Marc Jacobs: Rags to riches

From grunge to couture - the most influential designer in the world is coming to London
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You may not know it, but you probably own something inspired by Marc Jacobs. Perhaps it's a subtle nod to the New York designer - the bow on your pumps, the oversize button on your jacket; perhaps it's an out-and-out steal, like the back-alley version of his Jessica Stam bag that you carry. Or perhaps - begging your pardon, madam - yours is the genuine item, a snip at £760. But what's certain is that Jacobs is a supremely influential fashion designer - and will no doubt star in New York this week. But after that he's coming to London.

Next month he opens his first UK store (a 2,600sqft former antiques store on Mount Street, in Mayfair); the week after next he closes London Fashion Week with a show that will unveil the spring/summer '07 collection for his second line, Marc by Marc Jacobs (which, though you couldn't call it cheap, does not require quite such extensive remortgaging as the premiere Marc Jacobs line). Both these events are fabulously important to Lady Twitty Longlegs and her fashionista friends, of course - but even the rest of us can appreciate that it's a big deal for an international designer to choose to launch a collection here, rather than on "the circuit" of Paris, New York and Milan.

Some even believe his attention-grabbing presence could be detrimental to top British designers such as Christopher Kane and Giles Deacon, but Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, believes big names such as Jacobs only help bring power and momentum to fashion in this country. "I suggested that he come to London Fashion Week, actually. So I'm pleased to see he is," she says. "He's one of the most talented designers in the world right now. He knows what people want to wear before they do."

Marc Jacobs was born in New York City in 1963. His father died when he was seven; when his mother, whom he describes as "troubled", remarried five years later, young Marc went to live with his grandmother on Central Park West. She was a great influence on Marc. "She had very specific shops where she would buy different things, her scarves and her stockings, her coats and capes ..." he remembers. She also believed in him. In the butcher's, she would tell the staff he was going to be the next Calvin Klein.

He followed a time-honoured route: part-time job in a chic boutique, Charivari, and a degree in womenswear at Parsons School of Design in NYC. There, he won prizes: two designer-sponsored Golden Thimbles, no less. He designed and knitted his own line in jumpers, decorated with cartoon figures. He started living with his boyfriend and visiting Studio 54 at weekends, not to be seen so much as to see. "I was a voyeur ... The tall lanky boys in shrunken jackets and girls with leopard-skin eyes - to me, they looked like images from Alice in Wonderland."

He left college in 1984 and hooked up with his business partner, Robert Duffy. Among Jacobs's gifts is the ability to pick and keep a great team. Venetia Scott, who works with him, is rated by many as the best stylist in the business, a behind-the-scenes star; ditto Suzanne Deakin.

In 1989 Duffy and Jacobs joined Perry Ellis as president and vice- president of womenswear. It was to be a short tenure. Jacobs proved himself far too edgy for the label, producing a now legendary collection themed around grunge in 1992. Big mistake. New York was so not ready for satin Birkenstocks, heavy boots and the waif-gone-mad-in-Oxfam look. When Jacobs posed naked between chrome yellow sheets for Vanity Fair, Perry Ellis decided enough was enough and publicly sacked him and Duffy. Jacobs had hired a certain then little-known denim designer called Tom Ford, and he followed them out of the door too.

It has been said that Jacobs has had "more comebacks than Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday", and this was his first. Duffy sold his house to meet their bills (Jacobs didn't have one to sell). Jacobs set up his solo label. Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour joined in the standing ovation for his first show. He became New York's "dauphin of grungy, understated cool" (US Vogue).

There followed a spell in rehab, which left him teetotal. "I can't go back there, not for a second." He lives quietly in Paris, where he enjoys shopping for silverware and walking his dogs. But the man still loves a party. His label's Christmas do is always an event. Last year its fancy dress theme was Venetian Carnival, and Jacobs, mindful of the occupants of St Mark's Square, went as a pigeon.

Suzy Menkes has observed that in fashion, nowadays, individual designers have no power without mega-companies behind them. This was true for Marc Jacobs, and it was only when he was hired by Louis Vuitton in 1997 that he and his solo label gained real heft. "They were kind of our saviour," he says, of LVMH - though that accolade could also go to Winona Ryder, who liked his clothing so much she stole several items from Saks.

At LVMH, things did not go entirely smoothly, however. He did away with the LV monogram and produced - brace yourself - a plain Vuitton bag. Then he engaged the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to doodle on a clutch bag, and NY veteran Stephen Sprouse to graffiti a slouch. But when these designs became so popular that the revenue of LVMH doubled, Jacobs was vindicated. With characteristic prescience, he had foreseen that the public mood was turning against ostentatious labelling. He picked up the fin-de-siècle vintage trend early, too.

Jacobs's approach is not pretentious or esoteric. "I know a piece will work when I can imagine someone I know running around in it," he says. But before we get too carried away and call him a designer with a common touch, let us remember that chum of his he is imagining running around is probably Debbie Harry or Sofia Coppola. He has friends in vertiginously high places: Chloe Sevigny, Liv Tyler, Daryl Hannah, Jarvis Cocker, Hilary Swank - the list goes on. But unlike, say, Giorgio Armani, he never gives the impression of haughtiness. The advert for his perfume, for example, was an out-of-focus poolside snap of Sofia Coppola, a statement of his laid-back, intimate aesthetic.

His casual look, though, comes at a price. The most expensive handbag in Selfridges is one of his designs, a patchwork crocodile skin at £13,000. A recent Vogue article laid the blame for our current mania for expensive handbags at his door.

Yet despite the hyper-inflated prices, the ubiquitous high-street copies and the burgeoning world domination (stores are opening this spring in Tokyo, Dubai and Savannah, Georgia) Jacobs remains a likeable figure, a modest, non-showy fashion designer who acknowledges his success cannot but fade.

"I'd like it to go on for ever, though," he says, with a smile.