaps the creative drift is attributable to the departure of Duffy, who was not only Jacobs’ partner in business but the person who kept the designer on track and on schedule, sitting beside him in the weeks leading up to a show. Others say the company has long lacked a strong creative director, someone who can translate Jacobs’ vision into actual expression for the design team. That role was occupied successfully by Venetia Scott, who oversaw Marc by Marc in its early heyday, but she left the company in 2015.

As for Jacobs himself, he appears uninterested in channeling modern culture. “I am so appalled by the whole social media thing. I don’t get it, it doesn’t appeal to me,” he told British Vogue in 2015, before he began posting sexy selfies. In his recent collections and in interviews, he seems content to look back fondly.

Last year, photographed surrounded by ‘80s hip-hop legends like Biz Markie and Salt-N-Pepa for In Style, Jacobs told the magazine he felt “out of touch with what today really looks like” — a startling admission for a fashion designer in charge of a global brand.

His runway shows are still highly anticipated. People go to pay their respects to a genius and hope to be wowed like so many times before. But the events have also taken on a poignant air of irrelevance; the clothes feel disconnected from the marketplace, and indeed, they are rarely promoted on the Marc Jacobs e-commerce site. The most recent show, in February, was held at the Park Avenue Armory, a stark, cavernous space made more so by the lack of any production (just folding chairs in two long rows) and the gloomy, baroque music. Cathy Horyn, reviewing the show for The Cut, likened it to a “sumptuous funeral,” and The New York Times’ chief fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, declared of Jacobs: “He is one of our great talents. It still may not be enough.” Meanwhile, others have moved into the creative and commercial spaces Jacobs once dominated. Designers like Alexander Wang and Alessandro Michele of Gucci, who has cleverly mastered social media, and streetwear labels like Supreme, have proven they understand the current fashion moment. The lines snaking around the block outside the Supreme store recall the lines of young women who once clamored to buy a $5 heart-shaped compact because it was Marc Jacobs-branded.

And then there are Balenciaga, Loewe, Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, Givenchy, Mansur Gavriel and all the other brands competing for market share in an increasingly crowded, competitive and difficult retail environment.

“It’s like a tsunami,” Frasch, the luxury investor, said. “Brands that 15 years ago were barely on the radar have come on the scene. You go back three, four years ago, Gucci was losing real estate in stores. They’ve made big, bold, risky decisions. That’s what consumers are looking for right now, that newness.”

Too Soon to Count Him Out?

But a shift has happened regardless. While Jacobs continues to design luxury ready-to-wear and be recognized by the CFDA, the Marc Jacobs label is no longer perceived as a luxury brand by consumers. It is more in line with contemporary labels like Coach and Kate Spade. Perhaps there’s no greater evidence of that shift than this: Today, the influential Barneys New York has stopped carrying Marc Jacobs bags.

On the Marc Jacobs e-commerce site, the full price of new product arrivals dropped from almost $700 on average in 2015 to around $350 in 2017, according to research compiled by EDITED, a retail technology company. The pricing strategy has increased sales. There is a sense the company’s finances may be stabilizing, if not turning around, Solca said.

The label has a new hit bag too, the $295 “Snapshot” with its colorful camera strap. Marc Jacobs Beauty, a makeup line that is marketed prominently in Sephora, has been growing steadily, especially among young women. When Lady Gaga wore the beauty products to the 2018 Grammys, she garnered as much attention for her smoky eyes as her performance. (The beauty line is a licensing agreement, so Marc Jacobs receives royalty payments, without production costs.)

But the shift away from luxury has also led to consumer confusion, the sense among longtime fans that Marc Jacobs — and the products that carry his name — has been devalued.

Asked if Jacobs can recapture his earlier success, Frasch was cautious in his answer. “It’s harder. Certainly much harder than it was,” he said. “And it depends on Marc, it depends on LVMH and what their projections for the line are.” (While LVMH is known for sticking with underperforming brands in hopes of a turnaround, the other LVMH-owned U.S. fashion house that was a consistent earnings drag — Donna Karan — was offloaded in 2016.)

Fern Mallis, formerly the executive director of the CFDA and now an industry consultant, stated what many people seem to believe about Jacobs: That despite his recent struggles, “Marc is someone you can never count out.”

His talent is too great, she said. “He’s a risk taker. He doesn’t really care. That’s pretty fabulous.”