German Engineering: The Precision of Jil Sander
German Engineering: The Precision of Jil Sander
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date July 11, 2017
If Germany’s notable exports share a common trait, it’s an air of stoic precision. The concept of “German engineering” conjures up thoughts of streamlined sportscar engines and refined architectural feats—all embodying the nation’s oft-referenced commitment to detail, discipline and (perhaps most importantly) quality. When scouring for someone who represents these traits in the fashion world, only one German designer could spring to mind: Jil Sander.
Born Heidemarie Jiline Sander in 1943 in the northern German port city of Wesselburden, Sander’s first major foray into design came with her schooling at the Krefeld School of Textiles in Germany in 1963. After spending a year abroad as a foreign exchange student at UCLA, Sander remained in the United States to work in fashion journalism—working at women’s magazine McCall’s—before returning home to work at German publications Constanze and Petra. In 1967, Sander opened a boutique in Hamburg, selling a blend of established European designers like Thierry Mugler and Sonia Rykiel alongside her own clothing. This early period also saw Sander lending her talent to chemical company Hoechst, designing a collection that utilized the company’s man-made, techy Trevira fabric. These would be the first (albeit unofficial) steps for Jil Sander as a fashion brand.
Sander officially launched her namesake brand in 1973, showing her first collection in 1974. These earlier years established Sander’s now-famous edge toward neutral color palettes, top-class fabrics (she did study at a textile school, after all) and sensible tailoring. The design direction was influenced by both the decade’s over-the-top nature of fashion design, along with the blend of composure, reformation, and distaste for decoration that comes naturally to those hailing from a nation with gray weather and deep Protestant roots.
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At the time, the response in Paris to Sander’s initial shows proved unpopular and contrarian; her resolutely minimalist aesthetics clashed directly with the maximalist designs that ruled runways from the late 70s and throughout the 80s. In those earlier years, it was her simplified designs that stood apart in a sea of superficial styling and shoulder pads. “She was much too early,” explained French fashion consultant Jean-Jacques Picart (who helped Sander put on that first show in Paris) “It was something so different in the era of Mugler, Montana and Ungaro.”
However, her persistence paid off as the taste of times caught up with her once-unpopular “pure” Her brand was performing so well, that by the end of 1979 Sander had expanded into fragrances and cosmetics (starting with 1980’s aptly named “Jil Sander Pure Woman”). Leather goods and eyewear collections were established by 1982, and by 1989 Sander publicly listed her brand on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. While issues with ownership over her namesake label would ultimately spur her departure roughly a decade later, Sander’s first foray into public ownership left her in control of her brand—something that suited her notoriously headstrong personality. Sander would use the boost in capital to expand her retail footprint around the globe, opening up shops in North America and Asia.
Heading into the 1990s, Sander’s modern, gender-neutral combination of feminine delicacy, masculine silhouettes and luxurious textiles made her a clear favorite during the decade’s drift toward modern minimalism. Considering that Sander was known to try on garments from her women’s collections before approving them for the runway, it’s not surprising that her clothes were lauded for their ability to give female customers a strong-yet-sensual confidence. As Sander told Mirabella in June 1991, “[Male designers] see things more decoratively—more from the outside. I want to know how I feel in my clothes." With a growing following that included both women and men, Sander finally launched her men’s collection in 1997.
While not immediately apparent, the turn of the 21st century would prove to be some of the most impactful years for both Sander and her brand, reshaping the company in ways that are still felt to this day. In 1999, the Prada Group bought a 75 percent share in the company, with Sander remaining on as creative designer and chairwoman. The partnership was primed for global success...until it wasn’t.
While she entered into the arrangement with the hope of rapid expansion and support for a new accessories line, after only six months, Sander announced her exit from the brand that bore her name. It was an open secret that confrontations with Prada Group chief executive Patrizio Bertelli were what sent Sander off, their shared stubborn natures proving untenable. While the exact cause is hard to nail down, some speculate that it was Bertelli’s unwillingness to bankroll Sander’s well-known predisposition for expensive textiles and trims.
