“THE DRIVING FORCE in my life is fear,” Marc Jacobs said.
It was a November day in New York. I sat in Jacobs’s SoHo studio, in a room lined with oversize books about the history of fashion. The designer, 56, sat facing me, wearing black boots with platform soles as high as pylons. In his hands, fingernails encrusted with green and sapphirine rhinestones, he held a vape module — the Smok G-Priv — that looked like a piece of military equipment. His longish black hair was pasted down with gel and held in place with two barrettes. The extreme care with which he was dressed — black wool pants, a blue silk Hermès scarf tucked beneath the charcoal collar of his Celine pinstripe jacket — seemed, like the bright colours of certain animals, to be in part an armour against a hostile world, in part an invitation to draw closer. Against the somewhat stern aspect of strong classical features — a prominent jaw and nose, a short black beard — his hazel eyes were tender. My first impression was of both defiance and vulnerability. His candour was disarming; he was prepared to talk about all aspects of his life — “You can ask me anything,” he said — which made me wonder if he had given too many interviews, or whether, beneath his air of nightclubs and after-parties, hotel rooms and private planes, he had developed rich inner resources, the kind that have insulated him from the overexposure of being famous virtually all his adult life.
Once known for his notoriously late shows, Marc Jacobs has mostly changed his ways. Still, you can’t rush the muse. Watch the fashion designer enjoy some downtime leading up to his Fall 2020 show.
THE JACOBS I felt I already knew struck me as that rare breed of designer whose talent has long intersected with the spirit of an age. If the reason for the emergence of such a figure every 25 years or so is always a little mysterious, it is because no one can anticipate the work they do until they have done it — think of Yves Saint Laurent putting women in trousers on the eve of the women’s liberation movement in 1966 — and yet, in retrospect, nothing seems more obvious. Jacobs belongs to that small tribe of people (as does, say, the director David Lynch, or the artist Lynda Benglis) whom the world initially greets with puzzlement, but whom, having proven themselves forerunners to so much else in the culture, no one can imagine the world without. He has lived so many lives, adopted and discarded so many avatars, that the poise and flamboyance of his persona make it easy to underestimate him. And yet, before the prurient self-regard of our present time, with its interlinked obsessions with reality TV, social media and auto-fiction, here was a man who understood the power of the projected self. Like a novelist who divides himself among his characters, one Marc Jacobs toiled away at making the clothes that would change fashion, even as another Marc, with the help of his former business partner, Robert Duffy, 65, transformed the business of fashion.
Jacobs was just 29 when, in 1992, he showed his infamous grunge collection, which recast streetwear as luxury. The sight of flannel shirts remade in Italian silks and polyester baby-doll dresses in silk chiffon was provocative enough to get Jacobs fired from his role as creative director of Perry Ellis (then known for its clean-cut American sportswear). That transformation of grunge into high fashion — complete with Kate Moss in combat boots — was only one of many instances when Jacobs would display his almost uncanny ability to identify the mood of a time, to give shape and form to what was yet unvoiced. It was on the strength of that collection that Jacobs and Duffy, who had formally established their company in 1984, debuted Jacobs’s own line a year later, forging one of the greatest collaborations since Saint Laurent met Pierre Bergé at the Cloche d’Or in 1958. In 1997, Jacobs was appointed the creative director of Louis Vuitton — a reign that lasted 16 years — thereby pioneering another dichotomy that is now commonplace, in which he simultaneously ran his namesake label while heading a large European house. Jacobs not only introduced women’s clothing to what was previously a traditional luggage brand but seamlessly blended art with fashion, collaborating with artists such as Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince on accessories that remain highly coveted to this day. His tenure reimagined a heritage brand in a manner that was as irreverent as it was confident. Its success suggested that faithfulness for faithfulness’s sake might be respectful — but it was also dull.
