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Style seer Marc Jacobs leads world of fashion

The Baltimore Sun

Under the glare of bright lights, camera flashes and critical eyes, big-named designers such as Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta and Anna Sui will unveil their spring collections tomorrow - the sixth day of New York's Fashion Week.

But the frenetic day of runway shows will end where many of the industry's most savvy say contemporary fashion begins: At the Marc Jacobs show.

No matter what his freshly envisioned clothes actually look like - glamorous or grunge, romantic or retro - the 44-year-old designer Jacobs will unveil a fashion vision tomorrow night that is almost certain to define the direction for spring and set trends for future seasons.

In the sea of incredible, award-winning talent that Fashion Week offers, experts say Jacobs is - for fashion editors, retailers and everyday style-seekers - the designer to watch.

"When I, as an editor and person in the larger fashion industry, am trying to articulate for a larger audience the spirit of a certain season, the first designer I look to is Marc Jacobs," says Dannielle Romano, editor-at-large of DailyCandy.com.

"However he sends models down the runway - from their make-up to their hair to their hats - that impacts the entire season."

And oftentimes it influences several seasons thereafter.

"He has an uncanny ability to pick up some vibe in the air that is a year ahead, sometimes a year and a half ahead, of what culture is doing," says Michael Fink, Saks Fifth Avenue vice president and women's fashion director.

For example, designers have been showing on their runways for several seasons now, slouchy, oversized handbags, roomy enough for the day's necessities and gym shoes, too. Retailers have followed suit, stocking their shelves with large and lazy bags.

But in his fall 2006 collection - which made its debut in February of that year - Jacobs sent models down the runway carrying structured bags with hard metal closures. It's fall 2007 now, and style experts are just beginning to call the structured handbag "in."

"We showed some of his bags in our preview for this fall," says Eyvan Metzner, fashion director at Self magazine. "He did the coolest bags; they were very interesting, like these geometric shapes."

Jacobs has a knack for advancing fashion ideas that, in Fink's words, "take a while to digest."

"One year he did very mod, and had everybody wearing wigs and it was a little bit futuristic," Metzner says. "It took two seasons before other designers said, 'Hmm. Maybe it is time to go get into, like, a [Andre] Courreges'" [a 1960s French designer famous for futuristic, youth-oriented styles.]

The grunge look

Jacobs' defining moment in developing his ahead-of-the-curve style came in 1992, when the designer - then in his late 20s - was working one of his first big jobs as vice president of women's wear at Perry Ellis.

The design mood at that time was one of sophistication, form and to-the-body-chic - a real "Stepford Wives silhouette," says Romano.

But Jacobs had a love for "grunge" - a hard-worn, overwashed, loose and layered look. He designed a spring collection based on that feeling and dressed models in such items as lumberjack plaid and thermals, albeit made of cashmere.

The press - including Vogue editor Anna Wintour - loved the radical direction. Perry Ellis did not. Jacobs, and his business partner Robert Duffy, were summarily fired.

"They didn't quite see it," says longtime New York designer George Simonton, a professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "They weren't quite visionary."

But Jacobs is nothing if not a visionary, fashion experts say. The grunge look eventually became a huge hit.

"It kind of changed fashion," says Metzner.

Jacobs and Duffy moved on to start their own label, backed by the cachet (and cash) of LVMH, the world's largest luxury goods company and the name behind Louis Vuitton.

Today, Jacobs is creative director of Louis Vuitton, and designer of his signature Marc Jacobs line, the more-affordable Marc by Marc Jacobs, a fragrance, a home-goods line and endless accessories, including sunglasses and handbags.

In each role, Jacobs has made an influential name for himself.

He understands what women want, experts say - feminine clothes that aren't fussy. Nice coats. Interesting buttons.

Jacobs is famous for being an admirer of the vintage look but bold enough to twist it into something new.

"He's not afraid to take risks," Metzner says. "He just has this sense of 'cool.'"

"He's built an extraordinary reputation for mixing vintage elements with a modern sensibility," says Celia Frank, associate professor of fashion design at Philadelphia University. "His own collection is very youth-oriented, while his work as artistic director for Louis Vuitton has been intelligently geared to the 'ladies.'"

Hard to fathom

Jacobs is one of the few contemporary designers who can be all things to just about all people, experts say.

"He's the one person who has really been able to do something for everyone without spreading himself too thin, and without losing his magic touch," says Romano. "One side of him is artistic vision, and the other side is relatable, wearable, everyday things that real people can enjoy."

To the untrained eye, however, Jacobs' runway shows - to be honest - don't always look relatable or wearable. At all.

Some observers leave his celebrity-filled presentations scratching their heads - quietly, of course. Like the fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," it often feels like a fashion faux pas to publicly decry a Jacobs' line.

But fashion experts say there's an art to deconstructing Jacobs' collections each season.

"What is sometimes confusing to people who are not in fashion," says Simonton, of F.I.T., "when they see a runway show, they see it all together, and it's over the top to them. They don't know how to separate the pieces until they go to the store and see that charming little sweater, or that darling pair of pants with the different cut to them."

Even some style veterans leave a Marc Jacobs show not immediately sure what to think.

"It takes a while to digest," says Fink, of Saks Fifth Avenue. "I think the fact that he is such a culture chameleon, it confuses people, because there's not always a consistent look. One season, it's layers of transparency, one year it's mod '60s. One season, it's perfect, chic, polished '70s perfection. You never know what you're going to get. But it's always influential."

His ideas aren't just significant for glossy fashion magazines and retailers who love to knock off big names. Even style stalwart Saks Fifth Avenue follows Jacobs' nose for new direction.

"We challenge ourselves to find a way to take his lead and find resources and develop ideas along his thinking," says Fink. "You can't duplicate it, obviously, but it gets you ready for the next thing that will eventually happen."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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