The irony of Bertelli’s supposed over-frugality was not lost on Sander’s followers. While her purist designs are what drew people in, it was Sander’s commitment to quality stripped down through the lens of minimalism that kept her respected reputation on the runway tightly secured. As Menkes noted in a New York Times “Fashion Diary” in 2004, “Her $2,000 cashmere pullovers and $3,500 leather jackets became cult items, perhaps because they were almost ostentatiously nondescript.” Sander’s strength has always been her ability to build pared-down designs that reveal superior craft when held up close.
“I always thought I would be the last person to leave the company,” Sander confessed. While many buyers and fashion press were lamenting Sander’s departure, Bertelli was adding insult to injury, claiming “The individual fashion designer is less important than the company,” following the brand’s first show without Sander at the helm. Upon her exit, Sander went into retirement, removing herself from the fashion world to—as Menkes puts it—”tend to her Japanese and topiary gardens at her 500-acre estate in northern Germany.”
While the brand was growing at the time of Sander’s first retirement, her departure would ultimately send the brand into a tailspin. In her absence, the Prada Group installed Milan Vukmirovic—a designer with stints at Colette and Gucci—to head up the design team. Shifting the brand’s focus onto commercially accessible sportswear, his shows with Jil Sander were gimmicky, received poorly and in contrast with the brand’s core ethos. As Sarah Mower noted in her Vogue review of the Fall/Winter 2003 show: “Audience expectations of the Jil Sander collection have shifted. No longer one of the high-flown conceptual agenda setters of fashion, it now belongs to the category of Milanese shows that process a general mood into a line firmly intended to be commercial.”
By 2003 the Jil Sander brand was in dire straights, with the Prada Group injecting cash to keep the label afloat. At the time there were whispers around Jil Sander’s future. As a designer, Sander was rumored to be in the running to replace Martin Margiela at Hermès. As a brand, there were whispers that the Prada Group would sell the house, with claims Sander herself was meeting with executives at Hugo Boss to orchestrate a buyout. Of course, neither of those rumors proved to be true. But truth is stranger than fiction, and in 2003 Sander and Bertelli struck a truce, resulting in Sander’s return to her namesake label just in time to show for Spring/Summer 2004 season.
The return saw a less serious Sander: her menswear-inspired signatures were present, but the designer began to inject a more overt femininity into her work—including splashes of color and subtle fringe detailing. Alas, the good times were never going to last. While Sander was given complete creative control upon her return, she and Bertelli were unable to reconcile their differences. Her last show of this tenure would be the Fall/Winter 2005 menswear collection. With this exit, Sander became incredibly private, keeping her opinions about her time with Prada to herself. Her friends and confidants refuse to discuss the period at all, claiming that “she has been hurt enough.”
Jil Sander the woman might have entered her second retirement, but the brand was about to enter a new golden era. In May 2005, it was announced that Belgian menswear powerhouse Raf Simons would step into the creative director role, his first collection hitting the runway—rather fittingly—during the Fall/Winter 2006 menswear season. Simons proved to be a natural fit for Sander’s original vision, his cerebral and stoic designs drawing comparisons to Sander’s heyday in the 1990s. But it’s not as if Simons simply carted out Sander signatures season after season. Simons’ work tapped into the bedrock of restrained luxury and stark minimalism that defined the “Jil Sander aesthetic,” all while injecting his own hallmarks into every garment he put his hands on—including architectural silhouettes, playful punches of neon and a clinical approach to futurism. Simons would also oversee the launch of the Jil Sander Navy line—a more casual, sportswear focused take on Sander staples—in 2010-2011.