Throughout it all, he consistently managed to capture new moods that were just around the corner, creating pieces women never knew they needed until the clothes went down the runway: a bibbed, tea-length, Peter Pan-collared dress in a deep cerulean lace (fall 2004); a buckled, square-heeled Sun King court shoe (fall 2012); a short-sleeved pyjama shirtdress, covered in iridescent pink sequins (fall 2013). He made American luxury newly relevant while also making it accessible. When he and Duffy launched their immensely lucrative Marc by Marc Jacobs label in 2001 — a lower-priced line of basics like army jackets, cotton prairie dresses and souvenir items such as logo T-shirts, as well as key chains and tote bags — they expanded the business to encompass both high and low. This was, in part, an appeal to prospective buyers of the company, but also a prediction of the direct-to-consumer retail experience that would later flood the market.
But Jacobs’s influence extended beyond the business of fashion, affecting how it was presented to us as well. For him, a runway show wasn’t just a means to an end: It was a foretaste of today’s immersive theatre, the audience packed with celebrities as diverse as Beyoncé and Lady Bunny. And although now every big house, from Gucci to Prada, produces experiences equal in scale and spectacle, few replicate Jacobs’s emotional intensity. “When one thinks of all the years and all the productions, and the music and the scenes, and how he’s able to evoke so much emotion, season after season, year after year, it’s very hard. And he always, always does it,” said the photographer Steven Meisel, who has collaborated with the designer for more than a decade. Jacobs was aware that people leave his shows “feeling something.” A mood, a spirit: the menacing shadow a bolero hat can cast on a spot-lit model’s face; the commanding, heart-stopping regality of a hyper-ruffled, puffed-up blood-red taffeta sleeve; the romantic loneliness of a single feather bobbing atop a knitted cap accompanying a gown made entirely of ocean-grey plumes. “I don’t know how it happens,” Jacobs said to me. “I can’t weave joy into a cloth. I can’t drape joy into a jacket. But I think there’s something within the process where the energy continues to grow and is somehow amplified and transferred within those seven minutes.”
Jacobs, photographed on Dec. 3, 2019, in New York City.
JACOBS EXUDES THE intimacy of a man for whom all forms of dressing up — preparing, as T.S. Eliot put it, “a face to meet the faces that you meet” — have always, quite literally, been a show, suggesting that if there is a true life to be had, it is backstage. His natural state, one suspects, is one in which he sits with an old friend in a post-show glow, his mood one of mingled exhilaration and fatigue, toes nibbling the edge of the sofa, tea and cashmere at hand, the conversation drifting between self-examination and gossip. When we met, we slipped quickly into a freewheeling conversation about the old Upper West Side (where I now live), his grandmother Helen, his first kiss (as a middle schooler, with a girl named Lauren Bongiorno at camp, which was more to impress the other boys: “The queen amongst you has become king amongst you!”), drugs, orgies and the Grindr-driven need for sexual novelty that can make gay life in New York so arid. But most of all, we circled around a primal wound inflicted on Jacobs as a child by his mother’s mental illness, which left him with a taste for high emotion and a heightened instinct for self-protection.
Jacobs’s mother — his sole legal guardian after the death of his father, a TV agent at William Morris who died of the chronic bowel disease ulcerative colitis when Jacobs was 7 — had bipolar disorder. “I saw things no child should ever have to see,” said Jacobs, referring to episodes when his mother would go off her medication. Sometimes he would wake up to find her catatonic and bloodied; other times she was being carted off to the emergency room. Running alongside these darker moments were terrific highs, which Jacobs, who has inherited his mother’s disease (along with his father’s ulcerative colitis), confessed he half loved. He would see her dressed up before going out, “wearing drag-queen-type makeup.” She once came home high with a boyfriend and they painted a mural on the bathroom wall, onto which she glued clumps of her boyfriend’s pubic hair. In another instance, in the grip of chemical enthusiasm, she decided they would open a modelling agency with her new boyfriend, whom she planned on marrying; she had already designed towels embroidered with her new initials. “I was, like, ‘O.K.,’” Jacobs said tentatively, and even in his retelling, one could feel all the alarm and wonder of a young boy growing suspicious of the pathological intensity of his mother, from whom he remained estranged until her death in 2011.
