Fun style is Marc Jacobs' ticket for designing success


DALLAS -- This wouldn't seem to be the best time to be a fashion designer, what with retail outlets folding, designer labels dying and customers staying away from stores in droves.

But Marc Jacobs doesn't see it that way.

"The recession has made it more fun for me," said Mr. Jacobs, 28, who has been the women's wear designer for the Perry Ellis label for more than three years.

"I can't see doing anything that requires spending money unless it's a pleasant, fun experience," he said. "If I spend money, it has to be on something I love. And if I love it, I'll spend my last dime."

But if it's not fun, forget it.

"I wouldn't go to see a movie to learn something," he said. "I go to be entertained. It's an escape."

And so it is when it comes to designing high-ticket clothes in an era when an increasingly small segment of the population can afford to buy them -- or wants to.

And Mr. Jacobs has his own strategy. Let someone else make the navy pin-striped suits. He'll concentrate on fun stuff. Like the beaded bandanna skirts, cowgirl dresses, striped serape jackets and ruffled prairie frocks that fill his spring collection.

Well-known for building his collections around particular themes -- Mia Farrow, Doris Day, Amish quilts and Miami Beach have inspired him in previous seasons -- Mr. Jacobs found his muse this time around in the Wild West. The Wild West Coast, that is.

His saucy, playful creations have been a big success, particularly in cities where the social scene includes rodeos, stock shows and fancy parties with western themes.

That was made clear earlier this month when Mr. Jacobs traveled to Dallas to show his spring collection at the Leukemia Society of America's annual fund-raising luncheon and fashion show.

"The audience response was a thrill; I could hear them applauding backstage," he said with a grin.

"In New York, they don't clap," he said, referring to the more jaded members of the fashion press. "By the time they get to New York, they've already seen 300 fashion shows in four countries."

The favorable reaction continued when Mr. Jacobs took his spring samples to The Gazebo, a Dallas boutique, for a trunk show, which gives customers the chance to try on sample garments and then place orders. The store sold 28 pieces of the Ellis collection the day before the trunk show officially began.

As he perched on a mannequin platform for an interview, Mr. Jacobs kept one eye on the parade of women who were trying on the samples, nodding in appreciation as they twirled out of the fitting rooms.

"I never like my collection when it's done; it's only when I get out to stores and real people respond favorably," he said. "It's the ultimate compliment when somebody has to put out money for something you've done."

Mr. Jacobs also likes to look at how his customers give the TTC clothes an individual style, unlike other big-name designers, who often appear insulted if a customer dares to wear the big name's expensive jacket with old jeans and a shirt from The Gap.

"It's the worst thing for a designer to say, but I hope people will take chances with my clothes," he said. "It's much better to be an individual than part of a group. I'd rather see totally wrong than too right."

That sort of view should come as no surprise from Mr. Jacobs, a man who wore his hair in a ponytail long before it was fashionable (he still does) and who likes to spice up his jeans-and-T-shirts wardrobe with unique, wonderful pieces.

He still loves boots, though he has traded his usual black leather motorcycle boots for brown, pointy-toed cowboy models made by Justin. And in deference to the day's socialite-drenched luncheon, he is wearing a navy blazer and a white button-down shirt. But his necktie is pink with white polka dots and his wristwatch is a huge, elongated oval on a leather strap -- designed by Salvador Dali in the '60s, he said.

Because of his increasingly important stature in the fashion industry, rubbing shoulders with the highest social strata has become an increasingly important part of Mr. Jacobs' job.

Though he still is an active member of New York's trendy club scene, he has also been spotted attending ballet galas and lunching at society hangouts such as Mortimer's. He isn't about to become a regular there, however.

"I have a short attention span, and things I don't know intrigue me," he said. "I'd never had lunch at Mortimer's, so that intrigued me. But the energy from something new is only new for a while. That initial charge doesn't last."

Perhaps as a result, he travels frequently, mentioning recent trips to Berlin and Barcelona. Paris is his favorite city, he said, after New York. But he is learning to appreciate the comforts of home as well.

"I quite like the idea of lying around being Bohemian, having friends over," he said. "I go out quite a lot, but I'm intrigued by the idea of a salon, a la the '30s, where people sit around and talk."

He is, he said, a confirmed night owl. "If I could change the world, I would have them go to work at 4 p.m., have dinner at midnight and go out dancing till 6," he said. Which is the schedule Mr. Jacobs finds him self slipping into in the fall.

"I like sunshine so much," he said, "and in the fall, I hate waking up to cold, rainy, gray days. So you might as well get up late because it's like night anyway."

This is not to say that Mr. Jacobs tries to avoid his work. He has wanted to be a fashion designer since he was 13, and he is happy to be at Perry Ellis.

"[Working here] doesn't hold me back," he said. "Even last fall, when the collection was a little more conservative, it was my decision, what I wanted to do.

"I should have made it into something that was more me, but that's hindsight," he said. "Anything I do, it's what I want to do at that moment. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't."

Unlike many of his fashion colleagues, though, Mr. Jacobs has no desire to venture into menswear. He says he is kept busy doing the Perry Ellis signature collection.

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