August 7, 2015
Marc Jacobs is one of the most influential fashion designers of our time. He is also a major art collector, who would rather rely on his gut instincts than a history lesson about why he should like an artwork. He was born and raised in New York City, where he studied at the Parsons School of Design, receiving the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble Award. In this interview with Derek Blasberg, he talks about buying his first Ed Ruscha painting, getting sober, and collaborating with artists like Takashi Murakami.
Derek Blasberg: You finally joined Instagram, and your first picture was of you standing in front of Ed Ruscha’s She Gets Angry at Him (1974). Coincidence, or hidden meaning?
Marc Jacobs: I like to think everything is intentional, whether it’s subconscious or not. There’s always a reason for something, even if it’s not obvious. I’d like to think that’s my experience with art in general.
DB: So, was this one intentional or subconscious?
MJ: Ha, I don’t remember. It must have been deliberate. I love that piece, and maybe I was feeling perverse that day. Ed’s work is so brilliant because I find that I can morph whatever it says or how it’s written into whatever I’m feeling in that moment. It’s like a mood ring like that.
DB: It’s a visual language and vocabulary.
MJ: I’m very much a visual person, and I tend to be seduced by everything based on what it does to me visually at first. And then after that I want to learn more about it. That’s how it’s been with everything in my life: visual seduction first, and then the education. That’s how I learned about punk music. I loved the way people looked, and then I wondered: Where are they going? What are they listening to? And as I learned more about it, I liked it: the perversity and the irony of the lyrics, as well as the timing in the context of the history of Pop music.
DB: I read somewhere that Ed’s work was your first major piece of contemporary art. Is that true?
MJ: The first thing I ever bought was three prints from Mike Kelley, and then I bought an oil painting by Karen Kilimnik. But yes, the first major piece was Ed’s Peach (1962). It’s in my house in Paris, and it’s been in the same spot for about fifteen years. [Since stepping down as creative director of Louis Vuitton in 2013], I don’t spend as much time there, so I sort of miss it. Of all the things that I’m fortunate enough to own, it’s still one of my favorite paintings.
DB: You’ve said that, before you started collecting art in the early 2000s, you thought that the art world was intimidating. Let’s talk about that.
MJ: Okay, but let’s start at the beginning. At a very early age, I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. That’s what interested me. I went to the High School of Art and Design in New York City, and before that, I took art survey courses, which were all very scholarly, textbook-based lectures. “This is a Mondrian, this is a Monet.” When I was a teenager I liked to be rebellious and annoying, and I remember once I said to a teacher, “A Mondrian? Pfft, my little sister can do that.” I didn’t necessarily mean it, but it felt like an arbitrary and cool thing to say. I realize now that, in terms of my own insecurities, I felt that to be enamored by fashion I had to be dismissive of everything else. I had created this creative hierarchy where artists received divine inspiration, but designers made creative choices that were based on commercial interests. So in my head I thought artists were above designers, and, well, I ought to stay with my crew.
DB: Stay in your lane!
MJ: Totally. I remember a million years ago, walking through SoHo when it was all artists’ lofts and galleries—this is before Prada came there, before Marni came there, even before we opened our first shop in SoHo in Tony Shafrazi’s old gallery space on Mercer Street—and I would walk past Metro Pictures gallery. I would think, “That’s such a cool name for a gallery, but I don’t want to go in there. They’re going to laugh at me; I won’t understand the content or the artist’s intent.” I didn’t give it a chance.
DB: But you were friends with some of the artists working at that time, weren’t you? Francesco Clemente told me he remembers you from when you were a kid.
MJ: Yes, of course, but on a social level. Jean-Michel [Basquiat], Julian [Schnabel], Francesco [Clemente]. I met them all, and I was going out a lot, and I enjoyed them as people. I felt so privileged to know them. But if I had to identify their work, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I knew that Jean-Michel was a guy that Andy [Warhol] really liked. I was there one night at the Odeon when he fell asleep in a bowl of soup, and I thought that was cool. I could hold a conversation with them. But I couldn’t really tell what they were making in terms of art.
DB: So, what changed your perspective?
DB: No, really?
MJ: I’m serious! The first time I went to rehab there was a psychiatrist who gave me some of the most intelligent advice I’ve ever been given: Become an architect for an alternative appetite. What did that mean? I had been running around with models, stylists, fashion people, and I would spend nights drinking and partying. He said I needed to replace these behaviors with activities and creative pursuits that I found as fulfilling.
DB: Good advice, indeed.
MJ: And to be honest, at the time I must have felt like I wasn’t getting enough out of what I was doing. I fed on it so long that those things were no longer nourishing me. It wasn’t even fun or exciting anymore. I wasn’t interested.
DB: Was it difficult to redirect your interests?
MJ: This alternative appetite meant addressing my fears and apprehensions, even if I didn’t like doing it. I changed a lot of things. I had to embrace the idea of using my first Apple computer. I started going to the gym and eating very healthily. I wanted to fill my days with stuff. And one of the things that I realized I could enjoy was going to museums. Now, look, I was always the little boy that would have rather gone to Bergdorf’s with his grandmother than MoMA. But in this new version of myself, I was being fed by looking at art, and I liked that. The first thing that really blew me away was Mike Kelley’s show at the Whitney.
DB: And that’s when you bought the prints?
