David Sims

Marc Jacobs’s Evolution From Grunge To Pop Culture Staple

The designer's fall/winter 2016 campaign affirms his mutual respect with multiple generations of music stars

In 1992 — four years after joining Perry Ellis as creative director of women’s design — Marc Jacobs debuted the now-infamous spring 1993 grunge collection. Which got him fired.

The campaign around it arrived at the high tide of grunge, which ushered in a stripped-down, DIY approach to style — a stark contrast to the excess of the late 1980s. Thrift stores replaced designer labels, drapey flannel ousted synthetics, and Nirvana’s phenomenal success meant most anything around them, from their sound to their distressed denim, was co-opted and crossed over.

So, drawing influence from the music and cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest (where he had never been), Jacobs used his collection to bring grunge — or, arguably, youth culture — to the fashion elite, flipping the glamour narrative of the late ’80s and horrifying everybody in the process.

And he had help: Jacobs enlisted greased-up versions of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington to walk the runway draped in drab flannel and muted florals, then to appear shapeless and sloppy in oversize garb in a now-iconic December 1993 Vogue editorial. Fashion journalists and insiders considered it an affront in an era when thrifted looks were far from chic, while grunge icons felt their styles were being hijacked. In short: Most everyone — save for Marc Jacobs — hated it. Which is to say that it became a defining turning point in the contemporary marriage of music culture and fashion — and the exact moment when Marc Jacobs pinned himself to the map at the intersection of the two.

Earlier this month, Jacobs showed off his fall/winter 2016 campaign, posting dark, theatrical — and nearly unrecognizable — images of Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, Annie Clark, and Missy Elliott, who appeared more as characters in a film than as mere versions of themselves. But that’s always been the name of Jacobs’s game: While Lady Gaga’s Victorian look in his fall/winter show shocked (and Bette Midler’s glammed-up spring 2016 look awed), each was no different than seeing early ’90s supermodels grunged up in ’92. What is different is how Jacobs’s relationship to music has shifted. Twenty-four years ago, music inspired his work — and he used models to showcase it. Now, the relationship is even clearer: Music continues to play a part, and he’s enlisted actual musicians to help tell his story.

Of course, Marc Jacobs is an empire unto himself. And whether you’re looking at his work at Louis Vuitton or at his first menswear collection in 1994, he’s proven himself as a creative entity over and over, going so far as to launch brands off brands off brands, and collaborate with pop artists and our friend Kanye. Like Hedi Slimane — who often works in conjunction with musicians — Jacobs is not a fan, but a peer. As a celebrity, he’s established himself as a fashion icon while remaining separate enough to objectively assess cultural climates (which inspire his collections). He is a contemporary — not a hanger-on or a man thirsting for scene cred. Instead, his efforts and work ethic have earned him respect among his fellow artists, who choose to collaborate with him. And that strengthens his relationship with music even more.

That relationship took some time. Back in 1992, Jacobs was a New York City–bred boy wonder, even having won the 1992 Womenswear Designer of the Year Award by the CFDA (and this before turning 30). But he wasn’t embedded in the grunge movement. He didn’t pal around with Kurt and Courtney, nor did he hit up shows on the West Coast. He understood art, music, and youth culture, but he was a staple among clubs and bars frequented by Chloë Sevigny and Harmony Korine. Plus, grunge had already gone mainstream: In September 1992, Courtney Love had landed on the pages of Vanity Fair, and Docs, kilts, and babydoll dresses were already being commodified. So while Jacobs’s grunge offerings are now understood to be an important part of fashion’s narrative (see: time = perspective), at the time it looked, well, bad.

And the rest, of course, is history.

While Jacobs could’ve taken his ball and gone home, he parlayed his Perry Ellis dismissal into his own brand of DIY culture. In 1993, he and his business partner Robert Duffy launched Marc Jacobs International Company L.P. — spearheaded by Jacobs Duffy Designs Inc. — and went to work, creating Jacobs’s own pieces before he was named creative director of Louis Vuitton. Cue Drake’s "Started from the Bottom" (sort of). Dude climbed his way back.

Which is why watching his relationship with musical icons now is so interesting. Sure, Lady Gaga is cruising on the fame of a Golden Globe win and Ryan Murphy approval, but the other musicians in his fall/winter campaign this year are veterans, firmly rooted in their industries. Jacobs describes Courtney Love as a "grunge goddess" and attributes his 1992 collection to her personal style. He goes on to share how he first met Marilyn Manson, and how blown away he was by the singer’s interview in Bowling for Columbine. He talks about how taken he was by Annie Clark’s comments about sexuality in Rolling Stone. And he confesses that without Missy Elliott’s music, he and his team would hardly have kept their energy up.

So while his appreciation for musicians is still there — and because his grunge show was a compliment that was misinterpreted at the time — now Jacobs is including them as part of the narrative. And sure, he consistently enlists artists who mean something to him. But these artists also boast strong creative identities. In fact, like Jacobs, they’ve parlayed their creativity into long careers that have survived hardships, scandals, upsets, and anything else there is to survive. And again, like Jacobs, they’ve reemerged from their pasts even more seasoned. Arguably, they’ve bonded over longevity. Which also defines Marc Jacobs The Brand™.

Watching this peership has been massively exciting, especially since his fall/winter 2016 campaign sees each artist featured in a way that does justice to Jacobs’s vision, while still maintaining a part of themselves. Now, they’re in on it. It’s not just a cultural scene marching down the runway.

Ultimately, Jacobs’s perspective and experience have only given him a taller and sturdier platform on which to showcase his collections. Especially since his recent campaigns are a testament not only a to the clothes he makes, but to his respect for the musicians who wear them.