why the end of marc by marc matters
As one of fashion’s most loved diffusion lines closes, a look at its cultural impact and legacy.
It's easy as hell to be nostalgic about Marc by Marc Jacobs. The recent news about the diffusion line's absorption into Marc Jacobs' main collection hit a nerve for fashion fans who grew up with the brand. Launched in spring 2001, Marc by Marc was one of the first sensational designer sub-labels. Its canvas military-inspired jackets and vaguely retro stonewashed jeans were the object of babysitting money across America and beyond, and the line renewed itself constantly, most recently with three youth-quaking collections by Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley (who just announced the launch of their own luxury label). Suburban kids from Long Island and fashion insiders alike made the pilgrimage to Marc by Marc's international shops for clever trinkets and accessories. But beyond some slightly weepy fashionistas, what does Marc by Marc's shuttering mean for the fashion industry?
Let's take a quick trip back to the launch of Marc by Marc. Pre-9/11, pre-recession, pre-Kardashians: this was a very different landscape for a fashion brand. In 2000, Marc Jacobs himself was still pale and a bit geeky, with a uniform of oversized sweaters, clear spectacles, and adidas Stan Smiths. He hadn't yet become the internationally-recognized, ultra-buff and tattooed arbiter of taste via his own line and Louis Vuitton. The first Marc by Marc Jacobs collection was a welcome jolt to the industry, with pink socks and heeled sandals, rainbow belts, and those soon-omnipresent military jackets. Like all successful fashion, it was the clothing you didn't know you needed that you suddenly couldn't live without.
And it was unique. At the time, there weren't that many brands proffering exciting design at a (relatively) accessible price point. Marc muses Sofia Coppola and Kim Gordon wore the line, as did its campaign stars M.I.A. and Daisy Lowe. In the fifteen years since its launch, the brand went from insider fashion obsession to ubiquitous entry-point designer purchase. But it gained more than a few competitors along the way.
H&M launched its first New York store in 2000, the same year Marc Jacobs presented the first Marc by Marc collection. Zara had not yet become every fashion editor's dirty little secret. Topshop was years away from its first New York flagship. We forget how scarce quality design was before the High Street revolution. Marc by Marc was not the first diffusion line (DKNY launched in 88 and Miu Miu in 92), but it was one of the first to capture the imagination - and wallets - of young middle-class girls and women. Those girls - and guys! - are now more often than not getting their fashion fix at H&M (currently at $20.3 billion in global sales) and Zara ($14.4 billion).
As fast fashion took off, designer spinoffs suffered. Kors, Burberry Sport, D&G - all have been closed in recent years. In Business of Fashion this past December, Robin Mellery-Pratt argued that diffusion lines were losing their economic raison d'etre: "For most fashion brands, assimilating lower-priced product into signature lines may make the most sense. Indeed, it's becoming increasingly difficult to justify diffusion lines which confuse customers and drive up costs."
Despite the recent, heralded re-launch of Marc by Marc under accessories wizard Katie Hillier and fashion darling Luella Bartley, the brand had run its course. Along with his new CEO Sebastien Suhl, Marc Jacobs made the move as part of a plan to reinvigorate his eponymous brand (as it prepares for an IPO). Jacobs told WWD: "I want to make incredible fashion. I want to figure out a way to make that incredible fashion available to people on different levels." Now, that means one line, which will need to find new ways of communicating and selling to young people.
What will the West Village become without the Marc by Marc Jacobs shop? As Ariel Levy observed in her 2008 profile of Marc Jacobs in The New Yorker, "The two individuals perhaps most responsible for transforming the West Village from what it was ten years ago into what it is today are Carrie Bradshaw and Marc Jacobs." In recent years Bleecker has been invaded by a steady flow of Magnolia cupcake-eating tweens. Perhaps as the main Marc Jacobs brand redefines itself, its Mercer and Bleecker shops will again become as trend-setting and culturally relevant as they were when legendary store manager Robert Rich hosted Kate Moss and Winona Ryder in the store's original back room.
In the fifteen years since Marc by Marc's launch, young consumers have become more socially conscious and less designer-focused. With the influx of do-gooder fashion brands like Everlane, Warby Parker, and Toms, priorities have shifted. What a brand does for the planet is becoming just as important as what its clothes look like. Katie Hillier and Luella's last gestures for Marc by Marc revolved around the ideas of DIY fashion and activism. As Katie said after the fall/winter 15 show, "Buy a beret. Make some badges. Get some old jeans and put the patches on them. You can buy the clothes and there are ideas on how to create your own as well." This move from materialism to creativity is encouraging! Let the next decade be about how brands can engage young people beyond their wallets.
Text Rory Satran
Photography Kate Owen