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Shanghai Station

As seen at the opening of Louis Vuitton's first maison in the mainland, the flamboyant Marc Jacobs certainly knows how to put on a show, writes Divia Harilela

 

Marc Jacobs is fond of making a scene, whether that means showing up in a see-through lace dress to a huge event (see the Met Gala in New York in May) or sending out a custom-made US$8 million steam train as the centrepiece of a fashion show.

Last month, Shanghai was treated to the latter and a whole lot more when the designer and his posse descended upon China's fastest-growing city to open Louis Vuitton's first maison in the country.

A two-day event to celebrate the opening of the boutique and the Louis Vuitton Express travel exhibition included a spectacular party and a fashion show: a replica of the autumn-winter show staged in Paris in March. Having been shipped from Paris to Shanghai, the train chugged into a warehouse on the Bund, which had been transformed over 21 days into a "station", carrying 48 models decked out in jewel-covered jackets and trousers. The models disembarked and each had a "porter" to carry their monogrammed luggage as they paraded around the train.

After the spectacle, Jacobs, LV's creative director, made an appearance, wearing a smart tailored suit, and posed for snaps like a happy tourist with local celebrities such as Fan Bingbing, Gong Li and "it" girls Alexa Chung and Poppy Delevingne.

Lana Del Rey sang as the city's monogrammed elite partied until dawn.

If luxury goods sales are slowing down in the mainland, as reports suggest, you certainly wouldn't know it from this extravaganza. In Jacobs' world, the economy doesn't matter much anyway.

"I DON'T KNOW IF the economy is something I think about too much," says Jacobs, a few days before the Shanghai show. "There is such a huge audience for fashion, people really love it and there are so many options now. Fashion exists on so many levels and price points - there'll always be a desire for luxury, for people to have something that feels exclusive or rare. You could be talking about a painting or a diamond of a certain perfection - or a dress there is only one of. People like to be stimulated visually, express themselves through their clothes and take pleasure in having something that's rare."

We're in the middle of a massive suite at the Park Hyatt hotel, floor-to-ceiling windows revealing the true extent of Shanghai's smog. Lounging on a white sofa, Jacobs, clad in his signature Comme des Garçons kilt, a black shirt and his favourite Prada creepers, is looking rather small. He's sporting a new "grown-up" hairstyle and a flesh-coloured Band-Aid above his eyebrow ("I tripped in my apartment a few days ago in New York, so I have to wear this until the stitches come off," he explains).

Jacobs is visiting the mainland for the first time. He didn't arrive with the train.

"It was breathtaking when we [flew in] last night. When I looked out the window and saw these strange structures and neon lights, it looked so futuristic and crazy," he says, taking a swig of Diet Coke and a drag on a cigarette. "One of the reasons we were excited to bring the show here is because of what's going on. There is this incredible passion for fashion here, a booming culture, and it all makes sense. You don't have to be a brilliant mind to figure out [why China is so important]. It's exciting to come to a place where what you want to do is wanted or desired. That's what luxury is all about - it's not necessity, it's what people want, desire and get obsessed with. If we did a show in a place where we had to drag people out of their houses, it wouldn't be the same," he says.

Wild horses couldn't keep some people away from an LV fashion show and a lot of that has to do with Jacobs and his incessant desire to outdo himself. For the past few years, the brand's presentations have become the hottest ticket at Paris Fashion Week, the theatrics having included a carousel of dancing horses and gilded lifts giving rides to fetish-clad supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

"[Jacobs and his team] were discussing how we can top this show. It's gonna be tricky," he says, lighting up another cigarette. "The great thing about fashion is that it changes all the time - you just get on it, you keep doing it. One thing that's delightful is the fact that it's not a lifelong commitment. Buying a dress is not like buying a couch. If you buy a wrong dress it just moves to the back of the closet."

BORN AND RAISED IN New York, Jacobs' father died when he was seven. He left home as a teenager to live with his grandmother, whom he cites as one of his greatest influences. After graduating from the High School of Art and Design, he went on to study fashion at the renowned Parsons School of Design.

Despite spending his nights partying at Studio 54, he was an award-winning student and his graduate collection - which featured a series of optical art jumpers knitted by his grandmother - got him noticed by entrepreneur Robert Duffy, who would become his business partner. He remains so today.

Jacobs launched his first collection in 1986 and two years later joined American sportswear company Perry Ellis with Duffy and a very young Tom Ford, whom he had hired. It was there that he created his most controversial and influential collection, inspired by the grunge culture gripping America at the time. It featured models in beanie hats, floral printed granny dresses, flannel shirts and chunky Doc Martens boots. The press loved it but Perry Ellis executives didn't. He was unceremoniously dumped.

When he was appointed by Louis Vuitton in 1997 - after more than 18 months of negotiation - more than a few eyebrows were raised. The New Yorker had little experience of French culture or luxury fashion brands and was known to be a notorious party animal. Nonetheless, Jacobs was handed an amazing opportunity to build a luxury brand from scratch while securing financial backing for an eponymous label from LVMH head Bernard Arnault.

Today, there are 456 Louis Vuitton stores around the world, 51 of them in the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, and aside from ready-to-wear and bags, the brand has diversified into watches, fine jewellery, accessories and soon, a perfume - all under Jacobs' watchful eye.

"I feel more confident and stronger than at the beginning," he says. "Our process has become more confident. We all push ourselves harder than we ever did because we now do everything from shoes, bags, clothes to [advertising campaigns].

