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.’”
For a man who is paid millions to determine the proper placement of a buckle on a handbag, Jacobs is blunt about his lack of interior design skills. “I have no sense of proportion for rooms,” he says. “Paul has that ability to come in and just move a vase or something, and the space looks instantly good.” Still, once he got started, Jacobs approached the project with his usual obsessive zeal. “It felt very adult to me,” he recalls. “Like, I’m choosing a place to live! And I’m choosing fabrics for drapes! I’d never had drapes before in my life.”
More than window treatments, however, it was artwork that determined how the apartment took shape. In the library is one of Ed Ruscha’s sky paintings, Heaven (1986), a 12-foot-wide canvas that Sotheby’s auctioned in 2003. During bidding, Jacobs remembers, he got “a little overanxious, again,” and bought the work (for $456,000, according to records) without being sure that he had a wall big enough for it. “Then I thought, Oh, gee, we should really measure.” The painting fit in the library, just barely. As Fortune recalls, “Marc said, ‘Do you think it will look good there?’ And I was like, ‘Uhhh…sure.’” Fortune dutifully found a complementary shade of brown for the bookshelves, and the right Dominique table at Yves Gastou’s gallery on nearby rue Bonaparte.
Like many of Jacobs’s clothing designs, the apartment evinces a taste for classicism with a few transgressive twists. Walking into the entrance hall from the prim 19th-century lobby, a visitor first spots Currin’s The Danes (2006), a pornographic ménage à trois from the artist’s last show at Gagosian Gallery. Out in the garden, a Paul McCarthy bronze of a hacked-up Pinocchio serves as a strangely appropriate counterpoint to the Eiffel Tower looming overhead. And the master bedroom, lined with portraits, is Jacobs’s version of a rogues’ gallery: Above his bed, the demure Sixties blonds in Richard Prince’s Untitled (Four Women Looking in the Same Direction) (1977)—individually framed, appropriated photographs—gaze over at Bra Shop (1997), Currin’s iconic painting of one freakishly top-heavy bimbo measuring the breasts of another. “I just like waking up in the company of all these odd people,” Jacobs explains. In the sitting room and guest bedroom, in lieu of snapshots of his friends, he has Elizabeth Peyton paintings and drawings of them: Vuitton aide-de-camp Camille Micelli and diamond dealer John Reinhold, among others.
Peyton, who became a close friend of Jacobs’s after they met at a 2002 opening in Paris (he invited her to dinner on the spot), says the apartment, despite its haute-bourgeois bones, is “absolutely an expression of Marc.” She singles out Ruscha’s word painting Peach (1964), in the living room, as emblematic of Jacobs’s taste, with “that quality of simplicity that’s arrived at not so easily.” Underneath that painting is a woolly Lalanne sheep sculpture, just like the ones Jacobs recalls seeing in old magazine photographs of chic Paris apartments. (He has since tried buying two others at auction but was outbid.)
Jacobs doesn’t fancy himself a major art collector and is not gunning for some future wing at MoMA. He says he buys what he likes—work that tends toward the figurative, the graphic—and hangs it where he can see it. Reinhold, who travels with Jacobs to fairs and does the bidding for him at auctions, says Jacobs’s main motive in collecting is the connection he feels with each individual piece: “It’s a very serious thing for him—it’s not just ‘I want this, I want that,’” Reinhold says.
Of course, it took some time for Jacobs to convince dealers, and artists, of that seriousness. When he bought his first Currin, Thanksgiving (2003), from Sadie Coles in London, he cannily agreed to donate it to the Tate. Currin recalls being surprised when he heard the news. “It was like, Hmm, a famous person bought a painting of mine,” he says. “I didn’t realize how smart Marc was about art, because I didn’t know him yet.” Artist Rachel Feinstein, Currin’s wife and Jacobs’s sometime muse, adds that Jacobs’s initial sense of intimidation at galleries wasn’t entirely irrational, since many dealers love nothing more than to make celebrities—particularly fashion celebrities—feel unworthy. “Marc really had to do that song and dance that dealers make you do,” she says.
Jacobs’s most recent buys include two pieces from a new Richard Prince series that appropriates previous work of Willem de Kooning. (This fall, in the vein of his very profitable collaboration with Takashi Murakami, Jacobs recruited Prince to create a series of Vuitton handbags.) But Jacobs says he’s been slowing down lately, in part because of escalating prices. And despite the odd Jack Pierson or Cindy Sherman he has lying around the house, he says he has no interest in building a collection of photographs: “I don’t know, they’re just too real,” he says. “An image of something as it exists doesn’t interest me so much.”
