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Interview: Iain R Webb Uncovers the Unseen Marc Jacobs

Posted on 20 Dec 2018

What’s the secret to Marc Jacobs? Fashion writer and professor Iain R Webb explores the designer’s all-American pragmatism, reimagined classics, and that exquisite meeting of couture and grunge.

Iain R Webb is a fashion writer, curator, and Professor of Fashion & Design at Kingston School of Art. A devoted regular at Marc Jacobs’ shows and author of our new Marc Jacobs book, Marc Jacobs Unseen, Webb takes us to the heart of one of the most influential designers of our generation, “the dauphin of grungy, understated cool”.

Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2002 © Robert Fairer

What sets a Marc Jacobs show apart?

Jacobs’ shows have stood out on the New York schedule because his take on fashion is always so uplifting and celebratory. There is a palpable buzz about his shows that positively crackles by the time you take your seat and the show starts (invariably late). Emerging on the scene in the mid-1980s Jacobs captured the Uptown meets Downtown vibe that has since become the uniform of the global urbanite.

Couture meets grunge, dressy meets dishevelled, prim forms take on the vocabulary of the pin-up. How does Marc Jacobs get this friction so right? 

Jacobs is a child of Post-Modernism. He uses fashion to express his ideas, collaging together disparate concepts that may in reality be or feel alien, yet in his hands work seamlessly together to create a sensational new look. Something you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it.

Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2001 © Iain R Webb

Jacobs has himself commented “I have always felt a little bit outside of a community.” How would you describe Marc as a person? In what ways do you see that personhood informing his label?

Jacobs does his own thing. That is also what makes a ticket for his shows so covetable. The audience never really knows what to expect on his catwalk until the parade starts. His determination not to fit in betrays his club kid heritage and that sense of feeling other. Jacobs has cleverly packaged this for his customers. There is always a certain off-kilter quirkiness about his offer.

Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2001 © Robert Fairer

Right. He seems to excel in undoing and redoing reference points — be they pleated skirts, twinsets, settler prints, or prom dresses. Which of his reimagined classics are your favourites?

My particular favourites are his reimaginings of prim and proper – the reworked classic boucles (Spring/Summer 2005) or the suppressed sexiness of the pussy bow blouse and pencil skirts (Autumn/Winter 2004) – and latterly his play with proportion – his eccentric Edwardians (Autumn/Winter 2012) and tribute to gothic and Gaga (Autumn/Winter 2016). From the start Jacobs has always put a skewed spin on things.

New York Timeswriter Guy Trebay once noted: “The front row of a Marc Jacobs show provides a snapshot of where, at any particular time, as a culture, we find ourselves.” — What informs this special talent for capturing and expressing the zeitgeist? 

Jacobs is one of the most tuned-in designers, he soaks up and immerses himself in culture – both high and low. This has informed his aesthetic. He surrounds himself with equally tuned-in creatives, his friends and collaborators who fill his front row. Jacobs has now himself become part of the American pop culture that he once idolised from afar as a teenage fan.

Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2005 © Iain R Webb

Would you say he is an essentially American designer?

Jacobs has a respect for American fashion that goes to the very core of his being. How telling that having won both the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble Award and the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent, he should later be appointed Creative Director of the label. Jacobs admits a huge regard for Ellis and throughout his career has often, and openly, referenced the greats of American design such as Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Rudi Gernreich, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and, of course, Geoffrey Beene. He has a pragmatic approach that is intrinsic to the American design ethic but this has become less puritanical down the years, in part due to his time spent in Paris as Creative Director at Louis Vuitton. His Spring/Summer 2016 was the ultimate paean to the American Dream.

Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2005 © Robert Fairer

Are there any Marc Jacobs collections you’d highlight as especially era-defining? 

The launch of his Marc by Marc Jacobs range for Spring/Summer 2001 redefined how second lines were viewed by the industry. Jacobs understood that there was a customer whom, although not as affluent, was equally, if not more, style savvy.

Jacobs has previously said “there is nothing I love more than youth and beauty”. How have you seen a label defined by youth mature over the years? 

Jacobs collections are gloriously joyous reflecting his personal outlook. As a designer he has managed to retain that youthful sense of wonderment. I believe Jacobs is genuinely grateful to be doing his job.

Marc Jacobs, Autumn /Winter 2001 © Iain R Webb

What’s your all-time favourite Marc Jacobs collection? Why?

There were moments in several collections that made me swoon in my seat but a particular favourite show was the Autumn/Winter 2002-03. I love how Jacobs referenced his own grunge heritage – the raw and ragged edges, creased and washed fabrics. I have to admit that following this show I coveted one of his band-box smart military-style cadet jackets. I also loved his poetic Autumn/Winter 2005-06 collection that was inspired by the dark romance of Paul Poiret, Paolo Roversi and Romeo Gigli. In fact, I loved the melancholic mood so much that I immediately went out and purchased the Edward Scissorhandssoundtrack played during the show.

Marc by Marc Jacobs, Autumn/Winter 2003 – 2004 © Robert Fairer

The new Marc Jacobs Unseen is like a backstage pass to some two decades of Marc Jacobs runway shows. What do you love about these photos? What do they capture?

Uppermost, I love the way that the models are captured looking exactly as the designer conceived them, not reimagined in an editorial by a fashion editor or photographer. Their appearance is the distillation of months of work involving his team, including casting director, stylist, hair stylist and make-up artist. They are the result of so much effort, gone in a fleeting moment on the catwalk. I am also fascinated to see the clothes from a different viewpoint other than the generic straight up and down catwalk image.


Words by Eliza Apperly.


Find more in Marc Jacobs Unseen, the first publication dedicated to Marc Jacobs, revisiting the designer’s most iconic creations and revealing previously unseen backstage photographs of models, hairdressers, stylists, make-up artists and Marc Jacobs himself. 

Man Ray (Photofile)

Merry A. Foresta

Marc Jacobs: Unseen

Robert Fairer, Iain R Webb

Louis Vuitton Catwalk (Catwalk)

The Complete Fashion Collections Jo Ellison, Louise Rytter

Alexander McQueen: Unseen

Robert Fairer

John Galliano: Unseen

Robert Fairer