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Backstage at Marc Jacobs AW17Courtesy of Marc Jacobs

Marc Jacobs takes to the streets for Love & Hip Hop

With ‘respect’ as his guiding principle, the designer proved his knack for references and turned his traditional fashion show on its head

R E S P E C T .

On February 14, 1967, Aretha Franklin recorded a song that would become a rallying cry for female empowerment generations over. Fifty years later, almost to the day, Marc Jacobs showed his AW17 show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. I wasn’t sure what those two events might have to do with one another, but the word sat at the top of Marc’s show notes inside a standard cardboard file folder, on conjoined folding chairs in two facing rows in an otherwise undecorated space. Perhaps Marc was preparing an homage to the Queen of Soul, or maybe he was issuing a disclaimer in the wake of the brouhaha he experienced last season, when he was accused by some of appropriating black culture by sending models with raver dreads out onto the runway. 

At 74 years of age, Franklin is currently on tour. “Respect” hasn’t lost an iota of power in five decades, and depending on who you ask, some of that late 60s style still has relevance now. Jacobs would be one such person, and he issued forth a show inspired wholeheartedly by the art of the throwback. In a bit of immersive role-playing, guests were even asked to refrain from using their cell phones. Barely anybody listened. Lil’ Kim scarcely looked up from her phone during the show, while Jacobs’ own boyfriend Char Defrancesco was glued to his iPhone screen, capturing video. Some people held up iPads. As the models began to walk the long, narrow path between seats, there wasn’t any music. A symphony of synthetic camera shutters closing echoed throughout the room while guests, embarrassed, scrambled to silence their gadgets. 

“In case anyone needs reminding, the man knows his references. Everything is intentional, and he knows how to put on a show”

In his notes, Jacobs laid his inspirations bare. “Several months ago I watched a (Netflix) documentary called, ‘Hip-Hop Evolution,’” he said. “The 4-part series chronicles the poignant and pivotal cultural movement that reshaped and redefined the landscape of music, which gave way to a whole new language of style.” Talk about ‘Netflix and chill.’ Hewing most closely to the mid-70s era of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Jacobs reimagined a warm, neutral palette of big corduroy jackets, bell-bottom track pants, and high-polished leather platform brogues. Stephen Jones hats in a variety of textures gave the models a cartoonish proportion. I thought of “Fat Albert” and “The Jackson 5,” those Saturday Morning Cartoons that reran in the 90s, transporting me into a zany and stylized comic strip of uptown New York. We’ve all been flooded with movies and photos of the city in the 1970s, an era of lawlessness, violence, political upheaval, and seemingly unrestricted gay sex. Jacobs’ fantasy of the period, at least today, was a bit more buttoned-up. These women were all about taking care of business and demanding that thing Aretha sang about. 

At times, certain elements dared to recall a more recent vintage. Fifteen years ago, the 70s bling revival was ringing at maximum register thanks to the popularity of Tom Ford’s Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Roberto Cavalli. Carrie Bradshaw’s traffic-stopping gold-embossed excess trickled into an aspirational aesthetic of nouveau riche that many brands have only recently been able to shake. It’s the duty-free spirit of seasons-old Michael Kors. With his big gold zippers and oval graphic elements, appearing everywhere from parkas to brown leather cell phone cases, Jacobs’ ironic Uptown Funk might spook the reticent, but he makes up for it in his psychic ability to mix and match staples that every woman wants. His oversized corduroy jackets, with shearling and fur collars, were a standout. The platforms will excite anyone too afraid to wear the monster boots of his past few seasons, and the big gold earrings, velvet jackets, and shimmery dresses felt like the good kind of classics, ones that don’t immediately date you to the season. Cool in the 70s and today alike. Gold-plated mice swinging from heavy gold chain necklaces were a collaboration with the artist Urs Fischer, adding something contemporary and collectible to the mix. Lil’ Kim looked like she wanted to take one and run. 

Jacobs called the collection a well-studied dressing up of casual sportswear. As the models walked in silence, my inner Carrie Bradshaw emerged: I couldn’t help but wonder what Jacobs was trying to say. Lifting the style of a musical era without its heartbeat, was Marc making a statement about appropriation? Was he forcing us to consider the clothing sans reference? Should this vibe be as vital today as it was back then? What does funk look like without soul? As we walked out into the street, an elaborate sound system of stacked amps faced the building, blasting 70s sounds, of the Incredible Bongo Band variety. It was a set constructed by the legendary documentary photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose images have captured the city at its most alive during those stylish and indelible years. The models preened and took selfies with Marc Jacobs cell phone cases...and suddenly I realised the joke was on us. I felt silly for questioning Marc’s approach. In case anyone needs reminding, the man knows his references. Everything is intentional, and he knows how to put on a show. Respect that.