At 25, Whimsy-Loving Designer Marc Jacobs Has Been Up, Down and Everywhere in Between

updated 05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 01:00AM

The morning after a fire gutted his Seventh Avenue showroom last February, designer Marc Jacobs was hysterical. "But funny hysterical," he maintains. When his partner, Robert Duffy, arrived for work, Jacobs was standing outside the building gesturing theatrically toward the smoldering sixth floor. "I had my hands up like, 'Here's our new showroom!' " he says.

Laughing in the face of disaster is a familiar routine for Jacobs. Only 25, he is a veteran of the mercurial fashion business, familiar with its abrupt ups and downs. Since becoming a designer in 1984, he has ridden the wave as the leading boy wonder, only to be slammed back down by the critics, then rehabilitated as the hot young talent to beat. The fire was just fate's latest twist. Marc could joke about it, but no question, it hurt. "We thought, 'What can they do to us now?' " he says.

Humor has always been Jacobs' signature, most obviously in his line of classy-silly women's clothing. This is the guy, after all, who once put Sigmund Freud's face on a slip. His classic-cut skirts feature ditsy floral patterns, his minidresses come in farm-girl gingham, and he mischievously combines chacha tops with chinos. Jacobs has fought for his fashion credo: "Things go together because you say they do."

"He represents the spirit of the young," says Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "Plus he has a head on his shoulders." The sophisticated giggle of the Jacobs look has also struck the fancies of customers such as Carly Simon, Linda Gray and Cher. And more pleasing to him, last November, Jacobs was voted best new talent by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

But don't try telling him it has all happened so fast. At 15, the native New Yorker marched into one of the hip Charivari boutiques(which now carry his line) and made it his after-school hangout. Eventually he became a stock boy. "I said, 'We have to give him a job. He's here,' " recalls co-owner Barbara Weiser. Next he went to Parsons School of Design, graduating in 1984 with the student designer of the year award. At that point, a dress manufacturer invited him to create an uncredited sportswear line. Good notices followed, but the company folded, leaving Jacobs and Duffy (his partner since they hooked up at a Parsons show) confused. Says Marc: "We thought, 'How can we be getting so much attention and have everyone love us and still be going out of business?' " Immediately, Jacobs tried again. Unfortunately his new manufacturer reneged on financial promises. Jacobs sued and won, but had to start over.

This time, Jacobs had a new and stable backer, Kashiyama, a Japanese company. But the fashion press, which had previously praised him, unexpectedly laid him low with a panning ("Simply outrageous," sniped the New York Times) in spring '87. "They decided the designs had gone overboard," he says. "As it happened, the reviews came out on my birthday. Quite a present." Then last fall he showed this spring's line, and Jacobs found himself restored to a state of critical grace.

Marc's trademark, mixing and mismatching with joyous abandon, dates back to childhood. "I guess I was a young hippie," he explains. "I loved to customize my clothes—embroider my jeans, cut sleeves off shirts and attach them to other shirts." When he was 7, his father, Steven, a talent agent, died. His mother, Judy, later decided to move him and his younger brother and sister to New Jersey. After he was accepted by Manhattan's Art & Design High School, Marc persuaded his paternal grandmother, Helen, herself a fashion industry veteran, to let him stay with her in the city.

Nowadays, Helen, in her 80s, comes to all Marc's shows. "She'll say, 'Can't you change the date—that's the day for the beauty parlor?' But she's so proud. Five minutes after I won the CFDA award, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—they all knew," says her grandson. She still lives one street over from the Upper West Side apartment Jacobs shares with a roommate and two cats, Major and Rover. ("Dogs I don't have to walk," says Jacobs.)

Now relocated in a new Seventh Avenue showroom, Marc is too busy playing catch-up after the fire to spend time fretting over his bad luck. He just finished showing his fall collection and is already thinking about next spring. But experience has taught him not to get frantic. "When I started, I was very, very ambitious," says Jacobs. "I still am, but I've slowed down. After all, it's not how much can you do, it's how well can you do it."

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