It's gruelling being so popular. Women the world over - hipsters such as Chloe Sevigny, Zoe Cassavetes, the actress daughter of John, and Kim Gordon, the singer/bassist of Sonic Youth; fashion editors including Anna Wintour; working women from Lisbon to Liverpool who wear his flat "mouse" pumps and tote his big-buckled bags; teenagers who scoop up armfuls of Marc-"inspired" gear at Topshop - can't get enough of designs by the 41- year-old native New Yorker. When even Winona Ryder is moved to half-inch his cashmere tops from a Saks Fifth Avenue store (as she famously did in 2001, Jacobs promptly rewarding her with a starring role in his ad campaign), it seems an understatement to describe his designs as desirable.
Through his eponymous label, his less expensive line, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and, since 1997, his increasingly acclaimed collections for Louis Vuitton, Jacobs succeeds in predicting exactly what women want to wear, season after season. So how does the designer, also known for his own dressed- down image of plain sweaters and trainers, pull it off?
Not by holing himself up in an office, sitting in front of a blank page and letting his fantasies run free. "I don't live in a bubble," he says, insisting that his method is based on teamwork and observing those around him. "I'm not a director or a dictator," he says, firmly, "I'm a collaborator and I like to work with people - part of what I contribute is making the creative choice to work with certain people." Substitute "certain people" with "certain very stylish women such as the stylist Venetia Scott and film director Sofia Coppola" and something of the workings behind the Marc Jacobs phenomenon is revealed.
He even describes the celebrities that star in his ad campaigns (Jennifer Lopez and Uma Thurman for LV; Jarvis Cocker and Charlotte Rampling for his own label), model in his runway shows, (Christina Ricci) and even contribute designs (NERD's Pharrell Williams has created sunglasses for Vuitton) as "collaborations with artists. Period. They are iconic artists who contribute to today." Yet Jacobs is nothing if not democratic and his less celebrated employees and colleagues, too, are liable to influence the season's look.
"Each individual woman on my f team has a quirkiness or thing about her that I think is contemporary," he explains in a throaty drawl roughened up by numerous pre-show cigarettes. "It's the way people dress today - whether it's Salome in a big sweatshirt or Emily who wears a certain kind of jacket or Irene who wears short skirts; at Vuitton, Camille is always an inspiration. Jane, the way her pants fit her ..." No wonder Jacobs' designs have a sense of being luxurious and, at the same time, rooted in a familiar vocabulary of clothing: the sweet party dress, the pastel sweater, the round-toed girlie shoes. As Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, puts it, "I think Marc's genius is to show that luxury can be young, fun and cool. It's not about looking rich. It's about the most luxurious version of your most wearable pieces."
Jacobs was also one of the first designers to capitalise on the fin de siecle taste for vintage fashion. Instead of ignoring the style revolution fuelled by flea markets and second-hand shops in Brooklyn and Brick Lane, Jacobs designed brand-new clothes with many of the nostalgic details that women - particularly influential stylists and models - were finding seductive.
The strategy still works. For instance, this season's collection for Louis Vuitton emphasised Forties-style peplum suits, while a delicious mish-mash of references to historical circus costumes resulted in ultra- feminine frills and Peter Pan collars. For his own label this spring, tropical-coloured Fifties-style party dresses are destined to be a hit, while for his youngest customers, the designer is rocking a mid-Eighties, New Romantic mood with Marc by Marc Jacobs.
One result of Jacobs' successful reinterpretation of vintage is that he's regularly credited/blamed with spearheading a quick-change seasonal return to the Sixties-Forties-Twenties and back again. In short, "retro fashion". "People always say I'm locked into certain periods. I'm not," he shoots back, "and I don't sit with a book open in front of me, trying to recreate a period. But I've got no problem with retro-vintage-whatever, because this is how I see the girls I know wearing clothes today."
Jacobs is not alone in informing his designs with fashion history; he offers a satisfyingly starry anecdote to prove his point: "Here in Paris recently I was out with Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola - because they're working on Sofia's movie - and Kirsten was wearing a Chloe dress and Sofia was wearing a Lanvin dress and they both looked like girls of today, although in fact both dresses have very, very old references - to old gowns." He's too modest to say it (constantly interjecting his fast-flowing speech with "I don't mean to blow my own horn") but perhaps neither Lanvin nor Chloe would be making those references if it weren't for the trail he blazed. But for all the adulation he receives today (not to mention pecuniary rewards - LVMH, the group that owns Louis Vuitton and Jacobs' own labels, last year signed him up for a further 10 years) his path to success has been a rocky one.
