Jil Sander was once the queen of minimalism, but then she teamed up with Prada and it all went wrong. Now she’s back, bringing serenity to the high street with Uniqlo. She talks to Sarah Mower ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE, Summer 2010
A blonde, blue-eyed woman is sitting behind a desk at her house in Hamburg, backlit by spring sunshine streaming through the window. She stretches her arms wide. “I’m really enjoying reaching more people,” she says, her eyes glittering. “For me it’s challenging, and also joyful.” And she laughs.
Jil Sander, laughing? Relaxed, in a sweater and jeans? This isn’t what you expect. It’s not just that this pioneer of austere minimalism in the 1990s has switched from making £3,000 suits for her own label to making £150 ones for the mass-market chain Uniqlo. It’s personal. Ten years ago, Sander was a woman who never laughed—at least, never in interviews. She was a serious designer of serious clothes, affordable only by the seriously wealthy. After her shows in Milan, it was her practice to sit at a grey table, ramrod upright, in a buttoned-up white shirt and grey trouser suit, and dispatch journalists one by one with a clipped, formal statement. For a curious reviewer like me, meeting Jil Sander was always one of the most tense and frustrating experiences on the circuit: you wanted to know more, but she was closed.
Today, though, she is prepared to talk for hours; later we go to dinner and talk more. It’s her first extensive interview since the announcement in March 2009 that she would be working with Uniqlo, and it’s as if a dam has broken after five years of silence, retirement and, one suspects, emotional recovery from the disastrous break-up of her previous business marriage, to Prada.
Why the change? Maybe it was an epiphany Sander had on Broadway. There’s delight in her face as she describes shoppers’ reaction to the first delivery of her +J clothes to Uniqlo’s New York store, last October. “I was next door in a café,” she says, “and I couldn’t believe what was happening. All these people were lining up outside, some of them for ten days. Inside it was like an earthquake had happened. I’d never experienced that before. Fantastic!”
Sander’s separates for both men and women, easy to wear and spare of line, are now in more than 60 stores, and their look and quality have gone down well with aficionados, even the picky ones who were sceptical that her famously pure aesthetic and refined fabrics could translate to the mass market. With their fine-sheened textures and subtle stretch, the fabrics look and feel Sander-ish, though applied to a system of paper-light parkas, unlined jackets, slim trousers and crisp shirts that’s sportier than her old customers were used to. +J is doing well. Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing Co, reported sparkling first-half net profits, up 55% this year, while flagship stores have opened in Paris, Moscow, Shanghai and—at the end of 2010—another will land in the unlikely location of New York’s Fifth Avenue. And though she doesn’t confirm it, I get the impression that?Sander’s relationship with Uniqlo could well expand beyond designing just one line. If times are good, though, it’s about time they were.
Jil Sander lives in a matching pair of 19th-century white stucco mansions by the shore of Lake Assenalster. Seeing them, you realise that she didn’t go back to work for the money. The houses also tell part of her story. Born Heidemarie Jiline Sander in November 1943, she has lived all her life in Hamburg. She studied textile design there and then opened a boutique in 1967. After beginning to show collections in Milan in 1984, she had become such a powerhouse in fashion by the early 1990s that international buyers would fly to Hamburg specially to get their hands on stock.
The key to her success was that she hit a lucrative socio-economic seam: designing for the kind of middle-class, middle-aged, professional woman she herself exemplified. There was nothing theoretical about her vision. Her clothes captured the economic surge of the time, knowingly interpreting business-appropriate style in a way that was never too fashiony. They were designed by a woman who had personal experience of bankers and stockbrokers. By 1989 Sander was able to float her company on the Frankfurt stock exchange; by 1999 it was worth $200m and had, she says proudly, “zero debts”. But this was a time when the industry was in the grip of merger-mania. Like many labels, Jil Sander caught the eye of a bigger beast. She sold 75% of her company to Patrizio Bertelli’s Prada Group, “so I could grow”. Yet in less than five months the joint venture stalled. She did just one collection before leaving Prada in summer 2000, apparently unable to work with the notoriously stubborn Bertelli.
She is tight-lipped about exactly what caused the rupture, but reports at the time centred on rows over her insistence on using highly expensive, state-of-the-art fabric—which she has always considered fundamental to her work—from, ironically, Japan. “I was the one who first brought Japanese fabrics to Europe,” she says, “because I was a fanatical quality-freak. As you can imagine, it was very, very expensive to import in the beginning, and at the time the yen was very high.”
Her replacement as creative director, a Frenchman called Milan Vukmirovic, suffered disastrous reviews and by 2003 the label was haemorrhaging money. Bertelli ordered a large portion of humble pie and asked Sander back. But after just one year and three collections, she walked out again, this time for good. She had lost something central: stores all over the world still had her name over the door, but inside were clothes designed by someone else. It would be five years before fashion heard from her again.