In the end, it was too much. The oldest of three children, he was forced to be a parent to his siblings. “It was not a job I wanted,” he said. “I did not want to be mother and father to my sister and brother in any way, shape or form.” When Jacobs was in his early teens, he went to live nearby with his paternal grandmother, who had an apartment in the Majestic, a twin-towered Art Deco building on Central Park West (his siblings, with whom he does not have a relationship, were taken into foster care). “It was the beginning,” he said, “of the life I loved.” Grandma Helen, who adored Jacobs, brought rules and decorum to his life. Spring and autumn clothes, with matching shoes and bags, were brought out and put away as the seasons changed. With some outfits she wore only black gloves, with others only white. She taught her grandson the virtue of owning one nice sweater rather than 10 not-so-nice sweaters. These early lessons in style, alongside her complete belief in Jacobs — she went about the neighbourhood telling everyone that her grandson, who had already shown more than a practical interest in clothes, was going to be a famous designer one day — gave him the stability within which his own Dionysian nature could flower, safe from the danger of self-immolation. His grandmother was the first in a series of guardians, or protectors, that Jacobs would find — and need — throughout his life. “I always found my space,” he said. “I believed that I could create the world I wanted to live in.”
This world was invariably an enclosed one, governed by its own laws, in which the consolations of beauty and art could shut out the chaos beyond, the way a sudden downpour can put the roar of a city at a distance. What Jacobs seemed always to be in search of was a world within a world — a framing device, if you will — into which he could pour his reserves of creativity and emotion. Ricky Serbin, his friend and roommate while he attended the Parsons School of Design, and now a dealer of high-end vintage fashion, remembers an 18-year-old Jacobs, put in charge of a party for the Japanese avant-garde designer Kansai Yamamoto in 1981, renting a fish market on Canal Street. “Everyone,” Serbin said, “was given necklaces with clear plastic bags in which there was a live goldfish.” That playfulness, or “whimsy,” as Duffy described it, is at the heart of Jacobs’s work, and it is, in fact, a very serious thing. Like the Surrealist Salvador Dalí, who replaced telephone receivers with lobsters, Jacobs creates a hilarity that can also be philosophical. And in a business that takes itself as seriously as fashion does, this kind of wink reminds us that beneath the splendour of it all — the great sets, the beautiful models sparkling in their jewels and raiments — it is all vanity, all dross.
Roe Ethridge. Styled by Carlos Nazario
Left: Grey and checked peak-lapel wool blazers with oversize patch pockets and heavy stitch embroidery, along with matching wide-leg trousers, leather boots and grosgrain-trimmed wool fedoras. All looks from Marc Jacobs spring 2020. All hats are Stephen Jones for Marc Jacobs. Right (from left): an ochre-coloured wool cropped-sleeve jacket with a sequin lining over a matching straight skirt; a canary-yellow peak-lapel blazer, vest and purple mock turtleneck blouse with matching wide-leg trousers. Both looks worn with floppy-brimmed hats.
IF THERE IS one single attribute that elevates Jacobs out of the world of clothes and into the world of art, it is his process. This is a man who, armed with only the grain of an idea — what Henry James calls the “windblown” seed — lives for weeks in a state of formlessness. He recognises from experience that the discomfort of that bit of grit lodged in his imagination is creativity, but that is all. He has to live with that and wait for it to reveal its inner promptings. Ever since he was a child, he has understood the relationship between chaos and form, when he fashioned realms of order and beauty that protected him from the disorder and violence of his domestic life; he knows that he must wait in a state of heightened anxiety and concentration for that first glimmer of inspiration to show itself as something real.
The first sign of articulation announces itself as colour and fabric. Still, he has no real sense of what goes where. The story we are told of men like Valentino or Halston is of the designer sitting at his “very chic” desk, Jacobs said, making “lovely drawings, which he hands over to some assistant, who in turn gives them to the woman who’s going to drape them, or the man who’s going to do the tailoring. They go off, a muslin comes back. There is a fitting where a bolt of fabric is thrown over a model.”