JACOBS WAS born in the Upper West Side on 9 April 1963. When he was seven his father died, and after his mother remarried five years later, he moved in with his grandmother on Central Park West. Jacobs cites her as one of his greatest influences. "She took great care of her appearance and instilled in me that it was better to have a good sweater than six pieces of junk. She had very f specific shops where she would buy different things, her scarves and stockings, her coats and capes. She stored her shoes in transparent boxes and took care of her fur coats - she was just quite thorough in that way."
As a teenager he worked at Charivari, a chic boutique near his grandmother's home, where he folded shirts. At around the same time, he gravitated towards Manhattan clublife. "I saw young people who seemed to live this life of getting dressed and going to discos. I was a voyeur, whether it was on the punk-rock scene or at the Mudd Club or Hurrah. The tall lanky boys in shrunken jackets and girls with leopardskin coats and racoon eyes - to me, they looked like images from Alice in Wonderland. And then at Studio 54, the hedonism and the sexuality that filled the air, full of beautifully dressed people who seemed to have nothing to do but get dressed up ..."
Clearly, this milieu made a big impression on Jacobs, whose current approach to design remains uncannily close to this teenaged voyeurism of a beautiful crowd. To his credit, though, Jacobs wasn't a simple club kid. After high school, he studied fashion at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village, where his graduation project of 1984 - knitted sweaters with cartoonish emblems - caught the attention of Robert Duffy, an executive in the garment industry; to this day Duffy remains his business partner.
In 1986 they launched the Marc Jacobs label and in the following year Jacobs was the youngest designer ever to pick up the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for new talent. Seventh Avenue success appeared to arrive when, in 1989, Jacobs was hired by Perry Ellis, the American sportswear company, to head up womenswear. From this point, Jacobs' star should have ascended. Instead, his stint there ended in ignominy.
"They wanted me to do more commercial, ladylike clothes. I tried to do what they wanted. And I was miserable. I didn't sleep at night." In 1992 - the same year as he picked up his second CFDA award - Jacobs took Perry Ellis in a less conservative direction, with inspiration from the Seattle grunge-music scene. "I loved the energy of that music, and models like Kate Moss, photographers like Juergen Teller and David Sims. I saw all this stuff happening and I felt there was beauty in imperfection." Jacobs insists that this notorious collection - satin Birkenstocks, floral dresses, big boots and a flannel check shirt that he had sent over to Italy and reworked in "gorgeous, gorgeous four-ply silk crepe" wasn't deliberately provocative. "It was a celebration of what I felt," he says. "And I was criticised. They said, `Who's going to wear a beaded evening gown with a plaid shirt over it?'" Indeed, the fashion press almost unanimously slated the collection even though, as Jacobs points out, models such as Stella Tennant and Emma Balfour were at that time wearing exactly this kind of deliberately down-at-heel style. Again: "It was based on what I saw contemporary girls doing." Jacobs and Duffy were fired, very publicly.
Over the following five years the pair did all they could to develop their own label. Anna Wintour was a loyal supporter, even through the grunge debacle, but, as Jacobs himself puts it, "pages in Vogue don't pay the bills" and his tiny team were living "hand to mouth", with Duffy re-mortgaging his home. Finally, in 1997, a lifeline was thrown by French fashion tycoon Bernard Arnault, who was busily extending his f luxury goods empire, LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton). "They were kind of our saviour," says Jacobs.
In return for bolstering the Marc Jacobs label (which has since blossomed into home collections, perfume and, in 1995, menswear - despite the fact that he now openly tells me, "I'm not a big lover of men's fashion," and, "I like it when guys just dress casually"), Arnault invited the American designer to create men's and women's ready-to-wear fashion for Louis Vuitton. At the time, the status brand was known only for its hugely successful, but not particularly cool, logo-printed accessories. From the start, Jacobs excluded all trace of the Monogram from the clothing . This far-sighted approach is now paying off grandly.
