Making his Marc in style

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am


Over the past 28 years, Robert Duffy and Marc Jacobs have become one of fashion's most famous working partnerships. They co-founded Marc Jacobs International (MJI) when Jacobs was only 20 years old and was Duffy 29. Today, they head an array of labels under the brand and push the envelope with their young, hip and at times controversial approach.

Duffy admits that they are a bit of an unlikely match. 'I like a fast pace and change, but Marc doesn't actually like change,' he says. 'Marc likes to own his craft. He can spend six months deciding on which shade of blue to use.'

But Duffy's role as chief executive isn't simply that of yang to Jacobs' yin. He is deeply involved in the creative process as well as the business side. He even has a hand in production for the fashion shows.

This year has been a huge coup for the pair, and not just in terms of profits. Last week's Council of Fashion Designers of America awards honoured Jacobs with a lifetime achievement award. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of their diffusion label, Marc by Marc Jacobs. And, a new perfume called Oh, Lola has just launched, with 17-year-old actress Dakota Fanning as the face of the fragrance.

'Our company had its strongest growth during the recession, and it's almost doubled every year for the last five years,' Duffy says.

The duo were also taken on as creative director (Jacobs) and studio director (Duffy) of Louis Vuitton, where they launched the luxury accessories brand's first ready-to-wear collection.

That collection has been critically well received and reportedly makes up about 20 per cent of Louis Vuitton's sales.

The risky Marc by Marc Jacobs diffusion line was Duffy's brainchild.

'I'm very proud of it,' he says, 'because when I first started talking about a secondary line, the idea wasn't very popular. Marc wasn't very supportive of it and neither was our partner, LVMH.' In the end Jacobs agreed, as long as Duffy promised to focus on the project.

Duffy, it turned out, had a good idea. The younger, faster and cheaper secondary label has contributed massively to the brand's growth and profit margins, not to mention its reach. It already has nearly 30 stores in their fastest-growing market, mainland China.

That might not seem so surprising if you visit the flagship retail space on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, which Duffy says is always full of young, hip New Yorkers and tourists.

'Marc tends to design for very young customers anyway, and it felt like we weren't reaching our core audience,' he says. 'We had this huge fan base of people that couldn't afford the clothes.

'It's a different consumer. The person that buys the main collection buys in spring and then autumn. But the Marc by Marc Jacobs customer wants something new every week.'

Now, after proving his idea to be highly profitable, Duffy says that he is rethinking the higher line. Duffy is the oldest employee at MJI, but he keeps his fingers on the pulse of youth culture. 'You have to be out on the street,' he says. 'I'm always curious, whether it's music, art or social media. I love the passion that young people have. I get very excited about that.'

There is no doubt the Jacobs brand has become stronger since taking up with Louis Vuitton. But as Duffy explains: 'Let's not forget that Louis Vuitton has tripled its size since we've been there.' Jacobs and Duffy took the brand and quadrupled its sales from a reported US$1.2 billion to US$4.8 billion.

LVMH owns 96 per cent of their company but only 33 per cent of the trademarks. That means Jacobs and Duffy still have creative control. Duffy admits to getting frustrated with the bureaucracy of the business. But it's a small price to pay for having the backing of a luxury monolith like LVMH. 'We do have enormous teams and enormous support,' he says. 'There are no bigger teams than at LVMH.'

It is doubtful that Jacobs or his brand would have come this far today had it not have been for Duffy. His personal and professional influence has been profound. Years ago, when Jacobs developed a drug problem, Duffy was there for him, encouraging him to clean up his act.

Duffy says he first discovered Jacobs' work at a dinner for a student college review in Jacobs' senior year as a design student. He saw it and instantly 'loved it'.

'I asked for his name and number afterwards, and I called him the next day,' he recalls. 'It started just like that.

'Marc and I make all our decisions together. Our work relationship has had its ups and downs but our personal relationship stays the same - we're best friends. We both need to have that rock, that other person that you can trust unconditionally.'

On the day of our interview in Hong Kong, Duffy gets a call from Jacobs, who tells him that he just saw a 'beautiful new picture of you lying in the sun with your shorts, on the internet'. That morning Duffy had fallen asleep by the pool at The Peninsula, and someone at the hotel had taken a secret snapshot of him and uploaded it online.

'All I can say is, 'Oh my God',' he laughs. But Duffy has been no stranger to internet controversy. In March, there was the Twitter scandal where it seemed that a company intern had an online meltdown. There was distressed tweeting from the company account that called Duffy 'a tyrant'.

'We finally figured it out,' he says. 'We got kind of hacked that night. I never had a password on my phone, and I usually put my wallet, cellphone and reading glasses on the table to the side. I got up to talk to some people and then we couldn't find the phone.'

The incident came just after Women's Wear Daily reported that Duffy and the label's parent company LVMH were being sued by the former chief financial officer and chief operating officer, Patrice Lataillade, who claimed an inappropriately sexually charged environment, and being 'fired in retaliation' for objecting to it.

'But,' he concludes, 'every situation that was a negative turned into a positive in the end.'