Cool as a Cupcake

What makes Marc Jacobs the reigning king of fashion?

Click here to see a slide show of Marc Jacobs’ designs.

On one corner of a quaint stretch of storefronts in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the trendy Magnolia Bakery sells pastel PTA-bake-sale desserts while across the street Marc Jacobs, fashion’s latest megastar, offers his take on your mother’s matching pumps and pocketbooks. The reason crowds wait in a 15-minute bakery line for a cupcake is clear: They taste great. But why are people lining up at Marc Jacobs’ boutiques?

Marc, as citizens of style call him, is New York’s most fashionable son. Recently, the British magazine the Face—the Standard & Poor’s index of cool—gave Jacobs the top spot on its list of the “100 Most Powerful People in Fashion,” making him more powerful than Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. And more powerful, even, than Bernard Arnault—chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French conglomerate—who is, to a degree, his boss, since LVMH owns a majority of his namesake business.

Not bad for a guy who started out by selling a few sweaters to Charivari, a now-defunct fashion boutique, when he was a club kid in the ‘80s. Today, in addition to heading his own U.S. brand, Jacobs is the highly visible creative director of Louis Vuitton, the prestigious French design house, where he oversees product design and promotion, a position that placed him in the worldwide orbit of fashion stardom when he was appointed to it in 1997. His recent collaborations with notable New York designer Stephen Sprouse and Japanese cult figure and artist Takashi Murakami have produced the most talked-about accessory designs in a decade. Both his namesake top-priced collection and blowout success bridge label, Marcby Marc Jacobs, occupy major real estate in fashionable stores around the world. (Marc Jacobs bags, along with Chanel’s, possibly the world’s most prestigious brand, are the top sellers at Bergdorf Goodman.) Add to that an unsurpassed reputation for cool among both Park Avenue socialites and indie actresses like Zoe Cassavetes, and you gotta ask, what is this guy doing right?

Marcia Brady redux

Take a look at the overtly Courréges-referenced fall 2003 collection currently on view to retailers in his SoHo showroom: Here on the racks was Marcia Brady’s Cold War wardrobe, reborn for a postmodern ingénue. Jacobs had cut crisp-lined miniskirts, over-the-head jumpers and color-blocked hooded coats in bright—almost manic—shades of purple and electric blue, and he reproportioned the curve-free ‘60s silhouette for our overtly seductive age. (Courréges is the iconic designer of space-age glamour.) In stores now, women will find pretty polka-dot camisoles (pop-art combos of red and orange make it fresh), ‘70s grade-school teacher handbags (in ironically cartoonish proportions) and tweed suits (for a mod, sexy secretary). For men, there are nerdy button-downs in acid-trip shades of green and violet, geeky T-shirts (with goofy psychedelic-band-era graphics) and too-tight jeans (like your older sister’s boyfriend had). What do you remember most fondly about prom night? The color of your corsage? Whether or not your shirt had pleats or ruffles? No. It’s the image of your date hurling Wild Duck out the limo window that’s tugging at your cynical heartstrings.

’60s sportswear revamped for rockers

What do all these designs have in common? They say it’s OK to be sentimental if your nostalgia feels slightly derelict. Like the Magnolia cupcake, Jacobs delivers the sweetly familiar, but his is slurred through a rocker’s degenerate haze of booze and pills. What makes the clothes themselves remarkable, other than their colorful charm, is harder to pin down. Not even the biggest Marc Jacobs fans in the fashion press would say that he has invented signature cuts; these silhouettes have been seen before. Yet innovation in today’s fashion rarely comes from the dressmaker’s shears: What designer working now can lay claim to the inventive cutting of Vionnet or Balenciaga?

The Members Only look revisited

If originality in proportion and the precise marriage of cloth to shape are what made Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent legendary, Jacobs’ hallmark contribution to fashion is the deft use of past references, not the drape or the cut. Much as Ralph Lauren has built an empire on referencing a shared fantasy of America’s glorious yesterdays, Jacobs is building an empire on referencing a shared fantasy of a glamorously fast life seen through a ‘70s-era teenager’s eyes. He artfully appropriates the vocabulary of Anne Klein (who probably dressed your foxy fourth-grade math teacher), Members Only (the slick ‘70s menswear label), and Perry Ellis (whose house a younger Marc revived following the designer’s death). His baldly literal sampling of near-forgotten designers’ signatures (the Courréges color-blocking of his fall 2003 collection) and cultural nods at John Waters’ Baltimore (the thrift-store glamour of the spring 2002 Marc line) have earned him the label “postmodernist” and have led the New York Times to call him “fashion’s DJ.” While designers dabbling in similar territory are accused of being knockoff artists—an accusation critics have also leveled at Jacobs—fans say he has elevated the game to cultural zeitgeisting. He is the Moby, or Damien Hirst, of the runway.

Jacobs saves his most elaborate flourishes for the lush collections at Louis Vuitton (where the French ateliers can handle more complex construction, and a beaded dress goes for close to $10,000).But it’s his sportswear that has made his name.

It has been decades since sportswear has generated this kind of fashion buzz, although sportswear separates, as they are known in the fashion trade—coordinating jackets, trousers, skirts, blouses, and knits—have been the basis for women’s wardrobes since the end of World War II, when American manufacturers began dressing a new female workforce. What Jacobs does better than the other prominent sportswear designers of his generation, namely Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez, is to infuse what might otherwise be wardrobe basics with the ineffable panache of high fashion. He makes getting dressed every day more fun, more colorful, and more cool. Women’s Wear Daily recently reported that the company is developing further plans for growth in what the trade calls “better-priced” merchandise—or the tier of business below the bridge market. (Revenue in this more popularly priced arena can reach upward of half a billion dollars.)

Of course Jacobs’ success is in large part due to his marketing savvy: When the designer’s close circle of friends, who are featured in the brand’s ads, include Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, singer Stephen Malkmus, and the French starlet Emmanuelle Seigner, selling to a smoke-filled room’s worth of indie stars becomes effortless indeed. And the brand’s marketing is winningly cheeky; recently, Jacobs asked Winona Ryder to be the latest face of Marc Jacobs after she was caught lifting some of his frocks from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.

Is Marc Jacobs a knockoff artist? Absolutely not. He has, in fact, redefined what it means to be a fashion designer—by shifting the very standards by which the craft will be judged in the future. According to industry estimates, the Jacobs brand sees sales of approximately $50 million annually. And at the moment, demand for Marc Jacobs products is so strong that the company outgrew the original SoHo flagship and leased three slick, sun-drenched Bleecker Street boutiques, one after the other, as each small space outgrew the lines of shoppers waiting to get in. He also has a growing fragrance business, free-standing boutiques in San Francisco, and nearly 40 stores in Japan.

Remembering the Mudd Club

The Mudd Club sensibility has found no truer nostalgist than Marc Jacobs. But Marc’s true brilliance lies in inviting everyone to see what it’s like to breeze past the doorman’s velvet rope. Marc Jacobs predicts what insiders want next and invites the outsiders to sit at the cool kids’ table. It’s a delicious talent.

Click here to see a slide show of Marc Jacobs’ designs.