Marc Jacobs Stages the Ultimate Vivienne Westwood Tribute

marc jacobs runway 2023 show
Marc Jacobs Stages a Vivienne Westwood TributeDimitrios Kambouris - Getty Images

To put it in terms the woman herself might appreciate, I was pretty ticked off at the timing of Vivienne Westwood’s death: Just between Christmas and New Year’s, when most of us were either softly or totally on vacation. Then January leads everyone to leave everything from last year behind, meaning we couldn’t linger over her influence. Fashion works in cycles and mashups of influence and nostalgia and revival, so when a fashion figure dies, people suddenly learn their lessons anew, and their spirit gets poured into contemporary projects and collections. Westwood was a real original—even a nutter in some ways. The way she championed invention and creativity for its own sake is her greatest legacy, and something more designers and fashion observers could do with in this era of commercial grind.

On Thursday night, Marc Jacobs staged the Vivienne Westwood tribute that the designer deserved. Back at the Park Avenue Armory, his favored show location, for the first time since February of 2020, the designer set up a long single row of chairs in front of a spotlighted runway, with the vast, chilly expanse of the space stretching out beyond. A sheaf of papers included multiple pages listing not only the head honcho hairstylist, casting director, and makeup artist, but all the assistants and interns who helped them—very Tár, with those beefy opening credits—and a brief note from Jacobs titled “Heroes.”

“With the return of another season, in our endless search for value, importance and possibilities,” he wrote, “it is through these collections that we continue our ever-expanding notions of beauty and craft.” He dedicated the show “to all of our heroes past, and, young heroes present,” and ended with a quote from Westwood that was, delightfully, almost grandmotherly: “Fashion is life-enhancing, and I think it’s a lovely, generous thing to do for other people.” You can nearly picture her lifting her pinky as she takes a sip of tea—cheers to bustiers and antifascism!

As the violinist began to play Phillip Glass and the first model came out, slouching with her arms crossed in a sequined, drab-colored jacket and a pencil skirt that seemed to be a larger jacket whose sleeves were knotted in the back, it was clear what Jacobs was up to. Sincere, emotional, genuine. These are not New York qualities, and yet Jacobs remains our ultimate keeper of the flame of New York fashion. We are not just commercial garmentos, Jacobs reminds us; we are attitude, spirit, passion. These models with their crossed arms, in their sky-high shoes, with their chopped and dyed hair—this is what keeps our city alive. You think of young Jacobs, the little dreamer working at the now-shuttered temple of avant-garde fashion Charivari (something like the Dover Street of its time), and how the possibilities of fashion—of invention, self-mythology, escape—might have kept him going. That’s the spirit of New York style, and I know that because earlier this week, a video was circulating on TikTok and Twitter of kids going to class at FIT, wearing head-to-toe hot pink, or homemade Simone Rocha, or a minidress under a tattered fur coat, and I thought, This city’s still got it! At the end of Jacobs’s show, it felt like everyone, from Debbie Harry to Sofia Coppola to my seatmates, was sighing and swooning in relief. Finally! Some FASHION! For fashion’s sake!

Fashion for fashion’s sake is a tricky thing. The story of the unraveling of Pyer Moss in this week’s New York Magazine shows just how difficult that is to pull off, and how unwelcome it can be if you give us a lot of ideas and energy and too few products. We want our designers to be artists but we also want…well, maybe we don’t want to buy the art, but we want the designer to convince us that we should or could live our lives in it. It can’t just be the designer’s wacky fantasy, and Jacobs’s inherent attachment to reality is what made this collection sing. These were clothes about the quest for invention, for creativity, for expression. That’s really what Westwood was all about: destroy destroy destroy, because it’s the only way to create something entirely new. Fashion, after all, is a verb!

Jacobs is a master of the basic bitch trinity—polka dots, denim, and sequins. For Westwood, he added strapless femininity and plaid, though Westwood-heads will delight in plundering through the collection for other references and love notes. Several of the pieces, like a pair of lacquered trash bag fabric dresses, or an acid saffron bustier dress (whose model wore a matching wig, chopped a Westwood-ish chop), looked as if the designer had gathered the fabric around the model in a mad hatter celebration of the human body, exaggerating the bust or bum with bunches of fabric that were both John Singer Sargent-romantic and childlike. (Again: very Westwood, who saw the sexualization of the human form as something to be cut up and mocked and then reclaimed as a woman’s own whimsy, which is what made her bustiers so famous.)

This was also a collection about the spirit and material determination of youth, or the way youth allows you to create glamour of limited or unglamorous stuff. This is also Westwood’s assertion that any garment (or idea) we hold as high and mighty (or low and antifeminist, like the bustier) could be turned on its head and exposed as its opposite. Several jackets had enormous ribbed hems at the neck and collars at the back hem, as if to say, “If I turn this little denim trucker jacket upside down, it looks like a shrug Edith Head designed for Kim Novak.” Or a big nubby cape: “If I yank my fleece blanket around my shoulders and secure it with a stitch and put on little gloves, I’m in a Balenciaga cape.” Or the finale look: “If I put a bustle on a polka dot jean skirt, it’s suddenly something you should wear to the Oscars.”

The casting of the show was young and sharp—wigs cropped into the spunky do’s made famous by New York salons like Vacancy Projects, and dyed acid rainbow shades—and it made me think of the way, when you’re 25 and broke, you might find some slightly moth-eaten but still fabulous big-shouldered cashmere coat at the thrift store, or a big khaki thing with cargo pockets at the Army & Navy store, and stride home from a club at 4 a.m., your arms crossed bitchily as you pretend this endless walk to the subway is a stride down the runway to distract yourself from the arctic wind. IT’S GIVING MARGIELA FALL 1999! your internal monologue revs as some dude catcalls you out of a (so warm, so expensive) cab.

Jacobs is the rare designer who seems totally at peace. He is happily married and living in a historic house in Westchester, and his diffusion brand, the Gen Z hit Heaven (spearheaded by artist Ava Nirui), seems to whistle along commercially. These clothes, along with a commercial line, sell at Bergdorfs, which is all to say that he is certainly in a different place than he was when he ran a West Village duchy of Marc Jacobs-branded establishments.

I don’t think Jacobs shares Westwood’s determination to destroy capitalism—he led one of the century’s most triumphant tenures at a big luxury house, when he was at Louis Vuitton from 1997 to 2014, after all. Now, perhaps, he is like our godfather who reminds us of how best to use our craft, our minds, our feelings. On Thursday, he made the case for how to use fashion for emotion, passion, and humor. But most of all, he reminds us that whether you’re a genius or a cynical copier, we are all here to create, to invent, to fashion.

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