Marc two

As it launches an assault on the Middle East, Marc Jacobs International president Robert Duffy tells LOUISE FOSTER about life under LVMH boss Bernard Arnault.

  • E-Mail
By  Louise Foster Published  December 4, 2005

Marc two|~|49-jacobs-and-duffy-200.jpg|~|SUCCESS STORY: Duffy (left) and Jacobs (right) were scouted by LVMH boss Bernard Arnault. |~|NINE YEARS AGO NEW YORK-BASED FASHION executive Robert Duffy received a call from Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton). The formidable French businessman was match-making hot young designers with his stable of venerable fashion brands, and hoped to tap Duffy’s creative partner Marc Jacobs. It is testament to the savvy of Duffy that he talked Arnault out of a tie-up with Christian Dior, Givenchy or Loewe (all of which already boasted a strong ready-to-wear heritage), and persuaded him to let them loose on Louis Vuitton, the 151-year-old leather goods brand that, up to 1997 had never had a clothing offering. “If you go into Dior or Givenchy, people would have a preconceived idea of what it should be. At Givenchy everybody wants a little black dress on Audrey Hepburn, at Dior it’s the New Look,” Duffy says, referring to the 1950s nipped-in waist and full-skirted silhouette created by the couturier. “At Louis Vuitton, there was nothing because its only heritage was travel, so it was a clean slate.” Eight years after Jacobs and Duffy joined Vuitton (as creative director and studio director respectively) and the company now manufactures men’s and women’s wear, it has added timepieces, jewellery and sunglasses to its product portfolio, and sales have grown from US$1.2 billion to US$3.5 billion. Not that the appointment was without controversy. “Hiring us didn’t go down well with everyone in the company,” admits Duffy. “Vuitton was the most profitable part of the business and here were these two Americans coming into this French institution and people weren’t thrilled.” At the time of joining LVMH, the pair were best known for being fired from American firm Perry Ellis in 1992. Their crime? Putting Doc Martens, knitted caps and distressed dresses on the catwalk. It was the end of the Jacobs/Duffy reign at Perry Ellis and the start of the grunge movement, which went on to dominate the early 1990s fashion scene (a fact which would not have escaped Arnault). In the intervening years, the duo focused on the Marc Jacobs women’s ready-to-wear business, launching menswear in 1997. While critical acclaim was heaped on the company’s designs, financial security remained elusive. So when the call came from Arnault, Duffy used the Vuitton deal to leverage security for the Marc Jacobs business. “They didn’t want Marc Jacobs, they didn’t even want to invest in it,” he says. “We had to fight and scheme and work our way up through all the red tape to get any kind of funding.” Arnault’s disinterest in the Marc Jacobs business is understandable. This year the company will have sales of US$400 million — probably less than the biscuit budget at LVMH, which last year had sales of US$14.8 billion (2005 Q3 sales were 12% ahead of 2004). Louis Vuitton is the stable’s cash cow, generating around 24% of sales. And of those sales, leathergoods account for around 90%. “For the most part [Arnault’s] concern is Louis Vuitton, because that’s where he makes his money. He never interferes with anything we put on the runway, but he wants to know what new products are going to be designed, when they’re going to be shipped, when they’re going to be in the stores and how they sell,” says Duffy. When, for Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2001 collection, Jacobs collaborated with New York graffiti artist Stephen Sprouse, Arnault kept production tightly limited viewing it simply as “an experiment”. When it became obvious that “we could have sold gadzillions of them”, Arnault decided to ramp up production for Jacobs’ next collaboration, with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. The resultant multi-coloured LV logos and kitsch cartoon insignia reportedly went on to generate US$300 million in handbag sales. “He’s very intimidating because he’s very powerful. But he’s a good guy. Anybody with that much power is very inspiring. When he says, ‘go for it’, he’s putting all his resources, including his emotional and creative support, behind it,” Duffy says of Arnault. And that support is not inconsiderable; where Vuitton has “tens of thousands” of people at its disposal, New York-based Marc Jacobs International has a couple of hundred. “If I was to say to somebody at LVMH, ‘I love this shade of blue, it would be great in crocodile,’ within an hour it’s going to be sitting on my desk. At Marc Jacobs I’d be lucky to see it in six months,” says Duffy. With LVMH’s initial investment in Marc Jacobs totalling just US$140,000, Duffy spent the early years constantly battling for more funds for the company that he and Jacobs started 22 years ago which is “so intimate to us”. The deal had given LVMH 30% of the Marc Jacobs trademark, and 96% of the holding company Marc Jacobs International. The pair were also vocal in their discontent over their personal salaries, which were reportedly under a million dollars each. Tensions were further fuelled by Jacobs’ drink and drugs addictions. “They expected results, they expected performance, and it’s very hard when you’re working with someone who has an addiction problem,” recalls Duffy. Arnault was eventually persuaded to send Jacobs into rehab in 1999, and following a new 10-year contract, which was signed in 2004, relations finally seem to be on an even keel. “Mr. Arnault has a reputation for being very, very difficult,” says Duffy, “but he’s not difficult if he thinks you can do the job. You never know with him, he’s not the type of person that comes up and says, ‘Good job.’ It’s like — you’re still being paid, you’re still employed. You have to understand that you did a good job — you’re here. “It hasn’t always been easy. He may have a lot of people working for him, but he controls everything and he makes all of the decisions.” Duffy is currently in negotiations with Arnault over the possibility of Marc Jacobs producing a high street line for the mass market. The diffusion range, Marc by Marc Jacobs, was launched in 2000 and it now accounts for about 50% of the business (the majority of the reminder is handbags and leathergoods). “The mainline collection is two seasons a year plus resort. With Marc by Marc Jacobs, you’re shipping new merchandise weekly, it’s unbelievable,” says Duffy, clearly intoxicated with the volume and speed of mass-market retail. Despite being approached by Swedish retailer H&M, which has also collaborated with Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney, Duffy wants control over any potential foray onto the high street. “H&M asks us all the time to do their guest designer thing and I refuse because I want to do it,” he says. Talks are ongoing with a mystery retail partner, but Duffy jokes that he’s, “not having much success” in getting the project off the ground. By staking a claim on the mass market, Marc Jacobs International will be able to reap the financial benefits of the copies that the mainline inspires. “I went into the H&M store in San Francisco last week and saw that jacket,” Duffy says, gesturing to an elaborate jacquard design from the Autumn/Winter 2005 collection. “I mean it’s not made like that and it’s not in cashmere and lace — it’s horrible and it’s made out of the grossest stuff.” Still, he’s diplomatic that copying is an inherent part of the fashion food chain. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We have an old Balenciaga dress in the office, of which we did a version, and then H&M did a version of ours — I wanted to hang all three next to each other,” he laughs. Last month, Marc Jacobs opened its first store in the Middle East, in partnership with Ingie Chalhoub’s Etoile group. Future store locations include Las Vegas, San Francisco, Paris, London, Moscow, Chicago and uptown New York. “We don’t have this business plan. LVMH tries to get us to focus on the three-year plan, the five-year plan. But when we want to do something we just do it,” Duffy shrugs. With volume at Marc Jacobs tripling every year, Duffy runs the firm from New York, while Jacobs is based at the LVMH offices in Paris. The former business is still in its infancy, while the latter is the biggest moneyspinner in luxury fashion. One has its roots in grunge, the other unabashedly celebrates glamour. Yet this unlikely pairing just keeps on churning out the hits, and, as Duffy says, “It’s fun to be able to switch gears.” Louise Foster is features editor of weekly fashion magazine Grazia Middle East, which launched in the region last month. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code