On August 26, Marc Jacobs will receive MTV’s first-ever Fashion Trailblazer Award at the VMAs in a partnership between the brand and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It couldn’t go to a more worthy individual. After all, it’s impossible to separate Jacobs from the music that’s influenced his 30-plus-year career. His Perry Ellis Spring 1993 collection was inspired by the grunge scene and featured supermodels parading down the runway in slouchy flannels and floppy beanies. (It famously got him fired and was reissued in 2018). Around the same time, Jacobs worked with Sonic Youth on the music video for “Sugar Kane,” which featured splices of that very same dressed-down Perry Ellis collection—plus a nude Chloë Sevigny! Jacobs also created clothes for a House of Style commercial back in the ’90s, making two little black jersey T-shirt dresses that said, “I love rap, I love disco, I love rock.”
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Jacobs used a reworked vintage MTV logo on sweatshirts in his Spring 2017 Resort collection. (Fun fact: Jacobs’s head of knitwear Laura Zaccheo found the vintage MTV dud in a thrift shop.) He’s also dressed the likes of Lady Gaga (the superstar walked his Fall 2016 runway) and Cardi B (for her video “I Like It”). He tells Vogue US: “I’ve always been seduced to learn about different bands or different music by the way they look.”
Here, the designer discusses his grunge beginnings, his musical influences, and what MTV has meant to him.
Your grunge collection for Perry Ellis is legendary. Do you remember seeing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video for the first time?
Nobody had introduced me to Nirvana. It was like a magnet, and that’s how I feel a lot of my life was. It wasn’t something I sought out; it just affected me immediately. I had a primitive connection to Sonic Youth and Nirvana and a lot of other things at that time. But again, it felt very authentic and not that I had to learn it or find it. That was my same experience with punk rock back in the ’70s, when I just saw how cool the kids looked who were a part of that scene that it drew me to hear those bands.
I remember traveling to Europe—I was in Berlin, and I walked into a bar with some friends, and I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then I went to San Francisco at some point, and it was playing, and I was just like, “This is so big.” It felt very big even in kind of under-the-radar places. Even my thoughts about MTV then were that, although it seemed like it had a commercial responsibility, it was definitely aware of what was cool.
How did the phenomenon trickle into other parts of fashion?
At that time, there was also a shift in fashion photography, which was very inspired by Larry Clark, with no glamour and no frills and no fancy lighting, just cool kids going out with a camera, taking pictures of other cool kids wearing clothes.
I think the alternative or indie and grunge scene was happening, and then there was also something going on in the modeling world, which of course I was very attached to and aware of. There was this new, maybe just under-the-radar way of looking at people or young people whose beauty was not conventional. It was a combination of all those things, and I really authentically felt something different was happening and something new was happening. It was also seductive, and I couldn’t resist any part of it.
What other music videos or bands influenced you?
Any Nirvana video was amazing. I don’t know if anybody considers Soundgarden grunge or even Pearl Jam, but I felt like it was the music of that time. I mean, I love Dinosaur Jr., but I can’t remember any video particularly. Sonic Youth, I don’t remember many videos at that time, but I know the one that we did together, which was around the time of my grunge period. We did “Sugar Kane,” and that was an amazing experience.
What are you listening to now?
That’s a really tough one. I don’t have an authentic connection to music right now, so I kind of listen to what [my husband] Charlie [Char Defrancesco] is listening to, which is a lot of hip-hop. I’m kind of keeping an open mind and listening to what other people are listening to, which is the way I’ve always learned, like when other people suggest things or bring something to my attention. Other than that, I have little awareness of pop music, which is only because it just always is everywhere. I guess my love for music still is very retro in a way, like I love the things that remind me of anything that I really loved growing up. That growing up includes my twenties, my thirties, and even my forties.
I listened to Billie Eilish the other day, and I like her sound, and I like what she looks like and what she represents, so she seems pretty cool to me, and I like the music. I’ve also been a big fan of Lizzo’s. I also like her message and how she looks. I met her and hung out with her a little bit, and that’s a different sound. I liked some of Kim Petras’s music, which is much more poppy. It always helps when I know and meet people, because then I have more of an interest in knowing about their work.
Why did you use the MTV logo in your Resort 2017 collection? What does MTV mean to you?
First of all, MTV always had the coolest graphics. It was very spot-on for what MTV was saying and who they were saying it to. It really spoke to me, and I think that generation of people at that time. I’ve maintained them in my memory bank, and they’ve never gone away. They’re iconic.
How that all happened [Resort 2017 MTV graphics], to be honest, was we found a vintage MTV sweater from that period: like, a pink sweater with one of the MTV logos. Then we contacted MTV and asked if we could use their logo. Then we got a lot of information about all the different logos. They sent us all the artwork, and then we picked different ones than the sweater we found. [The sweater] was actually the catalyst that kind of put me in that “I want my MTV” spirit, and that’s why the [models] looked like they did and why the clothes looked like they did. It was very much me tuning into that part of my brain that recalled things that looked like that, as I remembered it in that moment.