The Future Of Fashion, Part One: Robert Duffy
As we enter a new decade, the fashion business, like the rest of the world, is encountering significant economic and technological changes. In this new series, Style.com’s editor in chief, Dirk Standen, talks to a number of leading industry figures about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
When I spoke to Robert Duffy, the president of Marc Jacobs, by phone last week, it was 12 days till showtime. “I don’t have one finished sample, one piece of clothing that’s finished, not one,” he said from the label’s Spring Street offices. “I don’t have one shoe or one handbag that’s going to be in the show that’s finished.” He did not, however, sound particularly concerned by this state of affairs. In fact, he sounded cheerful and energized. That unflappability has presumably served Duffy well over the last two and a half decades, as he and Jacobs have gone from being the self-described “rebels” of American fashion to becoming the leaders of a global mega-brand. During our conversation, somewhat condensed here, he talked about his experiences with tweeting and live streaming, the reason a $15 flip-flop could be the future of retail, and why having celebrities at your fashion show is boring.
You’ve just started tweeting. What’s surprised you so far?
What surprised me is how famous Marc is.
I’m just working with the same person for, it’ll be 26 years in May, so I have absolutely no idea. I mean, sometimes when we walk down the street and stuff, I hear people screaming at him. But I was floored…The best thing about [tweeting] has been listening to what people have to say, and these are real consumers. People were commenting about what they bought and how they long they’d kept it and when and where they’d bought it. That’s really been an eye-opener for me.
With things like tweeting that let you have that direct communication with the customer, do you still need the fashion press?
Well, there are different customers. We are such a diversified company. We have a collection line that’s very expensive and very labor-intensive and all of that, and that customer does read fashion magazines and they do care about somebody’s opinion. There are certain editors that have influence over certain stylists and that trickles down, and there are certain editors that have influence over certain actors and actresses and that’s your customer for that part of the business. We do have that business and that’s where we started, and that’s where the ideas come from and that’s where the inspiration comes for everything else.
You’ve expanded so much. You have the Marc by Marc business, as well as collection, men’s, women’s, Louis Vuitton. And there are so many seasons now, Resort, Spring, Fall, and so on. How does Jacobs deal with the pressure? And how do you organize yourselves as a company to deal with it?
We have an incredible team of people that we’ve put together over the years. And another thing that people have to understand is that the founders of this company are still here, still working, still alive. Marc and I are connected and involved every single day. Again from twittering this thing, people are sort of floored by the fact that Marc is sketching, and he’s doing this and he’s doing that. He really does do all of this stuff. It’s probably the thing that I’m getting the most questions about. How can he still be sketching at this point when you have a show in two weeks? And I was like, well, when you consider the workload that we have between Marc by Marc Jacobs, the Marc by Marc Jacobs men’s collection, and the Louis Vuitton men’s collection, and like you said all the seasons, we’re working every single day of the week. I just came back from Italy from the Marc Jacobs men’s collection and then went to France for the Louis Vuitton men’s collection. Marc just came back from the Louis Vuitton men’s collection, so there really isn’t a break that you have. Marc is just working constantly, all the time. We have a staff that helps us, but we’re working. And Marc literally does do almost every piece that you see on the runway. He does literally sketch almost every piece, the shoes, bags, everything. There are parts of it that he didn’t do that you’re going to see in the showroom, but the stuff that is on the runway he’s done. Marc by Marc is a different story. We have really talented designers that work there. Marc will oversee stuff. They’ll show me stuff. We know what’s going on…It’s a juggling act constantly.
You mentioned being a diversified company now. Is that the key to business these days?
