By DANA THOMAS
FOR GERMAN FASHION DESIGNER Jil Sander, everything is a question of integrity. When she quit her company the first time, in 2000, it was over the quality of production: She would not accept what she saw as proposed cuts by the brand's then-owner, Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli, for the sake of profits. When she quit a second time, in 2004, she says, it was over the direction that Bertelli wanted to take the brand, turning it from a fashion house into an accessories-driven business.
Now that she has returned yet again, having been rehired by the company's latest owner, Onward Holdings Co., Ltd., a Japanese holding company specializing primarily in apparel, in January, after an eight-year absence, Sander believes her primary mission is to steer the fashion line back to her famously exigent standards. "It has always been important to have the best quality possible," she says during an interview at her Milan headquarters on a bright autumn afternoon the day after her comeback womenswear show. "What we have to do now is figure out how we can grow our business and keep its integrity to remain a true luxury company. This is essential."
Photos: Jil Sander's Minimalist Designs
That rigor was on display during Sander's spring-summer womenswear collection. The lines were spare, the palette fresh and clean: Mediterranean blue, burgundy, tobacco, white. The silhouettes were architectural—nearly puritanical, like a cross between Balenciaga and Amish clothing. During the interview, Sander showed off a few favorite pieces: a blue cotton double-face coat and a sweater that she proudly says "is made of a special silk from Japan."
Retailers love the clothes and have already placed sizable orders. "When I spoke to her backstage," says Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing, "she said she wants to bring the collection back to a purity of line and to a place it was before. I think our customer will easily embrace the collection. It was controlled, balancing the volume, and it had a lovely femininity. It felt very much Jil."
Jil Sander executives were pleased, too. Bringing Sander back was a gamble: The company had a capable designer, the Belgian Raf Simons, and sales, while not headline-making, were, as Jil Sander CEO Alessandro Cremonesi politely puts it, "satisfactory." Fashion critics loved Simons's clothes—influential Women's Wear Daily columnist Bridget Foley wrote that his work at Jil Sander made the company "not only relevant again but essential."
But editorial fandom does not always yield profits. During much of Simons's tenure, the company remained solidly in the red. Last year, revenue was up 14 percent and almost broke even, but that was due, in large part, to "cutting costs and a more selective distribution," Cremonesi says. The company's executives, he adds, believe that it "has strong potential for growth." Today Jil Sander does about $140 million in annual sales; ideally, they would like to return to the nearly $250 million turnover under Sander's former reign. And the best way to do that, they believed, was "to get back to the roots of the company—to its DNA," says Jil Sander Chairman Franco Pene. "And there was no one more capable of doing this than the original designer."
It helped—in Jil Sander executives' view—that Simons did not appear to be wedded to his job. Rumors that Simons was a serious candidate to replace Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati surfaced in the press several times—most recently in September 2011. The Jil Sander press office responded by stating that Simons had recently signed a new four-season contract.
Despite that contract, executives at the company began secret negotiations with Sander; at the same time, the press reported that Simons was interviewing for the creative director slot at Christian Dior, which had remained vacant since John Galliano was fired in March 2011. Simons seemed to be orchestrating an exit strategy. "If we were going to have to replace Raf—if he was going to Dior—the only other person to design Jil Sander was Jil," says Pene.
Dior never made any announcement regarding Simons beyond "no comment," and Simons went to work on his fall-winter Jil Sander show. Curiously, the clothes had a vintage Dior air to them—ample pink and cream cashmere coats with cropped sleeves, bustier dresses with full skirts—as if the collection were a try-out. Two days before Simons's show in Milan, Jil Sander the brand announced that it was rehiring Jil Sander the designer. Simons appeared to be wounded by his dismissal, telling reporters a few days later, "I am leaving Milan tomorrow, forever."
Only after Saint Laurent announced in early March that it was hiring Simons's creative rival, the French designer Hedi Slimane, to replace Pilati, did Simons's talks with Dior begin in earnest. One month later, Dior announced his appointment. (When contacted for this story, representatives for Simons declined to comment.) "It was a strategic decision to rehire Jil Sander," Pene explains. "And we are 100 percent convinced it was right."