Back in Hamburg, one of her houses was still home; but the other was the Jil Sander studio, showroom and office, all fitted out in minimal white with bleached wood floors. As Prada still owned it, it sat, empty and unused, on her doorstep, a painful daily reminder of the catastrophe she’d suffered. The other house—decorated in baroque contrast by Renzo Mongiardino—remained the place where she lived with Dickie Mommsen, a woman who has shared Sander’s lifelong interest in gardening and adventurous travel. It has high windows, contemporary art on the wall, medieval antiques, and Sander takes a daily walk around the lake. It’s a life that is relaxed, healthy, super-clean: the Platonic ideal of modern German prosperity. So why start work all over again at 66?
She sees it from a different angle. “I never really decided to leave fashion,” she says. “Circumstances made it necessary to take a break, but I always planned to continue designing, sooner or later.”
During her first taste of enforced retirement, in 2000, Sander was at sea. She discovered that she had become a workaholic. “After leaving fashion the first time”, she says, “I went on a sailing cruise with friends. When I came on board, everybody laughed. I was in my work gear: prim shirt and shoes with thick soles, big briefcase in one hand and satellite phone in the other. I simply didn’t know how to relax.”
“But by the time I went back to Prada, I felt much lighter. You could see the breeze and lightness of my holiday in the collections. I didn’t have this burden any more.” The fragile cotton dresses she designed during her brief comeback were so summery and non-corporate, that, she remembers with a chuckle, “some people didn’t even recognise them as Jil Sander.”
Her second, more extended break from work gave her time to think about the purpose, and possibilities, of clothing. If she was to return to fashion, she concluded: “it would have to be making something like Apple, reachable, stylish and innovative. I was looking for a chance to find fashion’s equivalent to the iPhone: something that makes sense, no matter where you live.” It’s an intriguing idea, and you can see how it has led her to Uniqlo.
Sander claims she was approached by many other fashion houses, as well as some other mass-market companies, before Uniqlo won her over. “What convinced me about them”, she says, “was the possibility of developing truly sophisticated clothes, for everyone. It almost felt like a mission—to use my long experience at the high end of the market for the benefit of smart, democratic fashion.” She was also lured by Uniqlo’s buying clout, which has allowed her to do what she always dreamed of: source advanced Japanese fabrics at reasonable prices. In Japan, as in Germany, there is a rigorous adherence to the work ethic, and a culture of teamwork. It’s a good fit.
Sander now spends her time buzzing between Hamburg and Tokyo, where she works intensely on fittings for five weeks at a time. Uniqlo respects her insistence on doing this manually, as opposed to the usual mass-market method of pattern-making on the computer. “I have to work on the body,” she says. “Pinning, fitting. I always say it’s not more expensive. Yes, at the beginning it takes a lot of time and effort — but then you don’t pay more later on, because the garments fit.” Certainly one of the +J line’s strengths is its cut, which is far more accurate than 90% of high-street offerings.
As it turns out, her timing has been serendipitous. While she was away, world economics went through boom—reflected in fashion by extremes of excess and decoration, the opposite of Sander’s aesthetic—and bust, which coincided with the return of sharp-tailored daywear on catwalks. Perhaps it was just as well she was out of the picture when hemlines soared, necklines plunged and heels went skywards—she would have been way out of step. Now, there’s a demand for sleek, wearable separates. “These tendencies make me quite optimistic,” she says. “There was an atmosphere of decadence in the fin-de-siècle years. I prefer a style of greater purity, clothes that are serene and balanced.”
It’s also handy that her giant Japanese partner can offer her clothes at prices that are a fraction of her old label’s. “Maybe in the wake of the financial crisis, people look for value rather than status,” she says. “And they tend to trust their own judgment more. I am happy to attract those with a contemporary taste and a sense for quality who have been frustrated by frills and ornaments and unaffordable prices.”
After all the conflicts at Prada, it is clearly satisfying to be using Japanese materials again. “Japan’s high standards in fabric technology are a great asset. I work closely with the fabric specialists and the weavers, who respond enthusiastically to the challenge. And the advantage of working with a company like Uniqlo is that you’re able to negotiate a very good price. I’m astonished how little compromise I had to make.”
She is so pleased with developments that she has signed up for another three years with Uniqlo. Meanwhile the second house, the one where Sander ran her business for so many years, is coming back to life—recently she bought it back from Prada, and she intends to fill it with Uniqlo staff so she can cut down on flights. “It was difficult. I didn’t want to come here for a while,” she admits. “But then I started hanging my art in it, and now we’re about to build a +J team here. It’s almost as if someone planned it. Like destiny.” And then Jil Sander smiles again.
(Sarah Mower is a contributing editor of Style.com and American Vogue. Her last article for Intelligent Life was a profile of Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, a technical virtuoso on a mission to make people smile.)
Picture credit: Kathryn Rathke, Uniqlo