“And that’s just not the way it is!” Jacobs said emphatically. “Or at least, it’s not like that here.” Instead, Jacobs and his team sit around a table for two weeks to a month. A process of collaging then occurs, in which his team goes out and collects fabrics from vintage clothing stores and couture mills. There are no directives. During this period, Jacobs doesn’t know if anything is right or wrong, and the eyes of those around him are as important as his own. “Because in his head,” Duffy said, “there is a vision. He hasn’t articulated it to anybody in the room yet. He hasn’t even articulated it to himself yet, but I see it coming together as he’s putting things together.” Throughout this process, Jacobs will maintain fixations: with forms, textures and fabrics. For his spring 2020 collection, for instance, he became obsessed with variations of 1960s-style high-waisted three-piece suits. Once the broad contours of his vision are determined, Jacobs goes, like a queen bee in her hive, to the other departments — hair, makeup and shoes — pollinating their imagination with the mood or feeling with which he’s been living. If things cohere, it is because a massive collaborative energy has swept through the office, cross-fertilising the different departments. Speaking of the joy and abandon manifest in his spring 2020 collection, Jacobs said, “I woke up one day in Rye” — the upstate New York town where he bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house in 2019 — “and I remembered this song ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.’ I watched the video from [the 1971 musical comedy by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, based on the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew] ‘Godspell.’ And it’s so great. Because all these people are leaving their jobs. This model throws away her wig and portfolio; this ballerina is flipping down the street ... and another guy is walking by. It’s the feel of ‘Godspell.’”
Roe Ethridge. Styled by Carlos Nazario
Left (from left): A check suiting double-breasted belted long jacket with an enamel buckle and buttons, and matching pleated-front high-waisted trousers, silk blouse, wool sweater and forest-green fedora; a leather trench coat draped over a fitted vest and pleated trousers and a brown wool cowboy hat. Right: A ruffled floral dress, with a guipure collar, in dusty hues of peach, green and burgundy; heart intarsia tights, ’60s quilted mules and a floppy straw hat.
The resulting collection was a maximalist explosion of colour and nostalgia. Here were tangerine dresses covered in crocheted white flowers, yellow stockings, floppy ’70s sun hats and red bowlers and great gowns covered in blush, pink and orange dahlias made from fluttering organza. Models had Raggedy Ann eyelashes, or glittery, beetle-green shadowed lids, or Elton John-style glasses with rims shaped like butterfly wings. It was a spring so euphoric that it felt as though Carmen Miranda had gone for a stroll along the sea floor and emerged with sponges, sea lilies and anemones clinging to her petticoats.
Jacobs became philosophical as conversation turned to the subject of a designer’s relevance and longevity. “This is where it’s all going to go dark,” he said, speaking of the cycles all designers go through. He raised the possibility that every creative person has a moment, and that maybe he has had his: “People want newness, and they want it from a new person. I understand that I’m not the 25-year-old who was given this incredible job at Perry Ellis, or who created the grunge collection, or who was the bad boy of the 1990s,” he said. “I am a 56-year-old man who still has the privilege of doing a collection.” But his voice was calm as he said this, full of acceptance and experience.
There is a side of Jacobs, no doubt a consequence of the trauma of those childhood scenes with his mother, that is drawn to the allure of personas and the refuge of fictitious selves. “There’s a part of me,” he said, speaking as if he was spectator unto his own life, “that would have been a great performer: I love this idea of creating identity, of playing roles and, you know, playing a part in this movie that’s my life.” One criticism often levelled at Jacobs’s work is that there is no signature. Yet there is: The signature is him. His emotional development, which has coincided with the arc of gay culture in this country, is the common thread running through his work.
Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock; Barbara Rosen/Images/Getty Images; Guy Marineau/Catwalk Pictures; J.Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images; Mark Mainz/Getty Images; Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images (2); Randy Brooke/WireImage/Getty Images; Imaxtree; Randy Brooke/WireImage/Getty Images (2)
Marc Jacobs, from left, at his spring 1987 show; at New York Fashion Week circa 1991; at his fall 2001 show; at his fall 2003 show; at his spring 2005 show; at his spring 2006 show; at his spring 2007 show; at his fall 2009 show; at his spring 2012 show; at his fall 2016 show; at his spring 2020 show.
