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An American in Paris: Marc Jacobs' 15 years at Louis Vuitton

Marc Jacobs arrived at the French luggage label Louis Vuitton in 1997 – and turned it into one of the hottest names in fashion. Susannah Frankel looks back at 15 years of a fabulous collaboration.

It is 15 years since Marc Jacobs was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton and the famous luxury luggage brand is celebrating with the most extensive exhibition of its work to date. A show at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile opens in Paris next month, accompanied by the requisite, suitably glossy coffee-table tome.

"Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs is a story of two personalities and their contributions to the world of fashion," the press release reads. "Louis Vuitton, founder of the house of Louis Vuitton in 1854, and Marc Jacobs its artistic director since 1997. Two innovators, both rooted in their respective centuries, advanced an entire industry. Two creators, each in his own language, appropriated cultural codes and trends in order to shape the history of contemporary fashion."

So far, so flowery. If anyone can make such grand claims then it is Louis Vuitton, however. It's still the most successful and money-spinning brand owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), the luxury goods conglomerate which also includes Dior, Givenchy and Céline in its portfolio.

While Louis Vuitton's own tenure was characterised by the birth of industrialisation and more widespread travel, and related to both the values of hand-craftsmanship and technological advancement in both spheres, Jacobs' rise to fashion supremacy reflects the mores of globalisation in fashion today. And there is no other designer working in the industry who has proved to be more in tune with the zeitgeist.

Dangling cherries, neon graffiti, magic mushrooms, battered denim, fine fur and high-gloss varnish have all decorated or been stamped across the resolutely classic monogrammed canvas bag for which this name is best-known since Jacobs arrived. The mix of respect for the Louis Vuitton heritage and irreverence – the fusion of wisdom and wit, if you will – makes for heady viewing. It's a determinedly populist and at times iconoclastic viewpoint that, with this designer as its principal poster boy, has come to epitomise fashion in the modern age.

"When Marc first started at Louis Vuitton in 1997 the fashion industry was very, very different," says Katie Grand, creative director of the new exhibition and stylist at Louis Vuitton for more than a decade. "It was Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino. Yves Saint Laurent was still designing. And they were all in an ivory tower. Before Marc and the team did their first show for Vuitton they had to present ideas to Bernard Arnault [LVMH CEO and president]. It was called Project Zero and they were in this hotel room with no furniture. They sat on the floor with sketches Blu-Tacked on to the wall. Then they'd stuff Marc into a white cab with all these polyboards to go off and see Mr Arnault. I love that image because it is just so different to how people perceived fashion in Paris in the late Nineties. And Marc still gets into a white cab at the end of the night now. He doesn't have a driver, it's not like he's off on his yacht every Easter."

From blockbuster show presentations (including the line-up of nurses that announced Jacobs' collaboration with the artist Richard Prince, and the procession of models in identical shirt-waisters in candy colours to introduce the bags designed by Takashi Murakami) to equally high-impact advertising campaigns (the Mikhails Gorbachev and Baryshnikov, Mick Jagger, Uma Thurman and Angelina Jolie have all appeared) and, of course, shoes, boots and a womenswear collection that is the envy of anyone worth their style credentials, Jacobs exceeds expectations season after season. Just as remarkable, he's as happy dressing Madonna as he is Miss Piggy – or even a fluffy bunny. It's no secret that the advent of fast fashion has caused even the most elevated brands to sit up and take note. With this in mind, the designer changes direction at breakneck speed, daring the rest of the world to keep up with him.

"I'm all for different things," he told AnOther Magazine in 2005. "The most exciting place to live – and I don't mean geographically – is in a world where there is difference, where there is variety." And Jacobs delivers that in spades.

While Marc Jacobs in person may not be the gilded fashion designer of folklore, his professional endeavours are, increasingly, less than conservative where budget is concerned.

"I suppose as time has gone on we've realised that the sky's the limit," says Grand of Louis Vuitton's twice-yearly runway presentations in particular – the cost of embroideries alone for the brand's spring/summer 2011 collection was rumoured to be one million euros. "I think there are great resources at Louis Vuitton and now that Marc's proved himself..." It's safe to assume that link-ups with artists cost a small fortune but, says Grand: "There are a lot of very tenuous relationships between the art and fashion world but Marc is a collector, it's one of his passions. He has honest relationships with those people. He's not just chucking money at something.

"Of course, he makes expensive decisions," she continues. "It's expensive to have Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova dressed as nurses in a show, or to have Kate Moss close a show. It's also risky. But every time Marc takes a risk like that it works, it's on the front of every newspaper the next day." Ms Moss appearing in full Vuitton fetishwear and smoking on the catwalk for autumn/winter 2011 was a case in point. This was a move that proved all the more controversial given that it was National No Smoking Day, although all those involved with the casting insist that as they were in Paris they were unaware of that fact.

If the concept behind many of Jacobs' finest moments is a clever one, he is far from pretentious when addressing the subject of his work and that, too, is refreshing. "I guess there's more charm in something that feels quite simple in its approach as opposed to heavy and intellectual. We are all drawn to things that are quite clichéd. They're clichéd for a reason. The symbol of two cherries, for example [another Murakami collaboration], is always summery and feminine, kind of classic in a way."

That is not to say that he is any less interested in the preservation of traditional techniques than Louis Vuitton himself once was.

"Things are so casual in real life that couture holds a magic and it's also lasted, it endures," Jacobs told AnOther. "Everything's so disposable and immediate these days and the idea of considering things, the linings, say, and qualities of fabrics. I think that's what makes something luxurious and special and precious."

Grand says that it took one specialist three months to make the eggshell bag that appeared this spring/summer season. "Three months of work, one specialist, two pairs of tweezers, you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy, would you?" she laughs. "But seriously, I think they love doing it. There are a lot of people around us that take such a huge pride in their work."

When news of Jacobs' appointment at Louis Vuitton broke, it was by no means unanimously well received. Coming hot on the heels of John Galliano's move to Dior and Alexander McQueen's to Givenchy it raised eyebrows throughout the French fashion establishment. None of these names were native to that country, after all, and Jacobs' position was perhaps the most extraordinary. He was a fashion designer, after all, and Louis Vuitton had never staged a show or featured anything but luggage and bags.

"Of course I was surprised," the designer says now. "I was shocked on lots of different levels. Firstly, I was American. Secondly, I was surprised that Louis Vuitton was even considering fashion. They had always been known for one thing, and here they were deciding that they wanted to move into all these different categories."

In the new exhibition, Jacobs has dedicated space not only to these but also to the people he says have most influenced his work. This, too, is unprecedented: portraits of Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Dior will appear on the walls. If it's plainly obvious that every designer has his or her references, Jacobs is prepared to name them, a mark of confidence if ever there was one.

Here's how he sums up his handwriting at Louis Vuitton today. "It's hard ever for me to define the [Louis Vuitton] woman in specific terms but I do think she's extroverted, flirtatious and feminine. Louis Vuitton is very feminine, very Parisian, very sexy, but not vulgar. It's definitely for somebody who wants to be seen and likes their clothes to be recognised. They like the status of fashion and they like the status of the accessory of the moment."

Louis Vuitton /Marc Jacobs is at the Arts Decoratifs, 107 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, 9 March to 16 September; the exhibition catalogue, 'Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs', is published by Rizzoli