Marc Jacobs: A fashion force to be reckoned with

Having faced his drug demons, and with a new store in Moscow, Marc Jacobs is at the top of his game. He tells Melanie Rickey about art, shoes and running a billion-pound business
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Everything is in place in advance of Marc Jacobs' arrival at the rooftop bar of Moscow's glossiest hotel, the Ritz Carlton. For his first interview to promote the first Marc Jacobs boutique in the money-no-object luxe-fashion destination that is Moscow 2008, his modest "rider" aside from the private jet that flew him in, the Ritz suite, and the personal trainer is a glass of post-rehab Diet Coke on the rocks, which fizzes merrily on a tabletop beside a crystal ashtray.

Evidence of yet another designer who turns control freak in interviews? Not Marc Jacobs. At just 45, Jacobs is a powerful fashion force, but he is known for being down-to-earth and speaking his mind, no matter what is on it. His achievements speak for themselves. His directional Marc Jacobs catwalk collection, launched in 1994 (bags came in 2000), remains a kooky-cool high point of New York fashion week. The spin-off perfumes, including the latest, Daisy, are bestsellers. His diffusion Marc by Marc Jacobs line, established in 2001, is an essential with the younger fashion set the world over. And his work for Louis Vuitton, where he has been the wilfully controversial creative director since 1997, is also consistently era-defining.

Remember the Stephen Sprouse Louis Vuitton graffiti bags from 2001? The smiley-cherry Vuitton bags designed with Takashi Murakami in 2003? Or the more recent Sprouse animal-print scarf phenomenon? Smash hits, all. In a talk to Central Saint Martins students in London last week, Jacobs said that the corporate bods upstairs at LV didn't want to do the Sprouse graffiti bags. "But we just did it. I thought, 'If they fire me, it won't be the first time'. And $300m in sales later, they thought it was a good idea."

His latest collaboration, with the artist Richard Prince for Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2008, has resulted in some uniquely contemporary bags that are as much collectible art as receptacle. Jacobs should know he's an avid collector. He's made the art/fashion collaboration valid yet enjoyably populist in contemporary fashion.

Let's put his fashion status another way: people around the world spend almost 2bn on Marc Jacobs-designed products every year. That's a lot on one pair of shoulders. And last year, the man behind the machine crashed, publicly. When he went into rehab for the second time last March, there was a press release, and as if to reinforce the fact that being a drug addict post-rehab makes you more famous when he emerged clean he became a focus of the tabloid media. The bespectacled, long-haired geeky guy was gone. With his new gym-honed look, he was a sitting target. When his fashion show in New York ran two hours late, it made headline news. He allegedly stuck his tongue out at the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes, and it was reported globally. When he defended himself on the New York Times fashion blog, that was reported globally, too.

Did rehab free him from the introvert box, or is it that more people were listening and judging? Of course, it's the latter, and Jacobs just responded to his audience. As he says, "I love attention". By checking into rehab, Jacobs also entered the popular consciousness beyond fashion, becoming as A-list and "interesting" as his starry clients.

However, when Jacobs materialises at the Ritz, in a custom-made cornflower-blue shirt that headlines the thought "perfect body underneath", and plonks himself down on the banquette, the potential A-list aura doesn't have a chance to take hold because he's jabbering away with his assistant about his two-hour gym session that morning. His glossy brown hair as close-cut to his head as a swimming cap, manicured nails and designer stubble look great, but his transformation from geek to chic still jars. I tell him that he looks so different now.

"You know, a lot of the drama [last year] came because of the contrast with how people thought of me before. Marc is like he has this long hair and glasses, he's kinda quiet and barely comes out on the runway at the end of his shows, and when he does he stares at his trainers.

"Then, all of a sudden, I'm parading around the runways in a diamond necklace, diamonds in my ears, raising my eyebrows and wagging my tongue, and everyone's, like, what the hell is going on? They thought I'd lost my mind."

When he hired Victoria Beckham as the face of his signature brand for spring/summer 2008, it was quite a departure from form his favoured muses are indie types such as the film director Sofia Coppola, the actress Charlotte Rampling, and Rachel Feinstein, the eccentric artist and wife of fellow artist John Currin, whose work Jacobs collects. So why Beckham?

"Just like I'm interested in contemporary art, music, all sorts of things, I'm fascinated by pop culture, and people's fascination with her and other contemporary icons, as I call them. As soon as I saw her after the Louis Vuitton show for spring/summer 2008, when she came backstage, I got the idea and went to see her at the Ritz. We spoke about the irony and perversity of it, and she totally got it."