LONG BEFORE INFLUENCERS and social media managers, Jacobs knew the importance of becoming a brand. Over the years, he has embodied a dozen sociologies related to gay culture, from the embrace of the body beautiful in the mid-aughts, when he famously shook off his chrysalis of flab and long, unkempt hair to reveal the hard sinew of an Instagram-ready body, of sex-positivity, of rehab and wellness, of marriage, and now, with his jewel-encrusted nails and rhinestone hairpins, of gender fluidity.
Jacobs said he was “never in,” though he couldn’t remember ever sitting anyone down to come out. He rode the bus to Parsons with the actress Maureen Stapleton and the milliner Mr. John, who made hats for the Duchess of Windsor. Dressed in button-downs and tiny bow ties, Jacobs began going to Studio 54 when he was 15 and was soon dating Robert Boykin, who was 17 years his senior and the owner of Hurrah, the first rock and new wave nightclub on the Upper West Side. Through Boykin, Jacobs got to know Debbie Harry, David Bowie and Andy Warhol. “He was practically a savant,” Serbin, who shared a fourth-floor walk-up downtown with Jacobs in the 1980s, told me. “He knew everything about fashion and knew everyone in fashion.”
In the late 1980s, Boykin was diagnosed with AIDS, and Jacobs, who by then had been with him for nine and a half years, watched him go home to Alabama to die. The era of sexual decadence was ending. Everybody had been taking drugs and having random sex, when, as Jacobs put it, all of a sudden, “Oh God, there’s this thing and a group of our friends are already infected with it, and it’s spreading, and you can’t behave that way anymore.”
During this period, Jacobs was, Serbin said, “decidedly unglamorous,” but by the aughts, after a period of careful eating and exercising as a way to treat his ulcerative colitis, he went from 21 percent body fat to 6.5 percent. “You could see my abs,” Jacobs said, “and I could flex and there would be a little bit of a bicep, and, all of a sudden, guys in the gym started paying attention to me.” He enjoyed the attention, too. But then a Jacobsian cycle, whose spiralling excesses I was beginning to recognise, ensued. Soon, he was on steroids and partying at clubs in Ibiza, where he would stay up all night on MDMA. “That started the whole Grindr thing,” Jacobs said. “I wanted more Grindr dates and better-looking Grindr dates. I didn’t really care about them. I just wanted sex.” He dated beautiful Brazilians, such as the entrepreneur Lorenzo Martone and the adult film star Harry Louis, whose best work, available online, shows Louis valiantly perfecting the yogic art of bottoming while simultaneously sloughing off the tyranny of the gag reflex. But last year, Jacobs married his longtime boyfriend, Charly Defrancesco, 36, a model, interior designer and entrepreneur. “I didn’t really care about marriage,” he said, but through the course of the five-year relationship with Defrancesco, “I realised how important marriage was to Charly.”
“Happiness” was a word that Jacobs’s friends and colleagues often used when discussing him. Everyone spoke of how happy he is now, how much easier in his skin. “Sober, settled, happily married,” Duffy said, adding of the designer’s life in Rye: “I never in my life thought Marc would be moving to the suburbs.” (Jacobs still keeps a Manhattan residence.) The word came up so much that I began to feel I was listening to a version of what the critic V.S. Pritchett once wrote of the personal happiness Edith Wharton found after marriage: “That happiness, it now seems, dulled her talent.” But no. Katie Grand, the house’s stylist since 2013, assured me that the moment Jacobs walks through the door of the seventh-floor studio on Spring Street, “all the Rye-idyllic happiness” falls away and “the anxieties hit, the insecurities hit.” And there are other anxieties, too: about money — Jacobs had recently sold more than 50 works from his personal collection of contemporary art, including one by John Currin and an Andy Warhol, at Sotheby’s — and about age, about the industry’s relentless pursuit of the new. “His creative process hasn’t changed, whether he’s been happy in relationships or unhappy,” said Grand. “His drive is still in his head to go and create something.”
