It began innocently enough, with a little oil painting by Karen Kilimnik.
One day in 2002, Marc Jacobs was distractedly flipping through a Christie’s auction catalog when he came across Kilimnik’s Mary Calling Up a Storm (1996), a portrait of a dark-haired young woman. For some reason, the 18- by 13-inch canvas called out to the designer, who’d never before purchased a work of art. Despite his rank as one of the world’s most influential style setters—he’s been artistic director at Louis Vuitton for the past decade and has had his own label since 1994—Jacobs always harbored an inferiority complex when it came to the art world; in galleries he was generally too intimidated to speak to the assistant, let alone the dealer. “I had in my mind that only incredibly grand, extremely wealthy people lived with art of any sort,” he says.
Jacobs bought the Kilimnik, for $31,000. Within weeks he also acquired three Mike Kelly prints from Skarstedt gallery in New York, rationalizing the purchase because it was his birthday. Soon he was traveling to international art fairs, befriending dealers and artists, and in some instances asking his LVMH bosses for salary advances to cover paintings he couldn’t really afford, such as Ed Ruscha’s Birds, Pencils (1965), which he spotted at Art Basel. As he sits in his Paris apartment on a midsummer afternoon, Jacobs is surrounded by eight John Currins, six Richard Princes and six Ruschas, plus an assortment of Elizabeth Peytons, Damien Hirsts, John Baldessaris, David Hockneys and Lisa Yuskavages, not to mention a small but growing collection of Fifties Scandinavian handblown glass birds.
“Typical addict behavior,” says Jacobs with a half smile. “I just got this bug. I started going to galleries, and I kind of went mad.” Jacobs, whose struggles with drug and alcohol dependency are well known, sees his new passion for contemporary art as a (relatively) healthy habit, one he intends to indulge for the foreseeable future.
If Jacobs came late to art collecting, it’s probably because he came late to homeowning. When he moved to Paris in 1996 for Louis Vuitton, he lived in a hotel and later a rental, but it was only when he saw a three-story garden apartment on the Champ de Mars—then owned by designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who had a taste for Seventies-style psychedelia and large wall drawings of angels—that Jacobs felt an urge to put down roots. Touring the house, which was just hitting the market, Jacobs sat by the window of a guest bedroom, watched the kids playing on the lawns beneath the Eiffel Tower, and started crying. “It sounds really corny, but I felt this primitive connection,” he says. “It was the first time I felt like I was in my home.”
Jacobs’s decorator, Paul Fortune, was also on the verge of tears when he first saw the place, though for entirely different reasons. “Horrible” is how Fortune describes the design of the kitchen and bathrooms, explaining that de Castelbajac’s idea of decorating was “to take the Pantone book and paint each wall a different color.” Fortune, an acid-tongued Englishman based in Los Angeles, is known for a refined style that combines old-school elegance with a certain modern ease; he and Jacobs decided to respect the apartment’s French formalism while leaving room for an eclectic mix of new art and 20th-century furniture and objects. “Marc was going through his growing-up phase,” says Fortune, who’s been a friend of Jacobs’s since the Eighties in New York and remembers the designer’s cluttered Upper West Side apartment all too well. “He realized it was time to move on. This is not, you know, a ‘crib.’”