"It" being Beckham photographed by Juergen Teller as a living mannequin posing woodenly in and around Marc Jacobs carrier bags, wearing his new collection. "She was also really flattered," he adds. Did it work? "Oh yes, it was a huge success for both of us." But he won't be following it up. "We're using models next season, we're not ready for Kevin & Britney yet."

So, back to Moscow, a new fashion frontier. You would expect Jacobs to be aware of the expansion plans his brand is currently engaged in, wouldn't you. But no. The label he founded 24 years ago, at 21, straight out of college, with his business partner Robert Duffy, might define the kooky-cool generation of 25- to 55-year-olds: guys who want to look nerdy, women who delight in skewwhiff elegance with a healthy dose of eccentricity. But by happy coincidence, it is just these kooky types that occupy a large chunk of mainstream culture today. So Moscow is one of a massive 45 store openings planned this year for the Marc Jacobs brand.

"I really don't know what's opening where," Jacobs admits. This might sound odd, but basically, Jacobs does the designing and creative thinking, and Duffy does the money stuff, the shop stuff. Jacobs may not know either that sales of his mainline collection are, as Duffy puts it, "flat". Or that Duffy thanks his lucky stars that he launched Marc by Marc Jacobs in 2001. "I'm so glad we diversified," says Duffy. "It means we can go where the money is, and right now that's Marc by Marc Jacobs." Duffy also put Jacobs into rehab he's like a father figure.

Jacobs lost his own father, an agent for William Morris, when he was seven years old, in 1970. In his teens he moved to New York to live with his grandmother after he became estranged from his mother, who embarked on a series of failed marriages following his father's death. He also has no contact with his brother and sister, who he says "couldn't be less like him". New York was the making of him. "I knew I wanted to be a designer when I was 13. I always loved the idea of fashion. I was always looking at fashion magazines, I was very interested in my own clothes, the way I dressed. I loved watching people on the street, seeing what they were wearing."

These days, Marc Jacobs' role requires him to be at home in New York, but his other role, at Louis Vuitton, means that he is more often in Paris, a city he loves and also calls home. He likes "staying in one place for 10 days," he says. Otherwise, it's too much. "It's enough designing shoes and bags for Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton." Ah, yes. The bags. The shoes. The clothes. And lots of them. How can he live in two continents and oversee two brands and all the catwalk collections that go with that, and not lose his mind?

"I don't. It's a team effort. That's the secret." Like Warhol and his "factory", Marc also famously works with his teams, to whom he happily gives full credit, whether its pattern-cutters, bag designers, his Vuitton-show stylist Katie Grand, or his PA. "I have never done a thing by myself. I always say that I'm not the director, I'm part of the team. It's always 'we' not 'I'. I can't work with a blank piece of paper. I ultimately have to decide what is right for us, but I like to let everybody have time to let their ideas evolve. It's a very organic process."

So, what is the difference between Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton? "When I arrived, Vuitton had no fashion past, it was a luggage brand. The bags are the collection. As soon as you put a bag with an outfit, the wearer becomes LV woman," says Marc. With his own line (of which LVMH, the parent company of Louis Vuitton, owns a 96 per cent stake, but not the trademarks), it's as much, he says, about clothes as bags, shoes, sunglasses, perfume. Why does Jacobs lay the workings of his business bare? "Everybody who says they do everything themselves is just exaggerating. Doing things by yourself is well, it's masturbation. It's not nearly as exciting as doing it with somebody else!"

He is the final filter, then. "In a certain way, I am. But the customer is the final, final filter. What survives the whole process is what people wear. I'm not interested in making clothes that end up in some dusty museum. I'm interested in clothes people want, covet, desire, wear, use, love, tear, soil... Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them. "

On the cover of Interview magazine, published this week to mark what would have been Andy Warhol's 80th birthday, is Marc Jacobs, half-naked and covered in talc, styled to look like Warhol. So, is Jacobs appropriating popular culture and turning it into fashion, as Warhol turned popular culture into art? Jacobs plays this down: "I'm just me. I do my thing," he says. "Who cares what the references are? I hate references, they're boring. If a girl wants to wear it, then it's valid.

"So what if the idea for Vuitton's latest shoes came from an old Andy Warhol drawing of shoes? The end result is a totally new product."

Melanie Rickey is the fashion news features editor of Grazia