In October last year, Jil Sander stepped down from her eponymous label for a third time. A few weeks earlier, she caught up with Grazia’s fashion director Susannah Frankel for what was to be one of her final interviews as head of her label...
Jil Sander takes her bow in June 2013 [Getty]
If ever proof were needed that it’s not always those who shout loudest who make the most impact, it came with Jil Sander’s feted return to her eponymous label. The designer made fashion history when she stepped down and then picked up the reins at Jil Sander twice in just a decade. Then, without any warning, she left again, citing ‘personal reasons’. At the time of going to press, the designer could not be reached for further comment and the powers that be said only that her design team – ‘formed and trained’ during Sander’s tenure – will be working on the collection henceforward. Even by today’s standards, where the fashion industry is reminiscent of a particularly glamorous game of designer musical chairs, this is quite something.
‘I am very happy to be back at the brand which carries my name,’ she told Grazia, just days before this latest announcement. The quiet before the storm? Clearly. In an interview conducted by email, she seemed as serene as her lovely designs. The story – briefly – goes like this. In 1999, Sander, who founded her company in 1968, sold a 75 per cent stake to the Prada Group. No secret was made, following her highly publicised exit the following year, that she had fallen out with Prada CEO and husband of Miuccia, Patrizio Bertelli. Sander returned in 2003, however, only to walk a second time a year and a half later. A further eight years down the line, with her company under new ownership and only days after Raf Simons showed his last collection following a seven-year stint at the label, it was revealed that Sander herself was coming back.
‘Sometimes it’s not so easy to explain certain steps and decisions,’ Ms Sander said. ‘Let me just say that the moment seemed right. It feels very natural to be back in the position which I created and which I filled for more than 30 years.’ Look more closely at her words and there were, perhaps, signs that all was not well and, certainly, that Sander felt fashion in the 21st century was not always to her liking, ‘The pace of the collections, the luxury goods conglomerates, who rationalise production and retail procedures on a global scale and the sheer amount of fashion brands makes it more and more difficult for individual voices to be heard.’
Jil Sander in 1989; Nicole Richie in Jil Sander in 2008 [Rex]
Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, it fell to Sander to design understated, essentially timeless pieces – principally tailoring – that were unrivalled in their gentle thoughtfulness. Her work was always described as ‘minimal’. She preferred ‘pure’. Whatever, there was no place better to shop for the perfect, lightweight coat, cashmere sweater, trouser-suit and the finestT-shirt. At the same time, Sander believed, it was important to reflect the times we are living in. ‘It seems to me that a wardrobe should be contemporary without being a sensationally unique one-season phenomenon,’ she said. ‘So, on the one hand, my design has its own logic and develops according to my brand vision, on the other hand, the zeitgeist should always be visible in any given collection.’
Much has been made of Phoebe Philo’s Celine and her cleansing of the collective fashion palette since her first collection for the label in 2009. It’s not insignificant that Jil Sander’s designs for Japanese high-street giant Uniqlo – while obviously far more accessibly priced and aimed at an entirely different customer, hit the rails at around the same time. Shoppers queued round the block to buy her deceptively simple separates despite the fact that, outside insider fashion circles, Sander’s was far from a household name. ‘It was a great experiment,’ Sander said of that two-year collaboration. ‘It was about achieving the best possible quality with limited means. In general, I was very happy with the results, and the fact that so many customers could be reached made it feel like a mission.’
Fast forward to the rather more upscale designs she hasbeen responsible for at her own label recently and a new space at London’s Dover Street Market that houses this and next season’s pieces.They will be her last: rarely has that most overused of terms, the ‘investment buy’, appeared more apposite. ‘We are very happy to be there,’ Sander said of the space. ‘There are very few stores with such a strong and independent spirit.’ It is true that Comme des Garcons, which owns Dover Street, positions itself as squarely against the mainstream as Sander has done. The company ‘impresses me as intelligent and artistic...You can feel there is an idea behind each collection,’ Jil Sander said.
Backstage at the Jill Sander Autumn Winter 2013 show [Jason Lloyd Evans]
Of her own current offering, meanwhile, ‘I was interested in true winter fabrics, warm and sheltering and substantial. I wanted them not only to be comfortable, but fitted, with space for an extra layer.’ Almost devoid of embellishment save for a broad stripe of gold on an oversized black knit or a subtly shaped waist in a menswear-inspired overcoat, the work is beautiful to behold and – perhaps even more so – to wear.
There are only a few designers who have adhered to their aesthetic with a passion equal to Jil Sander’s. ‘Of course, I always have a sort of woman in mind when I design clothes. I like women cool, never over-decorated.That’s old-fashioned,’ she told me when I first met her in her home town of Hamburg in 1996. ‘I like to see a woman’s intellect, her strength of personality. It doesn’t matter what age she is, but if she likes short skirts and high heels then perhaps she’s not for me. And I have to say you can’t please everybody.’
There’s a wit to her words, of course. More seriously, having the confidence to accept that there may not be something for everyone in a collection – let alone an entire career – in a world that generally strives to prove quite the opposite is both courageous and inspiring.