I don’t really know how other companies work because Marc and I have only worked with each other. I just think we’re maybe more organic than business-plan, and a couple of years ago I was like, I’ve got to start layering in less expensive pieces. In order for me to have my own retail stores, I’ve got to become special. The Marc by Marc line is in so many department stores and specialty stores, and I can’t compete with them and their price points. I can’t compete with them and their markdowns. I can’t compete with them in any way, shape, or form. So we almost developed a third line, because I wanted my stores to be unique and special, and I had the luxury of being able to do that. For me the future is that. You have to be different from everybody else and yet still maintain an image of a designer, an image that is about fashion evolving and changing. But the business had to change, too, because people need reasons to come out of their house and into the store…We knew years ago that things were not going to go well in the economy. Anybody that was sitting back and going, “This is great,” knowing that we’re involved in two wars, knowing about the deficit. This was all happening a long time ago; this didn’t just happen in the last two years. You know, I knew it, and I’m not any business genius. I could tell what was coming, and the prices of things were just getting so crazy, the prices on houses and all that. People came to me and said, you started doing all this less expensive stuff four years ago, and I said, I wanted this company to be recession-proof. I was preparing for the worst-case scenario. I didn’t know it would be as bad as it was, but I was glad that I was already in this position and I wasn’t scrambling and had this business model in place and the consumer already knew. People were freaking out and trading down and trying to add in a third line. We were well into that business, so I was fine about it. And I think that’s how business is going to be done in the future. You just have to pay attention.
Pay attention in what ways?
You have to stay in touch with your customer. People will always comment about seeing me in stores all the time. You know, “I was in Lisbon and I saw you in the Lisbon store.” “I was on Bleecker Street and I saw you on Bleecker.” And I’m like, I have to be there. I have to know what’s going on. I have to know what people are happy with, and I have to know how my customer is. And the people that I work with and that work in our retail stores are our customers as well. Again you just have to keep at it every day, and if you don’t love it, you aren’t going to be successful at it. And I do love it. And I listen to the kids that work with me. I’ve learned so much from them.
We were talking about tweeting before. You’re also live-streaming the show for the first time this season.
I think we did it last season, too. I just don’t think we announced it. I kept saying we’re doing it this season, and everyone was like, we did it last time.
I guess I should have known that.
I guess I should have known it. And Marc should have known it. But one of the kids who works on our Web site was like, yeah, we did it last season.
OK, not such a big deal then. But how big a leap is it from live-streaming a show to filming a collection in a studio, without an audience. How important is it to have a live show with a live audience?
If it’s important to people, then it’s important to me. People like to come to our shows. They like the energy in the audience. There are people that you work with, there are certain editors, there are certain stylists, there are certain people who are really, really knowledgeable about what you’re trying to do. You really do want the feedback. And for us, when you’re showing a collection, even if it’s to the stores that buy it, or it’s to your teams of buyers for your own stores, you really do want to show it the way that you see it being worn. It’s a marketing vehicle within the company. I have stores in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, all over China, all over Japan. I have them all over the world. I’m in Saudi Arabia, I’m in Kuwait, I’m in Lebanon, Dubai, all over Europe, my own stores. And the universal language is what they see, and this is how we’re presenting it. This is how we see this being presented in the stores. You have to dilute it according to your climate, according to your culture, but this is a marketing tool for us to use internally. When you get up to 240 stores or whatever, Marc Jacobs stores or Marc by Marc Jacobs stores, they need it. Now if there’s also an audience that’s happy to sit through it, great. I’m not into the celebrity thing or anything, like we used to do. You know, it’s like, that’s boring. People used to want to come to our shows because of that, and we’ve sort of cut that out the last two seasons just because it was boring.
So it’s going to be a celebrity-free zone again this season?
We’re not going to have celebrities. Last season we had two celebrities that showed up. One because Lady Gaga was doing our after-party, and she didn’t even make it to her seat because we started the show before she got there. And one was Madonna. She came backstage, and I was like, “What do you do with her now?” You know what I mean? Because it’s not like she was invited. She just called and said she was coming, and we weren’t holding the show for her. She just came and that was it. There’s certain things I can’t control, but we used to have all the celebrities and people there, and I think that at that moment in time that’s what people loved. It generated so much press and at a certain point it was like, did anybody actually watch the show? All I ever saw in the press was who was there. So we sort of stopped that and just got back to showing a fashion show, and if people want to come, great.