"The passion was always there but we are always up against ourselves and raise the bar each season. There is finally this realisation that Vuitton is not just luggage."

Jacobs has become known for his cheeky collaborations. His own vast art collection, which includes works by Andy Warhol, Georges Braque and David Hockney, inspired him to ask American artist Stephen Sprouse to graffiti LV's elegant monogrammed handbags in 2001. Other collaborations followed, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and, most recently, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama having worked their magic with Jacobs.

Could a Chinese artist be next?

"I don't know much about Chinese art but I am open to collaborating. It isn't about where someone is from. I have been very instinctive - when I see something that turns me on or makes me feel a certain thing, at the right time I approach that person. If I see something from an artist here and they are willing to do it, I would approach it like any other artist in the world," he says.

Collaborations aside, most insiders would agree that it's Jacobs' ready-to-wear collections that have made him one of the industry's most influential designers. While the likes of Alber Elbaz create fantasies and dreams for women, Jacobs brings them back to earth. He works like a creative psychologist, pushing boundaries and debunking traditional notions of beauty (he says his autumn-winter collection is an "exploration of bad taste"). He celebrates style and individuality yet there is an underlying sense of irony in everything he creates. These characteristics are most apparent in his eponymous label.

"Marc Jacobs is probably more of a reflection of me. The distinction happens quite naturally. It's two different teams, two different countries and cities. Also there is four weeks between each show [Marc Jacobs at New York Fashion Week; LV at Paris Fashion Week]. In fashion speak that's an eternity. A lot can happen!

"My own collections are more personal and about my experiences, my connection to friends and New York. Paris is more of an imaginative thing, of me thinking of what a French fashion show is. There are separations in my head but also natural separations that happen. What we are able to do in New York and Paris is very different," he says.

Jacobs' road hasn't been without its bumps. Alcohol and drugs took their toll before the designer entered rehab in 1999 and again in 2007.

In 2006 he revealed a radical new look - gone was the overweight, nerdy designer and in his place stood a chiselled Adonis complete with washboard abs. Proud of his new body (he swears by daily two-hour workouts and a strict diet), he posed naked, covered in oil, for the launch of the Marc Jacobs perfume Bang, in 2010. The press were given fresh ammunition and continue to keep their lenses trained on him, from his frolics on the beach to his latest red carpet appearance, with his new boyfriend, porn star Harry Louis.

"People laugh at me sometimes because they say I love attention - but that's the truth. I make absolutely no apologies for it. I certainly get hurt when people criticise me or say nasty things about me, but ultimately I do like attention.

"I didn't always feel that way - I kept away from all of that but [now] I like expressing how I feel through how I dress. I like being open in what I am doing. People wouldn't be interested in my personal life if they weren't interested in my work. I think we just live in a world where people are exhibitionists and voyeurs - and I don't mind it."

Not that every corner of his life is open for public inspection. Over the years Jacobs has surrounded himself with a small group of confidants, including Duffy, co-collaborator and uber stylist Katie Grand and muse and director Sofia Coppola. He also tends to shy away from "fashion" people, preferring to hang out instead with artists.

"There are plenty of designers that I feel comfortable with but I like to get on with it and do my own thing. I am not a fan of big fashion events - I am not uncomfortable attending them, but they're a bit boring. I am also a little jaded because I've been doing it a while.

"I like being around people who have an interest in fashion but that's not their only interest. A healthy, rich and beautiful life for me is [embodied by] someone who's interested in good art, food, wine, theatre and literature. All forms of aesthetics are interesting and the idea of being curious about sounds and sights, that's all part of it.

"The attitude that fashion is the beginning and end of everything is a little flat," he says, raising his bandaged brow.

Speaking of raised eyebrows; last month Jacobs attended Raf Simons' first haute couture show for Christian Dior - an odd move considering LV doesn't offer couture to its clients.

"I've never had that dream that I want to do a couture show," says Jacobs, setting the record straight. "What Raf did was great, I'm happy for Dior and him. But I like to see what we do worn by people - I like to see it out there, in shops, in advertising. Couture gets one picture in magazines, no windows in stores, no dresses in shops.

"Besides, there are certain elements of the Vuitton shows, especially in the past few seasons, that have seen us use the same ateliers and workmanship as couture. So many pieces are made in small numbers or made to measure, it's practically couture anyway."

So if couture holds no interest for Jacobs - and the Council of Fashion Designers of America has already bestowed on him a lifetime achievement award - what mountain might he conquer next?

"I want to continue achieving - I hated the title of lifetime achievement; it seems so final. I am still doing what I am doing. We are working on an [LV] fragrance and I can't wait to see how it evolves.

"Things just come up. My partner and I are quite instinctive people - we just recently started opening bookstores [Bookmarc opened in New York in 2010] - so you never know where the idea comes from."

Jacobs holds up his hand to reveal one of his favourite tattoos - the word "Perfect" written in block letters on his wrist.

"It's a reminder. It comes from the saying, 'I am a perfect being, in a perfect world, where everything that happens benefits me completely.' It's not about perfection but acceptance. It's saying things are perfect the way they are regardless of how imperfect they may be or what I would like them to be. Everything is as it should be," he explains.

"Striving for perfection - it's an ideal - but I don't ever want to achieve it or else I would be done. It's always raising the bar - the goal is towards perfection but I think it would be terrible to achieve it."

 

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