In the last two decades, fashion has shifted from small family– or founder-run companies to global publicly traded corporations that do billions of dollars in sales each year. Along the way, brands have been traded like Monopoly properties and have often been mismanaged or misunderstood by the new owners, who bank on a quick profit and are disillusioned when it doesn't come.
The biggest victims in the game, however, have been designers whose names the companies bear and who have left—by force or by choice—and watched in horror as their life's work is destroyed, or at least erased, in a matter of seasons. The casualty list is long: Hervé Léger, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Romeo Gigli, Inès de la Fressange, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy, Chantal Thomass and John Galliano, to name a handful. Some come back in new incarnations—Léger, for example, launched a much smaller company called Hervé L. Leroux. Most, however, are replaced by young, relatively unknown designers who are equally expendable. Rarely does a designer today hold on to a job for more than a few years—fashion house studios have become revolving doors.
Sander is one of the few who has managed to return to her namesake company—not just once, but twice. "The first time I left was difficult," Sander admits. "But it was even more sad the second time. I sold my shares and cut completely." In her new setup, as creative director, Sander is an employee of a publicly traded company: She doesn't own any shares; she does not sit on the board; if she doesn't make the numbers, she could be replaced as swiftly as Simons was.
Taking all this on at her age—68—is also a gamble, but asking her about that only makes Sander stiffen, her ice-blue eyes turning sharp as darts. "You know, I don't think that is a good question," she says firmly. "You can believe I am also asking myself that." But, she continues, exhaling somewhat, "Creative people always like to create. This brings happiness. So there was no question about returning. The good thing about age is that we have so much experience."
In fact, Sander believes her return was "destiny," and she becomes surprisingly spiritual when she speaks about it. "With all of my history, I feel it's been more like a journey, and driven by something up there," she says, pointing toward the heavens. "This is actually what it has to be. We learn to never go back, never try to repeat, only look to the future. But in this case, maybe this is an exception."
Heidemarie Jiline Sander—her mother shortened it to Jil when she was little—was born in a village outside Hamburg during World War II. She got into fashion by working as a magazine editor in the early '60s, first as an expat in New York at McCall's and, later, back in Germany, at Constanze and Petra. Eventually, Sander decided to give fashion design a try herself. "I couldn't stand the trousers that were available for women," she once explained. "In fact, there was no fashion on the market for the modern woman. Her clothes were stuck in various clichés from the past. I felt that women's wardrobes needed to be reconstructed from scratch."
Sander produced her first womenswear collection in 1968 at the age of 25—150 pieces in what would become her signature minimalist style—sold from a former lamp shop that she'd transformed into an all-white space on Hamburg's hip shopping street, Milchstrasse, in Pöseldorf. She sold out in a week.
In 1973, she officially launched the Jil Sander label and within a few years had begun showing her collections during Paris fashion week, but no one much noticed. "I was not ready," she later told me. "It was too much for my nerves." She retreated to Hamburg and staged invitation-only shows.
In 1987, she decided to emerge from her self-imposed exile and try the major fashion circuit again—this time in Milan, where the focus traditionally has been more on fabrics and tailoring than Paris's couture details and flash. During one of her womenswear shows in the early '90s, a model walked down the runway in a handsome navy coat so perfectly tailored that retailers and editors swooned. "That launched Jil," Liz Tilberis, then-editor of Harper's Bazaar, said at the time. "A pair of pants and a navy coat." Sander was quickly dubbed the Queen of Clean.
She had great plans for growth. She purchased a pair of magisterial white mansions, built in Hamburg in the late 19th century by renowned architect Martin Haller: one, once owned by Aristotle Onassis, she made her home; the other, which had served as offices for the German Ministry of Finance, she turned into her studio and showroom. In 1989, Sander listed 33 percent of her company on the Frankfurt and Hamburg stock exchanges for $56 million to help finance further expansion. Her first major step was in 1993 when she opened a three-story, 10,000-square-foot Jil Sander store in Paris in what had been the Vionnet couture house on the Avenue Montaigne. It was a sweeping space in white and cream tones, and it single-handedly revived the staid shopping street.