Any other hints about what we’ll see next week? I know you guys like to play it close to the vest before a show.
It’s not that we like to play it close to the vest. It is close to the vest. When I [tweeted] we didn’t have a concept, we really didn’t have a concept for staging. You can ask KCD. You can call them up and say, do they ever have a concept more than two weeks before the show? This is the earliest we’ve ever had a concept and the only reason is because I twittered that we didn’t have a concept. Marc was like, well, I don’t want everyone to think that we really don’t have a concept. And I was like, well, we don’t. And then Marc and I sat down and we got one, and this is the earliest we’ve ever had a concept. We play it close to the vest because it is close to the vest. I can honestly say this. I don’t have one finished sample, one piece of clothing that’s finished, not one. I don’t have one shoe or one handbag that’s going to be in the show that’s finished. I just sent patterns out today for coats, just sent them out today.
Does that make you nervous? Or, after so many years of doing this, do you just have the confidence that it’ll work out?
It has to work out. There have been seasons in the past where we’ve been two hours late, three hours late, whatever. Those days are done. Now I’m like, whatever’s done by eight o’clock, we’re showing it. And everybody’s just going to have to get with the program on that one. We play it close to the vest because we have to. We not only design the Marc by Marc and the men’s and the women’s and all those lines, we also do Louis Vuitton. We’re still working two jobs. So there is just not enough time. Marc still wants to take a week off at Christmas, and so do I. It’s just the way it is. We get it up and we get it out there, and we still work all night, the night before the show or two nights before the show. That’s getting tiring now that I’m in my mid-fifties, but that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t make me nervous.
I imagine that the way you manufacture the clothes, the countries you use and so on, has changed a lot over the years.
For the Marc by Marc and other products, yes. That changes constantly. There are so many factors built into that, depending on the materials that you use, depending on the exchange rate, depending on the laws. Because we’re part of a public company, we really do adhere to very strict codes of where things can be made, and all the different laws and rules and regulations about child labor and pollution. And Marc and I have certain beliefs about where things should be made, personal beliefs that come into play. But that is constantly changing, constantly, constantly changing—depending on the government in a certain country in a certain year. A lot of this has to do with exchange rate, and a lot of it has to do with where our suppliers are moving their manufacturing, and what countries are opening up to things, and who does the best at this or that. You have to stay on top of that.
And in the future, more of the same?
Well, I can’t see our government making any decision about anything at this point, like labor laws or import duties or anything.
Is the manufacturing process different for the collection line?
The collection line we manufacture mainly in the United States, believe it or not. That’s because of the control that we want to keep. Otherwise, I’d need to be living in Italy or France. We want it to be an American brand, so all of our wovens are made here in the United States, most of the coats. Our knits, we do most of those in Italy for the collection line, just because we have to. That’s where the machinery and the quality is. We just don’t have that industry in the United States anymore. We definitely manufacture our wovens in the United States, and I want to keep it that way because we have control over it. I can just go to the factory. If there’s a problem, it’s just much easier to remedy.
You’re relatively young, you’re clearly still very involved in the business, but do you ever think about your legacy?
Yeah, I do all the time because I’m part of a public company, and my partners are Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. I mean, I’m going to be 56 on my next birthday, and the one thing I don’t want to be is designing clothes for 18-year-old girls when I’m 70. I hope to be doing something else. But I know I’m going to still be here for a long time doing this, and I also know it’s time for me to start putting people in place, and I have been doing that over the last year or so. They’ve worked with me a long time, and I am putting people in place I want to be here in case something happens to me or Marc [so I can] know that the company can go on. Because of the people that I work with at LVMH, you learn a tremendous amount from these people that run these enormously successful businesses, and that is one thing that they have constantly said to me. That it’s great that you can do this, but a lot of this has to be put down on paper. There has to be a bible here for people to read. It can’t just be by the seat of your pants.
Do you think yours might be the last American mega-brand to emerge for a long time? That’s not to say the new generation of designers isn’t talented. But the landscape has changed. It’s more fragmented now.
