Exile’s Return

Why would a designer at the height of her ability abandon her own label?

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Jil Sander

Is Jil Sander the messiah? When Sander recently announced that she was reclaiming her post as designer at Jil Sander AG, one retailer told Women’s Wear Daily that her return “is like the second coming.” Another said it was “an answered prayer.” Certainly, the fashion world embraces hyperbole like no other. Yet the story of Sander’s departure and return to the house she founded in Hamburg, Germany, in 1973 is a telling example of the havoc caused when financial backers underestimate the bond between designers and their loyal clientele. The recent reconciliation between Sander and the Prada Group, the corporation that bought her house, reveals a vital truth about fashion: Great designers are more than great corporate figureheads. Sander’s spring collection—shown in Milan, Italy, last week—tells us as much.

Sander’s devoted—even cultish—customers are the kind retailers and financiers pray for: affluent, loyal, and informed. And so when 75 percent of Jil Sander AG was acquired by Patrizio Bertelli’s Prada Group in 1999, industry professionals and customers alike were anxious about how long it would take for Sander, the steadfast designer, and Bertelli, the reputedly blustery industrialist, to come to blows. Sure enough, just six months later Sander, the chairman and chief designer of the house, quit. She had shown only one collection under Prada’s corporate umbrella. At the first show Bertelli mounted for the house without her, he pronounced, “The individual fashion designer is less important than the company.” How wrong he was.

Chances are even the most avid driver of a Mercedes-Benz does not care who designed his car. You can, however, safely bet that fashionably dressed women feel a profound kinship with designers—one that’s often underestimated even by leaders in the business. The owners of such foundering fashion houses as Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, and Guy Laroche—which have all suffered through a series of lackluster designers—have paid dearly for thinking that just anyone can achieve the particular alchemy of cloth and cut that makes a house stand out;continuously circulating rumors that these collections are closing has caused retailers not to buy them.

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Jil Sander spring 2004

Jil Sander is the ultimate cult designer. Though she keeps personal details of her life closely guarded, her rise in fashion is the result of the same single-minded focus that makes her work consistent in an arena usually defined by whim. Raised in a modest home near Hamburg, she studied textile design and was for a short time a fashion editor at Petra, a German women’s magazine. Her first boutique, opened in 1969, reflected the luxuriously understated style and top quality products that still define her brand. Sander’s austere signatures—regal silhouettes, masculine fabrics that she feminized without making girlish, nuances of detail known only to the wearer—set the standards of minimalist fashion design for the entire industry. Unlike Karl Lagerfeld or Jean-Paul Gaultier—who might shift direction to reflect the latest thing in popular music or the street scene—she presented, season after season, clothes that were timely though never trendy, richly worked but rarely overdesigned, eminently useful without being simply basic. The same cannot be said of Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, or Donna Karan, sportswear designers who compete for the closet space of well-dressed women around the world. Jil Sander’s clientele are the statically elite; they are defined by an interest in understatement and quality rather than fashion statement and flash. Sander leaves the flashier side of fashion to Lagerfeld, Gaultier, and others; unlike these designers, she does not treat women as dress-up dolls. Her customers sense that she respects them. And that speaks to the real reason women buy Sander’s $2,000 cashmere pullovers and $3,500 leather jackets.

When Sander sold her business to Prada, the company was ripe for expansion. Though it owns 30 stores directly and oversees 126 franchises (its clothes are also distributed through 12 department store chains and several hundred independent boutiques), the bulk of revenue at Jil Sander AG had been generated in clothing—fashion’s least profitable category. Revenue for 2002 was reported to be approximately $150 million. But this figure could easily explode, given Prada Group’s skill at marketing hugely profitable, accessory, fragrance, and cosmetic businesses, which at present are only nascent for Jil Sander AG. Though sales continued at a respectable pace under Sander’s replacement, Milan Vukmirovic, the brand’s expansion—the very thing Prada could most have facilitated—stalled.

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Sander traces the lines of the body

Why did Sander leave? No one can say. But industry speculation has it that Bertelli’s drive for rapid expansion caused the rift. Jil Sander’s brand surpassed the usual definition of quality—best fabric, best make, best fit—and rumor has it that when Bertelli demanded that her standards be lowered in the name of profitable growth, she bolted. What makes Jil Sander’s eye for quality so special? Is it the meticulous finish of a waistband or the gentle hand-turning of a hem? Yes, but only in part. Don’t all “luxury designers” work in expensive fabrics? They may. But Sander’s fabrics, the first ingredient of any top quality garment, are the weavers’ craft made into art: cashmeres light enough to wear almost year-round and wools that drape like silk. Then there is the make: the perfect balance of sleeve and shoulder, the precise roll of lapel to buttonhole. And finally the fit: One has the sense that Sander has traced the lines of the body—its muscles, curves and indentations—with a draftsman’s pen and the needs of movement with an engineer’s precision. Quality—best fabric, best make, best fit—absolutely counts. But designers with cult followings bring to their work a different quality, one that is ineffable and goes much further than the ideal placement of buttonhole. The best fashion designers make their clients’ inner lives—their hopes and ambitions—visible in cloth.

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The soft side of Jil Sander

Most designers are not up to the task. Perhaps Vukmirovic, who previously worked for the Gucci Group and the trendy Collette boutique in Paris, was chosen to succeed Sander because his résumé suggested a fluency in the spare, chic language Sander’s clothes seem to speak. Yes, the signature jackets with their high armholes and beautiful seaming were still available. So were the trousers, beautifully tailored to accommodate a woman’s form. But while the strict clean lines, subtle palette of black and grays, and sensually androgynous suiting could still be found in Vukmirovic’s work, the overall language was never more than pidgin Sander.

Sander’s new contract guarantees complete creative autonomy. Admirers assume that means the designer has won the battle to control the quality of what her label produces. Designers, Bertelli may be reminded, are needed to do more than take a bow at the foot of the runway. Quality is a direct result of design. Sander faces serious challenges: Minimalist fashion—that which supposedly displays intellect and security rather than the more maximal traits of flirtatiousness and vanity—is less stylish than it once was. But Sander, perhaps better than any designer since Coco Chanel, recognizes both the strengths and weaknesses of her clientele. These women—architects, lawyers, publishing executives, bankers—depend on her because she delivers their best selves with the perfectly placed zip of a dress. So it’s no surprise they are offering hallelujahs on hearing of her return.