Being Marc Jacobs: The Designer Talks to Fern Mallis

Being Marc Jacobs: The Designer Talks to Fern Mallis
Designer Marc Jacobs chats with Fern Mallis at the 92nd Street Y
(Photo by Joyce Culver)


Last night, Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis came full circle, despite several weeks' postponement due to Hurricane Sandy. When the host took the stage at the 92nd Street Y to introduce Marc Jacobs, she told the audience the designer was the first name she thought of when she started the program over a year ago. After all, when she was organizing New York Fashion Week as the CFDA's executive director, the designer’s slot was always the first booked on the schedule. “Even I’m a bit nervous,” she quipped.


Then Jacobs bounded onto the stage, looking fit as usual in his customary trim suit and white sneakers. The pair started at the beginning, talking about Jacobs' childhood in and around New York City, where he discovered fashion through his grandmother, who would tell the whole neighborhood, “My grandson is going to be the next Calvin Klein.”

They went on to talk candidly about his difficult childhood, and his father’s death at 32 from cancer related to ulcerative colitis while Jacobs was just seven. (He suffers with colitis himself — in fact, it was a close call with the disease that inspired him to take control of his health.) “I didn’t have the most delightful childhood,” the designer said. “I’m having one now at 49. People say a little too much. They call it a midlife crisis and I’m like, ‘What? I’m only 15.’”

In the way that has made these talks such a hot ticket, Mallis didn’t hold back, addressing even the darkest periods of the designer’s career. “Business couldn’t have been higher," she said, "but then again, neither could you.” Jacobs took it in stride, glossing over the lows and modestly downplaying his successes.

One topic he was happy to discuss was his physical transformation, eliciting gasps with  details of his detox diet — a year with, among other restrictions, no sugar, not even from fruit. Jacobs admitted he’s still not completely happy with his body, despite putting in near-daily two-hour sessions at the gym. He was quick to add, however, that he took a photo for his boyfriend after his shower that day, so maybe his body image is improving after all.

If he’s not completely comfortable in his own skin, Jacobs is certainly happy with what’s on it. In fact, it was an exchange about his many tattoos that revealed a lot about his design philosophy: “I think I see life in a cartoon-y way.”

Cartoons aside, the big business of Marc Jacobs, Inc. is no joke. Jacobs has his business partner Robert Duffy, his “longest relationship,” to thank for that. Together the two have weathered everything from his post-grunge firing at Perry Ellis (“the best thing that ever happened”) to his shaky first collection at Louis Vuitton. He's also had to learn to accept awards graciously (he's racked up no fewer than nine from the CFDA alone), a harder task than one might think, as well as negotiate — unsuccessfully, in the end — negotiations to take over for John Galliano at Dior. "While it was flattering, it was three months of psychodrama."

He ended the evening in his typically self-deprecating manner, when asked how he knew he'd made it in fashion. "I don't think I've made it," Jacobs demurred. It may have been the only time the entire audience disagreed with him. 

With Jacobs was unwilling to embrace his place at the top of American fashion, we asked Mallis what has been the key to the designer's unprecedented success. “Everybody can relate to him,” Mallis told ARTINFO afterward. “He’s been there and he’s struggled. He made it happen, he’s a huge success. His dreams have come true. He’s reinvented his life a million times, and he’s unbelievably talented.”