Roe Ethridge. Styled by Carlos Nazario
Left (from left): A shrunken men’s vest, matching pleated pants and a silk button-down blouse, worn under a gabardine trench coat and paired with quilted mules and a felt fedora; a fitted blazer, vest and matching Swarovski crystal-embellished pants with a silk button-down blouse, a wool bowler hat and white wedge mules. Right: A red feather headpiece with a Dahlia and Blades gown made of blush pink and orange organza.
“I TRY TO enjoy everything I have for the time I have it,” Jacobs said. “But there’s this dancing-as-fast-as-I-can fear that I have only got so much time, and I’m not going to get to enjoy this forever. Either someone will take it from me, or it will get lost, or I’ll lose it. So, impending doom and chaos is always there. That’s what I grew up with.”
At Marc Jacobs, the past five years have been difficult. The departure of Duffy in 2014 brought to a close one of the most creatively fecund and successful business partnerships in the history of the industry. A year earlier, Duffy and Jacobs ceded control of Marc Jacobs to LVMH in a restructuring deal that nearly coincided with Jacobs stepping down as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton. The company had more than 250 stores worldwide, along with a cosmetic and fragrance business, a men’s and children’s line and a bookstore. Duffy found himself sidelined. It was decided that almost everything except the women’s runway collection would be discontinued or scaled down: Away went the secondary Marc by Marc Jacobs line, with its popular candy-coloured handbags and flared blue jeans and irresistible trinkets. “I didn’t understand that decision,” Duffy said with exasperation. “Why are you throwing away all the things that make money?” Duffy bought a house in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley, where he spends his weekends. He’s now raising two children; Jacobs is the godfather to both.
Since Duffy’s exit, the brand has had two C.E.O.s: Sebastian Suhl, who came from Givenchy, and Eric Marechalle, who came from Kenzo and was appointed in 2017. Marechalle’s first big hire in February 2018 was John Targon, the co-founder and former co-designer of the American ready-to-wear sportswear brand Baja East, who was brought on to help Jacobs and his team design Marc Jacobs runway looks. Three months later, he was gone. Perhaps the only “name” designer at Marc Jacobs can be the man himself.
What’s certain is that the age of excess that witnessed the rise of Marc Jacobs — the person and the company — has now passed. In this new sober time, Jacobs’s career, with all its emphasis on joyful self-aggrandisement, feels a little like a cautionary tale of exuberance shading into shrinking profits, shop closures and a melancholy, if amicable, divorce from Duffy. Today the company maintains only five stores: three in New York, one in Los Angeles and another in Paris. Yet there have been moves to correct course, including the recent one-off Redux Grunge Collection 1993/2018, an almost verbatim 26-piece reissue of Jacobs’s show for Perry Ellis, released for the 25-year anniversary of the seminal collection. A resurrection of Marc by Marc Jacobs in the form of The Marc Jacobs — a mix of revived basics and new collaborations (the filmmaker Sofia Coppola, for example, helped Jacobs pick some of the pieces to bring back) — launched in May 2019. His past three runway collections have been hugely acclaimed, and critics speak of Jacobs once again as the face of New York fashion. They are reminders of how Jacobs’s shows have long been one of the main reasons European editors fly to New York for fashion week, where they once were kept waiting for hours for them to start. (These days, the shows mostly start on time.) As other brands — including Proenza Schouler, Altuzarra and Tom Ford — have experimented with presenting their clothes in Europe or in California, Jacobs has remained true to his city. His is always the last big show on the New York fashion week calendar, and his runway, though more austere now, resonates with the power of an older master — “venerable,” as he likes to say — one still able to arouse passion, still able to read the mood of the time.