By contrast Jacobs' limited-edition handbag designs were an instant hit. Again, they were the result of judiciously chosen collaborations - first with the New York artist Stephen Sprouse for a graffiti design, then with the Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami for a multicoloured monogram model (Murakami's contribution to the current collection is in monogrammed leather doodled with cute cherries).
Today Jacobs lives permanently in Paris, with sorties across the Atlantic "at least once a month", and confesses to "just staying at home with my dogs" in his spare time, pottering around shops in search for "silverware and stationery". His lack of vices is a fairly recent development. "I was a wild teenager until I was 36," he booms, with a laugh, when asked about his notoriously wild younger years. "Now I smoke cigarettes, but that's the last vice I have. I had plenty of them years ago but I've got rid of all those. They were, as they say, `removed'," he says, wryly. These days, he says, he's usually found "watching DVDs and reading books at home". Which is probably just as well - three stratospheric collections, plus menswear and all the rest, can't be a walkover, even though he does delegate many design duties.
Jacobs is remarkably casual and unpretentious considering his success in an infamously mannered industry; he's also disarmingly candid and possessed of a blunt sense of humour. While other designers might flinch at the swarms of knock-offs of his work that now arrive with increasing predictability on the high street each season, the non-dictatorial, collaborative and effortlessly cool Marc Jacobs takes it square on the chin.
"I'm actually proud that something we've done would be copied," he says. "I'm not an inventor. I mean, I've referenced things and I've appropriated things so I'm not the owner of anything. So, not to toot my own horn, but I've seen copies and it's very nice. I mean, most recently I've seen the multicoloured monogram - the one that so many women wanted - as a stuffed squeaky toy in a pet store! It was called Chewy Vuitton and," he says with relish, "to me that was the ultimate."
Clockwise from top left
Hayley wears cotton skirt, pounds 640, shirt, pounds 225 and shoes, pounds 260, all by Marc Jacobs; corsage, from a selection by Jane Packer, 32-34 New Cavendish Street, London W1, 020-7935 2673
Tom wears suit, pounds 1,570, jumper, pounds 310, tie, pounds 90, and shirt, pounds 315, all by Louis Vuitton; buttonhole, from a selection by Jane Packer, as before
Adela wears skirt, pounds 3,930, and jacket, pounds 940, both by Louis Vuitton
Lauren wears jumper, pounds 550, skirt, pounds 630, and necklace (worn as belt), pounds 550, all by Louis Vuitton; shoes, pounds 260, by Marc Jacobs
Malin wears dress, pounds 2,130, and shoes, pounds 260, both by Marc Jacobs
Adela wears dress, pounds 1,225, and shoes, as before, both by Marc Jacobs; corsage, as before
Lauren wears skirt, pounds 640, camisole, pounds 460, and sandals, pounds 265, all by Marc Jacobs; white cropped jacket, pounds 940, by Louis Vuitton
Tom wears suit trousers, tie and shirt, all as before
Hayley wears suede mirror skirt, pounds 4,590, and necklace, pounds 550, both by Louis Vuitton; short-sleeve jumper, pounds 330, by Marc Jacobs
Malin wears skirt, as before, bangle, pounds 275, by Louis Vuitton; cardigan, pounds 170, and blouse, pounds 170, both by Marc by Marc Jacobs
Sequin shoes, pounds 305 by Marc Jacobs; circled court shoes, pounds 650, and striped court shoes, pounds 430, both by Louis Vuitton
Models Malin, Hayley, Lauren and Adela at Models One and Tom Fox at Oxygen; Make-up Ayami using Chanel spring/summer collection; Hair Tracie Cant at Premier using Bumble and Bumble; Set design Janine Trott
Hair assistant Acacio da Silva
Photographer's assistant Kate Pettitt
Stylist's assistants Gemma Hayward and Adele Woodthorpe
Marc Jacobs and Marc are available from Browns 26 South Molton Street, London W1, 020-7491 7833; Harrods Knightsbridge, London SW1, 020-7730 1234; Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge, London SW1, 020-7235 5000; Matches 60-64 Ledbury Road, London W11, 020- 7221 0255; Selfridges 400 Oxford Street, London W1, 0870 837 7377; www.net- a-porter.com. Marc Jacobs is also available from Liberty Regent Street, London W1, 020-7734 1234. Louis Vuitton, 17-18 New Bond Street, London W1, 020-7399 4050.