At Marc Jacobs, a Fashion History Lesson

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs

Last night, in the cavernous darkness of the Park Avenue Armory, a single spotlight picked out a lone music stand. Aside from a long line of audience chairs on the right side, the room was empty, hushed, the normally chattering fashion types who assemble for Marc Jacobs’s shows cowed to whispers. Jacobs, who in recent years has shown what he wants when he wants — New York Fashion Week, of which he used to be the star attraction, doesn’t start until February 10 — likes to set a mood, and he can count on reverential quiet.

Jacobs’s show was titled “Heroes,” and championed one hero above all: Vivienne Westwood, whose long shadow continues to loom decades after she burst onto the scene in the 1970s, and even following her death in December. The show notes (all a viewer had to go on this season; Jacobs gave no interviews) quoted her: “Fashion is life-enhancing, and I think it’s a lovely, generous thing to do for other people.” Maybe it would’ve been pat had Jennifer Koh, the violinist who appeared suddenly in the spotlight, launched into “Heroes,” by Westwood’s contemporary David Bowie. Instead, when she brought down her bow, it was for a virtuosic rendition of a different mid-’70s composition: one of the “knee plays,” or intermezzos, from Philip Glass’s minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach.

Photo: Jonas Gustavsson/Courtesy of Marc Jacobs

What Jacobs understands is that to work in the shadow of genius (Westwood, Glass, Einstein) is life-enhancing, not diminishing. There’s something remarkably uncompetitive about his current era. He’s always been a voracious consumer — of art, of music, in darker periods, of less salubrious entertainments, too — but he’s a prodigious sharer, too, of references, of influences, of passions, of credit. Follow his Instagram, and you find a consummate shopper, magpie-ing his way through Balenciaga, Rick Owens, and Prada, dressing himself up the same way he dresses up his models. Watching this show, you could find some of those references, Owens’s goth-y glamness and KISS boots in particular. There was a good bit of Westwood in there, too, from the spiky, bleach-y wigs, to the torpedo-breasted sweaters that harked back to Dame Viv’s (and Malcolm McLaren’s) nippled tops from the early 80s. I felt a bit of Westwood’s spirit in the way Jacobs twisted the rough stuff of American sportswear — military jackets, cargos, etc. — into something like slouchy, crystal-studded couture. After punk, Westwood hewed to its spirit, if not its aesthetic, by bending 18th-century English court and country wear, with its panniers and bustles and corsets and tweeds, to her own torqued ends. If that was her inheritance to play with, her own attic to raid, the Army/Navy shop is Marc’s.

It’s fair to ask how many women today want their breasts torpedoed, or cargo pockets on their evening wear. I can’t imagine it’s very many. But Jacobs sells this collection exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman; he has other lines for commercial appeal. So it’s also fair to see this as an intermezzo of its own, an artwork and an indulgence. He’s earned that. He is generous — not only to the dearly departed, but to the still-present, too. I noted the special thanks in his program to Julio Espada, a now largely forgotten designer of 1970s and ’80s New York, whose own drape-y designs once transfixed Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner. Jacobs has supported Espada before (he was, for a time, the designer of Pucci, after Jacobs recommended him to their shared owners at LVMH), and he clearly hasn’t forgotten him. Espada is a “longtime friend and confidant of Marc’s that has a vast knowledge of fashion history and references, similar to Marc’s,” Jacobs’s spokesman told me. “I know Marc appreciates that element of their friendship when finding inspiration during his design process.”

To paraphrase Westwood: Fashion can be life-enhancing, and a lovely, generous thing to do for other people. Jacobs’s generosity deserves ours.

At Marc Jacobs, a Generous Fashion History Lesson