And yet, one returns to Jacobs not out of nostalgia but from a curiosity to see how this man of prodigious talent, now shorn of the infrastructure of self-enlargement, is faring in a time out-of-joint. “When I think of American designers, there is a certain spirit that is inherent in American design. There’s tenacity, there’s a sort of can-do attitude, and Marc represents the best of that,” said co-chairperson Julie Mannion of the fashion public relations firm KCD and a longtime collaborator of Jacobs. “There’s that fearlessness of not being too pigeonholed by tradition.” Jacobs the artist is remarkable in his sensitivity, in his ability to pivot and meet the needs of a new era. For more than 10 years, he presented his collections at the Beaux-Arts brick fortress of the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, but in 2014, Jacobs moved west to the Park Avenue Armory, a Gilded Age building on the Upper East Side once known as the home of the “silk stocking” regiment for the high number of Roosevelts and Vanderbilts who served in the local militia. He has remained loyal to this venue, with few exceptions, ever since. His shows are now as spartan as they once were baroque: just the models, the clothes, the viewers and the building’s uneven matchstick wooden floors. For the spring 2018 season, Jacobs showed his intensely beautiful ’60s-style tunics, pinned turbans and one-shoulder gowns cut from batik-like fabrics and pastel florals in complete silence. The 460 onlookers, seated in uncomfortable metal folding chairs around the perimeter of the 55,000-square-foot room, heard only the beat of tinseled and jewelled sandals strutting and the swish of clothes heavy with sequins and beading. The effect was powerful in its simplicity, and in its suggestion of an older artist freeing himself from the noise and clutter of a younger self.
IT WAS A bright December afternoon, a week or so before Christmas, when Jacobs and I met for the last time. I waited in the reception area of his atelier next to a sculpture of Neville, Jacobs’s bull terrier, whom I had recently begun following on Instagram (he has over 200,000 followers). I thought I could finally understand why Jacobs commands such devotion from those around him. He exudes a precariousness that is deeply affecting to anyone even dimly aware of the mysterious connection between creativity and tragedy. If he attracts protectors, it is because one cannot speak at any length to him without feeling that, as Oscar Wilde wrote about his titular character in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “a note of doom runs like a purple thread” through “the gold cloth” of his talent. “He’s a beautiful, beautiful man,” Jacobs’s friend, the filmmaker Lana Wachowski said. She told me that during one of Jacobs’s “post-art-done depressions,” she gave him a copy of Albert Camus’s 1942 philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which led the designer and the filmmaker to get matching tattoos.
Earlier, Jacobs had shown me a slide of himself with his grandma Helen in Capri in 1980; it was encased in the red plastic of a vintage photo viewer. The slide was a stark contrast to the hard, distancing glamour of his appearance now; together, the two images of Jacobs were like the two panels of a diptych denoting innocence and experience. Peering down the viewer’s small convex lens, I saw Jacobs — gangly, laughing, 17 — standing next to his white-haired grandmother, herself the picture of bourgeois Upper West Side elegance. She was wearing a Claude Montana knit dress, with broad stripes of silver across a white background, which Jacobs had made her buy. He, in turn, had saved his earnings as a stock boy at the now-defunct Upper West Side clothing store Charivari to buy the men’s sweater version of the dress, which he wore with white trousers. To see the teenager with his chosen protector, the pairing of sweater and dress a proof of their bond, was to be reminded of the matching tattoos of Sisyphus that Jacobs would get decades later with Wachowski. The myth of the man condemned for eternity by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again has long attracted those who know the solitude and futility of creative life. In the version of the myth inscribed on Jacobs’s and Wachowski’s forearms, five tattooed words of hope allow for human communion as a refuge in the enveloping loneliness. They simply read: “I will if you will.”
Models: Janaye Furman at the Lions and Elibeidy Dani at IMG. Hair by Akki at Art Partner. Makeup by Susie Sobol at Julian Watson Agency. Set design by Andy Harman at Lalaland. Casting by Midland. Manicure: Dawn Sterling at Statement Artists. Production: Hen’s Tooth. Lighting design: Jordan Strong. Photo assistants: Ariel Sadok, Kaitlin Tucker and Shen Williams. Digital tech: Jonathan Nesteruk. Stylist’s assistants: Raymond Gee and Erica Boisaubin. Tailoring: Thao Huynh. Hair assistant: Rei Kawauchi. Makeup assistant: Sasha Borax. Set design assistant: Lee Freeman.
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