Soon, Sander's spare aesthetic reigned in fashion. Along with Austrian designer Helmut Lang and Italian designer Miuccia Prada, she became part of a triumvirate that championed the minimalist movement in fashion. Not everyone was a fan—some charged that the look was militaristic, bordering on fascist—but it sold and became the standard of high-fashion dress.
Then, in 1999, out of the blue, in a move that stunned the fashion industry, Sander sold 75 percent of her company to Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada and husband of designer Miuccia Prada. Bertelli also bought 51 percent of Helmut Lang that same year—effectively controlling his wife's two greatest competitors. He folded all three companies into the Prada Group and started to streamline production and distribution.
Those who knew Sander, a strong-willed, independent woman who had only worked for herself, and Bertelli, an equally strong-willed and renowned hothead, wondered how long the partnership would last. Four months, as it happened.
There were reports that the pair disagreed on sourcing and manufacturing: She wanted the finest materials and workmanship; he wanted to cut costs. For a woman who had created her reputation on top quality, no matter the expense, this was unacceptable. "Quite simply, Bertelli and I had different visions about how to run the company," she told me in 2003. "I didn't want to leave, but certain situations made me step back."
A spokesman for Prada declined to comment for this article. But in 2000, after Sander's initial departure, Bertelli told a group of journalists: "We didn't want her to go. She had bad advisers. She willingly sold her company and of her own accord decided we were the most attractive buyers. Our agreement was that she would continue to participate in design but that we would oversee management, and that involves pricing and product mix. She could only function when she was in charge, and it was as if her decision-making rhythm had been interrupted and raped."
Sander had various job offers, but she turned them all down. For her, it was a time for reflection and introspection. Bertelli hired a Paris retailer named Milan Vukmirovic to replace Sander, with disastrous results. Sales slid; the company plummeted into the red. To add to Bertelli's woes, his plans to take Prada Group public in mid-September 2001 were derailed by the terrorist attacks. Bertelli knew he needed Sander back to make it all work. They started talking within a few months of her departure, and the negotiations went on for almost two years. "We didn't want to make the same mistakes," Sander told me then. "I said, 'When I come back there, it must really be right.' "
In May 2003, she signed a six-year contract. Bertelli gave her a seat on the Prada Group board and called her "the engine and the soul" of the brand. There was talk of opening more stores, righting the menswear collection, which had lost its way under Vukmirovic, and expanding the accessories line. "We now have an understanding that I need a certain power in directing the company," she said to me back then. "All my life I was an entrepreneur. I know how to run my company, how to manage. I'm also the creative head: I have to be free to make my decisions, and I have already proven that I know how to do it." She added, "If I ever have to go again, I will do it differently, not say, 'Abort.' "
The press likened their reunion to the ill-fated remarriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And sure enough, as with Burton and Taylor, the union fell apart again, this time in 18 months, after they disagreed on how to grow the company. The official press release stated that the split was "amicable." A Prada spokesman added, "They had a difference in opinion about the future financial plans for the Jil Sander brand. It was not about creativity."
This time Sander was replaced by Simons, a well-regarded menswear designer who had never worked in womenswear. Helmut Lang had his issues with Bertelli, too, and quit his company in 2005. Today, Lang lives on Long Island and works as an artist.
Bertelli sold his stake in both companies in 2006: Lang to the Japanese firm Link Theory; Sander to Change Capital Partners (CCP), a British private equity firm backed by the Halley family and headed up by Luc Vandevelde, the former CEO of the Carrefour Group and chairman of Marks & Spencer. Among other brands in CCP's portfolio are a UK shellfish processor, a German food brand and an Italian chain of casual restaurants. "Private equity can bring focus," Vandevelde said in an interview at the time. Taking direct aim at Bertelli, he added that fashion titans "get carried away building cathedrals instead of stores, but you need to make a living."
