Making His Marc

Designer superstar Marc Jacobs shares about his collaboration with the artist Tabbo and how he stays sane after three decades in the business with friend and author Tama Janowitz.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Designer superstar Marc Jacobs shares about his collaboration with the artist Tabbo and how he stays sane after three decades in the business with friend and author Tama Janowitz.
My Reading Room

Real fashion is something you don’t need, it’s something you want,” Marc Jacobs says to me over the phone one balmy day in June. The designer, whom I’ve known since the ’80s, is discussing his style ethos with the aplomb that I have come to expect from him. He’s calling from his New York headquarters in SoHo and sounds very different from the Marc I first met some 30 years ago, when Betsey Johnson asked both of us to model in one of her shows in exchange for a US$100 store credit. We had walked the runway together in matching sailor-inspired outfits, slightly miserable, and even though we had never met, trudged out linking arms either in affection, or to keep each other upright.

Over the years our paths crossed many times—at various dinners, in restaurants or clubs, the way things, for a long time, happened in the city. At all those “scenes” at Mr. Chow and Indochine, where everyone was table-hopping and up late. Going out was the norm back then, and our seemingly glamorous jobs gave us an all-access pass: Mine as a writer and his as a prodigy in the fashion world. I didn’t wholly follow his career, but know the highlights: The seminal “grunge collection” for Perry Ellis in 1992; his meteoric rise at Louis Vuitton, where he spent 16 years; and his namesake line, which is always a visual feast, stemming from a smorgasbord of sartorial references. One day, in 2012, I saw remarkable ads, shot by Juergen Teller, of models in vaguely late-’20s and ’30s outfits, in frock coats and dusters in beautiful colours and wearing the most extraordinary hats by Stephen Jones. The clothes were at once new and nostalgic and in some obscure way absolutely bonkers—they looked like they belonged in the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland. I was hooked.

The clothes, impossibly right in their wrongness; magic created. How Marc does this remains a mystery. Though he’s guileless, talkative, and enthusiastic, he can’t really say what makes his fashion work. “It’s all about creative choice,” he says of the process, “making sketches, fittings, collaging— however it happens to get to the end result. Sometimes I sit with a shoe, or look at a silhouette. Sometimes the design team inspires me and brings in things they’re interested in. I think, ‘Oh, I’d like to use this.’ Other times I don’t know what I want. It’s a magpie aesthetic: If something is hideous, that’s interesting. It’s kind of the same sensibility that Andy Warhol had. He was interested in everything and soaked up what he saw like a sponge.”

He tells me that his fall/winter 2016 collection, with its Victorian-goth vibe and oversize proportions, was the inverse of the spangled Americana show he’d presented the season before. “When I finished the spring show—it was very colourful and held at the Ziegfeld Theatre—for the next one I said, ‘Let’s start with the same look, only take all colour out of it and make it a gothic version of the spring show, just to be contrary.’ So we started with the first look, took all colour out of it, and changed proportions. But the print... I didn’t want to change it to grey. I wanted to work with someone to create an image for print and patterns. I was looking at a painting by Tabboo! on Instagram and said, ‘Oh, let’s get in touch with him and see if he wants to do something with us.’”

The artist and ’80s drag performer Tabboo! (aka Stephen Tashjian) heeded Marc’s call. He showed his drawings and posters dating back to the Pyramid Club era. Tabboo! had arrived in New York around that time, right out of art school in Boston, found a cheap East Village tenement loft, and started performing, in drag, at various clubs and making art. All too often, talented people arrive in the city and spend a life here making and creating but for the most part never receive recognition or financial rewards. For Tabboo!, being “discovered” by Marc has been, to say the least, transformative. “Working with Marc has been an incredible experience,” he says. “It’s luxury fashion. It’s been completely out of my comfort zone. It was just thrilling.”

“I showed him things that interested me,” Marc says. “Gothic, but not really dark. Tabboo! painted a crow, a black cat—sweet versions of dark icons. Each day he’d come in and I’d say, ‘That’s really great, but I was thinking about this cape with swirls and jet beading.’” “I couldn’t believe it,” says the artist. “A cape! No-one was doing that. But it wasn’t just that he took my drawings and printed them on fabric. No, Marc had them hand-sewn, beaded, feathered, and embroidered—in a small French atelier. But first I drew the designs by hand on this incredibly expensive fabric.”

“It all felt like a continuation of spring and nostalgia for New York City, and I didn’t want to abandon that,” explains Marc. “It had the spirit I want to see in all my collections— people I know and classic things I love.” The resulting illustrations swirled around coats, bags, shoes, even a t-shirt of a black cat—roughly 13 pieces in all that served as the centrepiece of the collection.

This genuine acceptance of one artist’s work for another is special and extremely unusual. Despite the constant travel and creativity that seemingly puts Marc on the edge of feverishness, this capacity to collaborate has become a hallmark of his process. And it’s been to his benefit, on some spiritual level, perhaps. Their collaboration reminds me of when Marc enlisted another great New York artist-designer, the late Stephen Sprouse, who at that point had no shop or commercial label, to “tag” those, now infamous, classic Vuitton bags in a completely heretic act, almost like performance art. The iconic bags sold out immediately when they hit stores in 2001.

It was such a kind act for a younger designer on the upswing to trust someone else to create such an important project. The initial prototypes of those terrifically expensive Vuitton bags were graffitied by Sprouse—by hand, with ink marker. One slip and the bag would be wrecked. “Working with Stephen Sprouse was always one of my very favourite things,” says Marc. “I was always a fan of his.”

As a New Yorker and a creative supernova, Marc can always draw inspiration from the city, even if he chooses not to go out anymore like we once did. And for me, I’ve come full circle, finding fashion interesting again, thanks to Marc, his theatrical presentations, and wonderful clothes. It makes me happy too that an original talent in one of the most difficult fields has—at age 53—not only survived through the ups and downs but also succeeded without compromising. How far we’ve come. 

“It’s a magpie aesthetic: If something is hideous, that’s interesting.”—Marc Jacobs