As Jacobs fills his walls with art, he is also using his own body as a canvas: His growing tattoo collection, which started with a little heart on his left shoulder, is itself almost exhibition-worthy. The newest additions are the French words oui and lui in bold graphics on each forearm, and, in the middle of his back, Carol Anne from Poltergeist, mesmerized by a glowing TV screen. (“Stay away from the light,” Jacobs intones with mock solemnity.) On his left earlobe is a Harry Winston diamond, and on his right are three more.
“Yeah, so I have this jewelry obsession now too,” Jacobs says. “And people are like, ‘Oh, Marc is having a midlife crisis.’ And maybe that’s what it is. But I’m enjoying it so much.” Even if it all feels a bit self-indulgent, says Jacobs, 44, it’s part of a new surge of inspiration after years of workaholism. “My interest in art has been very nourishing,” he says. “I don’t know that buying diamond earrings is so nourishing. But my new interest in jewelry will definitely show at some point in working on the Vuitton jewelry.” In general, he says, “I find that I love fashion so much again.”
Over the past year and a half, Jacobs has completely transformed himself from the inside out: Gone are the stringy hair, the plastic Seventies glasses and the baggy, chubby-guy sweatshirts. One of the rare fashion designers who will admit to having any insecurities whatsoever, Jacobs cops to a lot of them (“I’ve always been very uncomfortable with myself”), and it’s only now, while sporting defined triceps and a tan, that he can say, “I actually don’t mind how I look.” The makeover dates back to Jacobs’s first visit with nutritionist Lindsey Duncan, who banned sugar, flour, dairy and caffeine in favor of organic salads, green vegetable–juice shakes, exercise, sunshine and supplements galore.
Friends note that Jacobs’s personal demons, whatever they may be, have in some ways served him well. “It’s terrible to say this,” says Peyton, “but I think all that pain that Marc goes through always brings him so much farther in terms of his ability to create. He’s very much like an artist that way. There are all these ideas and influences and conflicts jumbled in his head, and he works through them and arrives at the next place, where you never imagined he’d go.”
This past spring, after Jacobs had started drinking again, he checked himself into a rehab center in Arizona but quickly soured on the place, due to the scolding atmosphere and heavy emphasis on group therapy. “There are just certain things I’m not comfortable talking about in a group of people,” he says. (It didn’t help that he got fan mail within days of his arrival.) He transferred to Passages in Malibu, a resortlike facility offering a spiritually based program that’s looser than the classic 12-step model. Patients are allowed to read magazines, go online, use their cell phones. “It wasn’t all about, ‘You’re bad, you drank, you must suffer!’” Jacobs says.
Asked about his love life, Jacobs rolls his eyes. “It doesn’t exist at the moment,” he says. (His on-again, off-again thing with 26-year-old Jason Preston was off at the time of our late July interview, but the two were together again in mid-September.) Jacobs recalls that when one of his therapists at Passages asked him if he really wanted to be in a relationship, he didn’t know how to answer. “I think I want the ideal long-term relationship, the storybook romance,” Jacobs says. “I’d love to have that. But it’s not a possession; it’s not going to hang on the wall.” In any case, he says, he no longer views being single as a curse. “I mean, I like to have sex, and I like to go out on dates, even dates that don’t work out. But I don’t feel the need to be with one person all the time. It doesn’t feel like before. It’s not going to complete me or anything.”
In Paris Jacobs enjoys spending time at home with his art, which is partly what inspired this photo portfolio. The designer liked the idea of a series that captured his home as a sort of surreal dollhouse, offering a look into “the little compartments of people’s lives.” When he talks about his existence in Paris, which he used to fantasize about as a teenager, he compares it to a bizarre dream. A fairy tale, maybe, but with the requisite scary parts.
“I have a funny love for melancholy,” says Jacobs, who, in the evenings, occasionally finds himself eating in his dining room, all by himself. Sitting at the table, he says, he’ll experience an odd sense of sorrow, which brings its own kind of satisfaction.
“I do like being in this house, feeling lonely and a little sad,” Jacobs says, adding,“It really does it for me.”