While Simons was keeping the brand on track, Sander herself was enjoying her time outside of the spotlight, operating a small consulting firm. That was the story for Sander, until, Fast Retailing came calling. Teaming with Uniqlo in 2009, Sander lent her talents to the Japanese fast-fashion giant, spawning the incredibly successful +J line. Bringing Sander’s talents to the masses (at equally democratic prices) the partnership was particularly fruitful, mainly because it felt so natural for both sides; Uniqlo’s business model thrives off creating accessible pieces at minimalist price points, which—when combined Sander’s own minimalist tendencies—created not just a takedown of Sander’s runway looks, but something completely new. As Sander explained to Menkes in a 2010 Q&A, “Uniqlo was an opportunity to test my principles in a new field. And it felt like a worthwhile challenge to globalize quality at affordable prices. I want to propose smart uniforms for all those who don’t have the time, the means, or the patience to invent themselves anew every day. I see +J as an evolving lingua franca which may help to overcome cultural barriers and to bring today’s global population closer together.”
Besides, the organic similarities between Japanese and German aesthetics are very clear. “In Germany, like in Japan, feudal structures lasted long,” remarked Sander. “Expertise craftsmanship was encouraged by the fact that there were few other venues for artistic people...Japan has a lot of respect for quality and for innovation.” +J would rise to it’s own level of cult status, stretching from 2009 to the end of 2011. A small collection of +J favorites would re-release at Uniqlo stores in 2014 and 2015 under the “Best of +J” collection.
As Sander’s work with Uniqlo came to a close, Simons announced his departure from the Jil Sander brand, famously swapping the German house for historic halls of Dior. Once again, the house was left without a creative director, and for one last time, Sander returned to the house that bore her name. By this time, the Prada Group had relinquished its ownership over the Jil Sander brand, with Change Capital Partners acquiring Jil Sander in 2006, only to sell it to Japan’s Onward Holdings two years later. Finally free of the headaches, oversight and strife generated by Bertelli and Prada, Sander was ready for her final comeback. Starting with the Spring/Summer 2013 menswear collection and spanning to the Spring/Summer 2014 women’s collection, this period would prove to be Sander’s final stint at the brand she founded.
After a handful of seasons handled by the “Jil Sander team” received mixed reviews, the brand welcomed Rodolfo Paglialunga as its creative director—a designer with experience at Vionnet and (ironically) Prada. Paglialunga’s tenure at Sander started off with a bittersweet Spring/Summer 2015 women’s collection, ultimately yielding a series of mixed-review collections that finished upon his departure from Jil Sander following the Fall/Winter 2017 women’s collection.
For a brand as influential as Jil Sander, the future has always seemed to be in flux. However, the brand’s new creative directors—Luke and Lucie Meier, the husband and wife design duo behind OAMC—seems to be a return to form. Together the pair boast a shared design experience that spans everything from Balenciaga to Luke Meier's tenure at the helm of Supreme. Considering that Lucie Meier has worked under three visionary creative directors (Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Raf Simons at Dior and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton), there’s little doubt surrounding the pair’s pedigree. After showing their first collection for Resort 2018, there’s a renewed sense of promise for Jil Sander. The pair will debut their designs for the runway in September 2017.
Jil Sander—both the woman and the brand that bears her name—has seen its share of good times and bad. From the misunderstood collections in the label’s first years, to the thriving 90s; from the designer’s clashes with the Prada Group, to the brand’s rebirth under Simons; from the mixed reviews under Paglialunga, to the optimism surrounding the Meiers’ appointment, Jil Sander is a brand with a complicated past that contrasts with its signature aesthetics. Through it all though, the brand has always found itself centered back on its namesake’s penchant for an elegant purity. But if, after looking back at all the ups and downs, you’re still trying to define what “Jil Sander” is, let the woman explain it in her own words:
“Since childhood, I have been interested in men’s clothes. Fabrics, cuts, colors — everything there seemed less flimsy and whimsical. This may have given my work an androgynous edge. But I like femininity, not of the devout, but of the self-assured, cool and sophisticated kind. I hope to provide clothes which underline the attractiveness of character, intelligence and personal charisma.”