It’s a question that people are always asking me. When we started, I remember Diana Vreeland coming into our office. She was at the Met at that point. So we started back when the old school really was the old school, and we were the rebels. We’ve gotten fired and blah, blah, blah; we’ve gone through all that stuff; but there was a certain infrastructure within the fashion industry then. The fashion directors of department stores had the power back then to say, “I believe in this designer. It’s not going to sell but we’re going to stick with it and we’re going to train them.” A lot of the training that we got was from buyers, who said, it’s got to be like this, or you need to add certain silhouettes into this. That was as much of a training as anything…Today, I would do it very differently. I would be very involved in the Web site to get my message out, and I would probably open my own stores as opposed to depending on department stores. My first store on Mercer Street cost me nothing, because there was nothing on Mercer Street. Besides the garage next to me, I was the only thing that was open on two blocks. So the rent was zip. People thought I was insane, and when I opened on Bleecker Street, it was the same thing. I opened in an old dentist’s office and I had to put glass windows in it. People were like, what are you doing? But for me it was just easy because I live around the corner. If people want your merchandise, they’re going to come to wherever you are. I believed that, and it worked for me. This generation, there’s going to be people who are successful. But I think the days of the big brands [are over]. There’s still going to be designers that LVMH will be hiring and people that they want to get involved with, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen for people the way it happened for us. To expand the way we’ve been able to expand, you really do need that behind you.
How has the relationship with LVMH changed over the years?
It’s changed for the better. A lot better. Once you start making money, everybody loves you. That’s never going to change. It takes time when you have a concept. No one was thinking about us as these successful, established people. We had a company that was doing zip, a tiny amount of business. And they’re looking at us like, “What do these guys know? They know nothing.” I understood that, but I still believed in my concept of really having a diversified product category. That may be because I love retail. I never think that you should walk into a store and everything should be expensive. You still should have things that people can buy and that aren’t a gazillion dollars. We started in that place and everybody has caught up with each other. Now suddenly we’re some of the oldest employees of LVMH. You know, we’re the old guys now.
What are your expectations for the e-commerce site, launching in August?
I really don’t know what to expect. I have absolutely no idea. The only two things I’ve ever bought on the Internet—three things, actually—are a car, a house, and a dog.
So again, it’s more of an organic process? You’re not saying, we have to hit such and such numbers in the first three months?
People have come to me within the organization and said, we must have an e-commerce site. But I said, not until I figure out a way that I’m going to enjoy this. Then I came up with this idea that I liked. I could I get my head around it and enjoy sitting down and working with somebody and designing it. Then I would care about what it was and what was on it. This would make me want to go there. But we’ll see if anybody else will like it.
And you’re continuing with the store expansion?
We’re expanding constantly. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a genius or any of the people here are geniuses, but we just happened to be expanding in Brazil and China and India. We started the expansion four years ago, so we were in the right place at the right time because those economies kept going…But, yes, we’re continuing to expand. We just opened a third store in Mexico City. We’re opening a flagship collection store in Chicago. My first bar and restaurant in Milan and a Marc by Marc Jacobs store. We’re opening tons of stores. We’re going.
And the future is in the diversity, the one-off special items?
I read a piece that somebody had written about our company—believe it or not, when I was in the Philippines—and somebody translated it for me. It was talking about how you can go through any airport in any country in the world and every designer has a shop now. But can you find $15 Marc Jacobs flip-flops? Instead of finding the $3,000 handbag in every shop, you would think that what they have would be the $15 flip-flop. It was a funny article, because it said that really the most exclusive thing that we have is the $15 Marc Jacobs flip-flop. And it didn’t make anyone happy, that article. But to me that’s the future of fashion. If you can be really exclusive and it’s at a price point that everybody can handle, that’s genius. I’m not saying that I’m a genius, but that’s so cool, that it’s only available in our stores and it’s not available anyplace else and it’s not even available in all of our stores. Again, it brings people in, and that’s the bottom line. I’ve got to get people to come in the door.