‘I have the word Shameless tattooed on my chest’. The distinguished designer’s return to New York has been triumphant. Here he talks about sobriety, social media and how clothes help articulate our feelings.

By Jess Cartner-Morley

“You can ask me anything. I’m an open book. What do you want to know?”

That, right there, is who Marc Jacobs is. Maybe he doesn’t mean it quite literally – what smart, self-respecting 52-year-old is going to share his deepest secrets with a journalist he barely knows? – but the sentiment is heartfelt, no doubt about that. I Want Your Love, Chic’s 1979 disco classic, is playing in his office, seven floors above Spring Street in New York’s SoHo. Jacobs lights a cigarette and leans back in his chair. “I have the word ‘Shameless’ tattooed on my chest. I want to be as honest as I possibly can,” he says. “I sleep better at night.”

Marc Jacobs made his first appearance in American Vogue in 1986, sporting long hair and an oversized black sweater in the back row of a group shot of eight up-and-coming designers. Thirty years later his name remains box office, with the clout to close New York fashion week. But this Marc Jacobs, on the other hand – the joke-sharing, secret-spilling social media personality – is newly minted in the two years since he finished an epic 16-year stint at the helm of Louis Vuitton. He has climbed down from his Parisian ivory tower, settled back into downtown New York and begun a restructuring of his label that puts Marc Jacobs, the man – his face, his values, his sense of humour – front and centre. And in doing so, he has rebooted his persona as one of the most compelling figures in the fashion industry.

Right. So what do I ask him? I want to ask about his spring/summer collection, conceived as a celebration of America’s legalisation of gay marriage. And about his casting of transgender director Lana Wachowski as a campaign model, and the process by which he is engaged, through fashion, with contemporary issues around gender. But I am also dying to be really nosy about what went down on his recent Caribbean holiday, the one from which he posted Zoolander tribute videos and amateur cabaret skits wearing polyester Santa costumes, and was rewarded for his jollity with snipey online noise about whether he was partying when he should be designing. (Jacobs did spells in rehab for alcohol and drug addiction in 1999 and 2007, before getting sober.)

So, naturally, I ask him about the videos. “That was a happy, healthy vacation after working really hard all year. It was actually hilarious, because one day we’re all at the table – I was with Neil [Barrett, fashion designer] and his boyfriend, and Dean and Dan [Caten, designers of Dsquared2] and their boyfriends, and they are all European, so they take the whole month of August off – and there’s this magazine article about Marc Jacobs’ never-ending vacation. And I’m like, what? I’ve had two weeks off this entire year!”

Sober? “Totally. The previous year, I would have had maybe a glass of rosé at lunch. But this Christmas I didn’t drink at all.” The idea for the first video came at “about 11am one morning. We had drunk grapefruit juice and double espressos, eaten brioche and omelettes. We were having fun, which is what being on holiday is about, right? And dressing up, self-expression – that is what fashion is all about. It has nothing to do with being drunk.”

‘If there’s a great Prada coat that fits me, I don’t care if it’s in the women’s department.’

There is something of the character actor about Jacobs, a petite man with six-foot-four charisma. “My relationship with fashion has always been that each of us stars in our own movies and costumes ourselves to play the part we want. You take blouses and jeans and dresses, and you put them together and they tell your story.” This is especially potent for people who feel they don’t fit in, or that the jeans or dress laid out for them doesn’t reflect who they really are. In October 2012, Lana Wachowski, director of the Matrix films, gave an emotional and candid account of her transgender experience in an acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility award, in which she spoke of feeling “that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable.” The speech resonated with Jacobs, because, “while I didn’t have that particular experience – I never had any kind of gender confusion – I knew from a very early age that I was gay. And so at nine years old I felt like I was different from the other boys. I didn’t want to play sports or roll in the mud eating worms, or whatever.

I wanted to make ceramics and embroider my jeans and go shopping for back-to-school clothes. My parents never, ever taught me that one skin colour was better than another or a particular sexual preference made me normal– and yet when I was with the other kids, I just knew that I was different. That was hard. That’s where I had such a connection to what Lana was saying.” Sandra Bernhard, Bette Midler and drag queen Dan Donigan also feature in this season’s campaign. “Authentic, extraordinary human beings who, at various times in my life, opened my mind,” he says. “And, you know, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just all accept each other’s differences?” He throws his arms wide in a Broadway flourish, ever the performer.

Jacobs himself has always been broad-minded about gender in his wardrobe. He wore a kilt to jury duty in 2010 and a black lace dress to the Met Gala two years later. “Lorenzo Martone, who I used to be engaged to be married to, used to tease me about wearing skirts. But I don’t see how there’s anything masculine or feminine about a piece of clothing. If there’s a great Prada coat that fits me, I don’t care if it’s in the women’s department. But things are changing. Lorenzo has evolved, so much, as a human being, that he would never say something like that now.” Despite their split, Jacobs and Martone remain such good friends that Martone and his boyfriend, as well as Jacobs’ boyfriend, were part of the Caribbean holiday gang.

Jacobs’ early childhood was chaotic. After his father died when he was seven, his mother remarried several times in quick succession, uprooting the family each time before Jacobs found emotional stability as a teenager, living with his grandmother on the Upper West Side. You get the impression he became worldly at an early age, even for a New Yorker. Last September, Jacobs closed New York fashion week with a love letter to his native city, an exuberant, Broadway-themed show staged in the historic Ziegfeld theatre, entitled Marc Jacobs: One Night Only.

It was part nostalgia and part optimism, born out of the emotion of the June day last year when the supreme court ruled same-sex marriage to be a legal right across the US. “We were all elated on that day. We were together for the first meeting about the collection and in a very flip sort of way I said to the design team, we should do Americana, the red, white and blue. And we started talking about America, and about New York, and Katie [Grand, Jacobs’ stylist and collaborator] told me about this documentary where Bette Midler, who is a performer I have loved since I was eight or nine, takes the journalist around all the places of her past in the city. And when I watched it, so much of it was my New York, the city I grew up with. So that became the starting point for the collection.”