Robert Duffy charms Tokyo

Features - January 12th, 2011
Jacobs

The success of American fashion genius Marc Jacobs is in large part due to early support from Japan. His namesake brand’s co-founder, Robert Duffy, was in Tokyo to talk about the new Aoyama flagship store and navigating his unique relationship with the designer.

by MISHA JANETTE

“Japan was the beginning for us,” says Marc Jacobs President Robert Duffy in an interview at the megabrand’s new flagship  store in Aoyama last week. “We were always getting fired from jobs. So we did lots of little projects in Japan. We worked with Mitsubishi, with Kashiyama, and with some other small businesses that aren’t around anymore. I remember it was 1984 and after getting fired once I called up Kashiyama and they got me a meeting with the director.”

Kashiyama put up money that Jacobs and Duffy used to start the Marc Jacobs line in New York shortly thereafter.

“I actually get emotional thinking about it, because there were so many lean years, and I felt like the boy on the street begging with a tin cup. Without the Japanese customer, Marc Jacobs the brand wouldn’t exist today, truly.” And the brand is certainly popular with Japanese consumers.

“I was just in the Hong Kong store and the first customer that walked in was Japanese. She was carrying a brand new bag that hadn’t even gone through any Asian customs yet. She said she bought it in New York two days earlier.”

The luxury brand has 13 locations across Japan, while there are more than 40 stores for the diffusion line Marc by Marc Jacobs. But today’s interview takes place in the camel-colored salon space on the second floor of the flagship store in Aoyama — the brand’s first store to be built from the ground up. Its debut on Dec. 4 was a major media event, ranked by Asahi’s weekly AERA magazine as the second biggest news topic of the week, eclipsing even the massive-budget movie premier of “Space Battleship Yamato”. No surprise given that the opening was attended by a host of Japanese celebrities such as supermodel Rinka and singer Ken Hirai.

There was a similar media frenzy around the visit by Duffy on Jan. 5 for a book-signing party for “The Men and Women of Marc Jacobs”, a coffee-table tome featuring portraits of the brand’s employees by photographer Brian Bowen Smith. Earlier in the day, Duffy’s announcement on Twitter and Facebook that he would be giving away 80 signed copies of the book had scores of people lining up outside the store from 8 am.

The glass, tile and aluminum structure sits tucked behind Prada on Omotesando. Since a quirk in the zoning law for the plot of land forbids business to be conducted above two floors, architect Stephan Jaklitsch built an ingenious Japanese “ghost” wall on the roof that gives it the height of a four-story building.

The design garnered Jaklitsch an Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Architects before construction was even completed. It has been dubbed “The Lantern”, as the top glows at night, a metaphor for how the Marc Jacobs brand has become one of the most sought-after in the world. As the brand owes so much to fiercely loyal support from Japan, it seems fitting that this first flagship opens in Tokyo. (An even more spectacular store is slated to open on Madison Avenue in the near future.)

Marc Jacobs is the designer and face of his New York-based brand, but without his long-time business partner Duffy, Jacobs — who has been the artistic director of Louis Vuitton since 1997 — would surely not be where he is today. The pair’s relationship is so symbiotic that one gets the feeling that speaking to Duffy is like getting a straight line to Jacobs himself.

“I can speak for Marc. It’s been 27 years, and we’ve been through so much together. We can finish each other’s sentences now,” said Duffy during his short, media-blitzed stay. “Marc and I talk every day, mostly on our iPhones. I’m the one who travels all the time, because Marc hates it. But he usually spends half his time in Paris, and half in New York, and I go to Paris once a month.”

Prompted “So you’re the brains and Marc is …” he quips, “Bizarre?” with a giggle and wink. “We both have a hand in everything. We even go through the collection sketches together.”

While some CEOs and Presidents take a hands-off approach when it comes to the creative side of a brand, Duffy is eager to dig in. “There will be two piles of sketches that Marc will present to me. And he’ll say, ’These you’re going to love. But those I need to explain to you.’”

Duffy points to a fur coat draped over a mannequin. “That was my idea. Marc only wanted to do fur pieces, but I told him we needed to have a full coat. So he says to me, ‘There’s a pencil and paper right there, sketch it yourself.’ So I did!”

Duffy says he visits the stores to meet directly with customers, but his constant presence on the brand’s official Twitter account means he is connected with the fan base 24/7. It wasn’t such an easy task for the President of the company to embrace at first, however.

“I think [my employees] tricked me into using the Twitter account. I didn’t understand how to use it. In fact, for the longest time I thought it was just me and one other person who kept asking me questions! So I answered them honestly. I still do. And that gets me in trouble sometimes.”

Duffy is notorious in the fashion world for his honest-Harry tweets, but he believes they serve to facilitate dialogue in quality control and giving back to the customer. He is also a prolific philanthropist, having backed over 60 charity projects through Marc Jacobs, including the “Protect The Skin You’re In” T-shirt series, featuring nude images of celebrities including Hillary Swank, Heidi Klum and Mila Jojovich shot by Bowen Smith. Proceeds from his book, which is slated to go on sale at the Marc Jacobs stores in February, go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

“Some guy complained about our aviator sunglasses to me on Twitter and I complained back, because the screws were too small. So I said ‘Yeah, they suck! And I bought three pairs! I paid three thousand dollars for them.’ I got in trouble for that Tweet,” he chuckled. “But you can’t delete them. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. I gave up on damage control a long time ago.”

Tokyo looks set to benefit from Duffy’s dedication to listening to customers’ requests, as he gave the green light to opening a book store in Tokyo after receiving repeated requests to open an outpost of the new Bookmarc concept recently rolled out in New York and LA. Japan’s countless Marc Jacobs fanatics are sure to be delighted at the news. — (MJ)

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