In the car on the way back to the office, my fashion-editor colleagues and I fought bitterly over what we’d just seen. It was early November 1992, the week Bill Clinton would be elected president, and we had just witnessed Marc Jacobs’s notorious spring 1993 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, that epic show where Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, and Naomi Campbell skulked down the runway wearing combat boots and silk flannel shirts. One prominent fashion director declared the show a flop. “Where’s the elegance?” she demanded, waving an armful of gold bangles in the air. “There’s nothing for retailers to sell!”
After a decade of ’80s extravagance, we’d grown accustomed to glitzy chains and high-gloss hair and makeup. Next to Richard Avedon’s slick Versace advertisements, the stringy hair and pale-faced look of grunge felt flat. Critics hated it. The International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes even had “Grunge Is Ghastly” pins made. Jacobs lost his job. Music fans laughed at high fashion’s attempt to appropriate their Nirvana beat. Yet it was hard to deny the excitement of this bold new statement. With a few knit beanies and silk negligees, Jacobs had tapped into the zeitgeist of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, thus catapulting the subculture to the forefront of style. Ultimately, the grunge show would mark a turning point in fashion: the definitive transition from couture to street, from rarefied incubator to scrappy innovator.
Today, 25 years later, Jacobs and his team have meticulously remade 26 looks from that infamous outing. They returned to the mills that produced the original prints and scoured eBay for the now-vintage pieces. The designer had the somewhat crazy idea of reissuing his favorite collection, not to boast or be lazy, he says-he just wanted to mix things up. The fashion system wasn’t working. He felt boxed in by its biannual runway-show structure. Jacobs thought it might be time to try something different, again. “There are all these conversations in my head about, What is fashion anymore? Who is fashion for? Where’s it going? With the internet, it all becomes so overwhelming,” Jacobs says, seated at a long table in the back of his New York showroom. He’s dressed in a favorite black- and-white polka-dot Comme des Garçons shirt, his hair slicked back under a cotton headband. He looks more like a fashion éminence grise than the renegade designer in sunglasses and a ponytail who took his final bow at Perry Ellis in the ’90s.
Despite the fallout, Jacobs would go on to launch his wildly successful eponymous label and become the proverbial king of New York Fashion Week, with celebrities clamoring for seats at his over-the-top shows. He also conquered Paris, jolting the sleepy world of French fashion as the creative director of Louis Vuitton. Nobody questioned his dominance. If Marc Jacobs said “turbans,” the fashion world agreed, unequivocally. Turbans!
But then the landscape shifted; the way we consume fashion changed. Retail stores began closing, including Jacobs’s beloved Bleecker Street outposts. In 2013, after 16 years, he stepped down from his post at Louis Vuitton. Last June, the New York Times suggested that Jacobs had lost his way. “Is it hard to stay relevant in this climate?” Jacobs asks. “I don’t want to get too heady, but relevant in what sense? When I hear the word relevant, I think maybe what you really mean is, Is it what young people would like?”
There’s good reason to believe that grunge is exactly that. Buzzy indie acts like Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison, 21, and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, 19, hark back to the garage-band stylings of 1990s Seattle. And the Gen Z look certainly evokes a more authentic, antiestablishment spirit. See Emma González in her riot grrrl–worthy army-navy jackets. When Gigi Hadid, who at 23 is younger than the original collection, got an advance peek at Version 2.0, she thought it was cool, not because it was a reboot but because she just liked the clothes.
“It’s important to be sensitive to what’s going on in the world right now,” Jacobs says, “and to try to maintain one’s integrity.” The fact that Instagram culture prioritizes personalities over actual clothing irks him. “It’s silly to complain about it, but it’s so frustrating when people focus on the girls and not the clothes. I was pretty outspoken a couple of years ago when there was a Chanel couture show and there was one dress that was so exquisitely made-the fabric, the handwork. But all anyone could talk about was Lily-Rose Depp, the model wearing the dress. Not one person talked about the dress and what went into it.”
In response, Jacobs abandoned his signature elaborate sets and instead captured his audience’s attention by showing the clothes with no distractions, not even music. Just two rows of chairs, between which models marched in silence. He implored attendees to put away their phones. “In the theater, they say to put your cameras away. This is a live experience,” he says. “We work for months, and it’s over in seven minutes. Could you just put your phone away for seven minutes?”
But even Jacobs can’t put his iPhone away. On Instagram, he enjoys sharing both his creative inspirations and vacations with his one million followers. “The most likes I get is when I put on a Chanel jacket and go to a restaurant,” he admits, “or post a stupid animal video.” Still, the platform helps him bring his idea of fashion-that is to say, the fashion of Diana Vreeland and the 1960s, the days when photo shoots were like movie sets-to a new generation. And so it goes with the relaunch of grunge. “Part of the irony and perversity of it was that everything was found and elevated,” he recalls of the first iteration. “We bought vintage flannel shirts for $2 on St. Marks Place and remade them out of silk. Taking something banal or vulgar and elevating it to designer status was not new. We were not the first to do it, but people get offended by it. They were adamant: No, you’re not supposed to do that. But really, it’s still happening. Look at Balenciaga elevating what kids buy for $15 at the mall and making it for $2,000. It’s the emperor’s new clothes. Isn’t that what fashion has always been?”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of ELLE.