MJ: I asked [my friend, diamond dealer] John [Reinhold], “How do people get art? How do you, like, own art?” I sort of just thought only Rockefellers own art, and I didn’t think I could. I was making good money, but not phenomenal money. John explained that, no, I probably can’t afford a Picasso, but I could afford some prints. And it just so happened it was around my birthday, so I bought them for myself.
DB: This was your first step toward collecting then?
MJ: Well, I had never heard of Basel. The city or the art fair. So, when I bought the Kelley prints, the gallery told me that I could buy them but not have them till after Basel, which I didn’t understand. And John, in his undeniable patter, said, “Come meet me, and I’ll fill you in.”
DB: And then you were off to the races! You started collecting like a mad man. I’ve seen your house in Paris, full of John Currins, Cindy Shermans, Warhols, Damien Hirsts, Elizabeth Peytons, Richard Princes, and more Ruschas.
MJ: I do tend to go from zero to one hundred in six seconds, don’t I? It’s the same principles of addiction: If I like it and it makes me feel good, I want to do it, and I want to do it more often. It’s the same thing with me now as the gym, and sitting in the sun. When there’s euphoria, I want to keep doing it. And with art, there’s the pursuit, the feeling you get from getting it, the joy of having it—and then wanting more.
DB: I think it’s compounded when you get to know the artists too.
MJ: Exactly, when you become friends, and you know more about the work, and you see the process, and it becomes a more personal thing.
DB: Your friend Rachel Feinstein has been outspoken about how much she respects your work, and how the blending of fashion and art isn’t that big of a deal.
MJ: Rachel and [her husband] John Currin are extraordinary. They are a magical couple in every sense of the word. I met them the same time I met Elizabeth Peyton, who is another artist that I think is inspiring. The things that inspire them, how they interpret those things—I find such a connection in that process. The nonlinear thinking, perversity, and that indescribable ability to never be satisfied. And something that we have in common is a creative process that is a near obsession with technique and approach. John can stand in front of a painting and talk about the primer colors and the amount of turpentine that he used as much as he can talk about the inspirations and subjects. And I can talk about top-stitching and weaving fabrics and the lining of a dress, which you don’t even see, as much as the references in a collection. It’s not that these things need to be discussed, but it’s the knowledge of those ingredients that contribute to the end result and make it expressive of a vision. I think there are some people who don’t care about technique as much as we do.
DB: Talk to me about the collaborations you did with artists for Louis Vuitton. Were you intimidated to approach those artists?
MJ: No. I always wanted to work with Stephen [Sprouse, whom the first LV collaboration was with]. I knew his creative references; he was a great designer; we understood how our minds worked. I wanted him to do the graffiti on the trunks and bags.
DB: How did you come up with that concept?
MJ: Defacing, appropriating, and altering something is, by nature, a very punk act. My all-time favorite work of art is Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). It’s the piece where he draws the mustache and beard on the Mona Lisa. But there’s humor and an aggressive quality to it that appeals to me.
DB: The Sprouse graffiti prints became one of the best-selling, most critically acclaimed moments in Vuitton’s history, despite the fact that the company was initially resistant to the idea of playing with the monogram. What about Murakami?
MJ: That was different. Well, all the artists’ collaborations were different. To make something new, it’s always good to have both a healthy love and disrespect of the past. But in the case of Murakami: I was in Paris, and it was one of those weekends where I was just feeling good. Coincidentally, I was staying near the Fondation Cartier, who had a big show of Murakami’s work up, and I went in there and loved the show. On Monday, I picked up a catalogue that featured a lot of his work, and I thought, “Hmm, that’s serendipitous.” And then the following day, I saw that one of his sculptures, the one with the woman with the milk squirting out of her tits, called Hiropon, had just sold. So I researched him some more and started connecting the dots. I said, “This is the kind of guy I want to collaborate with, but didn’t know how to reach him.” So we wrote him an email and asked if he’d like to meet in Paris. And he did.
DB: And you liked the end result there too?
MJ: It was satisfying and lucrative. It checked all the boxes. When it came out, there were counterfeits made of the bags, and I saw pictures of people selling the fake versions outside of Louis Vuitton shops. Which I thought was punk, ironic, and a little perverse.
DB: What lead you to Richard Prince?
MJ: That’s when I started thinking about appropriation and humor. I like his work because it makes me wonder, “Who is the joke on?” In his work I can find that obsession with irony, perversity, a voice, a vision; I can tick all those boxes in every artist I’ve collected, actually. Ultimately, that’s what I began to understand about the art world. Anything can be art. It’s the same reason I love Jeff Koons. I saw a documentary where Jeff said that you don’t need an art history background to get his art. You don’t have to have gone to art school to stand in front of one of his puppies, and just love it. I love that: Fuck you! Don’t tell me what art is.
DB: Would you say that is your guiding principle in looking at art now?
MJ: It took me a while to realize it, but yes, my opinion now on art boils down to I like it or I don’t like it. That is, until it changes. And it does! Luckily, I’m always curious and always remain open to a new interpretation. One day, I will say I hate something and, the next day, I will come back and say I love it.
DB: So, if someone tries to explain a piece to you—
MJ: When someone starts to tell me what someone else is trying to say, I just shut them down and say, “I don’t know, I liked it.” That’s what art is. An artist can have a catalyst, they can have a way to do it, but those reasons are relative to a moment in time and thinking. It’s only part of the equation for someone experiencing the piece.
DB: But for you, it’s a gut reaction.
MJ: Let’s just say that one of my favorite things to do at an art fair now is walk around and point at things and say, “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” Simple as that.