This is true. But even if it hadn't originally been part of Bertelli's grand plan to eliminate his wife's two biggest competitors, the departure of both Lang and Sander from the fashion conversation allowed Miuccia Prada to effectively become the Catherine de Medici of luxury minimalism. When it came to the pared-down look, what she said or did was like a royal edict.
CCP's plans were to revamp the Jil Sander company, make it profitable again, then sell it in five to seven years. To cut costs, it closed the three major flagships— New York, London and Sander's pride, the Paris store on Avenue Montaigne—and opened smaller boutiques at less prestigious addresses. It also consolidated the business, shuttering what it deemed unnecessary production and logistics setups in Germany. Sander says now that "watching this from the outside" caused her great heartache. "When I was in Paris and we lost our shop on the Avenue Montaigne, I walked on the other side of the street and tried not to look. That was sad, really a pity."
Within two years, Jil Sander was back to posting a modest profit. But by 2008, CCP had tired of waiting for big profits that weren't coming and sold it to Onward Holdings Co., Ltd., for $244 million—reportedly more than three times what the firm had paid Bertelli. Three years later, Onward launched a lower-priced Jil Sander line called Navy, which was designed by a separate team that did not answer to Simons.
At the same time, Sander had signed on with another Japanese firm, Fast Retailing Co., to design a capsule line called +J for Uniqlo, its low-priced clothing brand. Uniqlo is an immense business—it has more than 1,000 stores worldwide and does $12 billion a year in revenue. Her mandate, she said, was to bring "good design to young people who cannot afford, let's say, higher prices."
To achieve this, she applied her high standards to everything from clothing design to retailing. Most items, including a new version of her iconic blue blazer, were under $300 and sold very well. Sander was so charmed by the arrangement that, in April 2010, she signed up for another three years and declared she could work for them indefinitely.
That all changed in March 2011, when a massive earthquake struck Japan. "I was there at Uniqlo, on the 30th floor, washing my hands," she recalls. "The cabinet doors were swinging. It was like the walls were on roller skates. It took us two hours to get down the staircase. There were fire alarms sounding, and the other buildings were swaying."
A few months later, Onward called to see if she'd be interested in returning to her own company. She said she couldn't yet—she was tied up with Uniqlo. But by September, she had managed to extricate herself from that deal. Indefinitely, it turned out, didn't mean forever. According to the official statement, "Both parties believe we have accomplished everything we had originally set out to do through the collaboration." In all, Sander had produced five collections for Uniqlo. "It was a genius experience," she says now with conviction, but "I decided I'd had enough. You have to know when it is time to stop."
Onward was not the only company who called. "I had a lot of interesting offers," she admits. "Secret offers." WWD got an inkling that something was up when a reporter from its Japanese publication ran into Sander at a fabric fair in Paris in February. Sander admitted she was working on a new project and promised it would be unveiled within a few weeks.
And it was. Simons left Milan as promised, eventually taking a few assistants with him to Dior. Sander moved back into her studio and got straight to work on both the men's collection, which she showed in June, and the spring-summer womenswear collection in September. Hers wasn't the only minimalist collection on the runway—indeed, in the void Sander's departure from fashion created, British designer Phoebe Philo has emerged as a strong, trendsetting voice in the spare aesthetic, with her work as a hired gun for the LVMH brand Céline.
Sander's intellectual approach to design and her dedication to integrity, however, have been sorely missed in fashion in the last decade, when so many companies have forsaken quality for quantity, and beautiful products for beautiful profits. Sander has reminded us that there is poetry in a good cotton shirt cut smartly, with a modern edge; and unlike the majority of her competitors, there is nothing retro or referential in her work.
At the end of the first womenswear show that September afternoon, primarily held for the press, Sander tellingly received a polite, respectful applause. You could sense the editors missed Simons's feminine flair. At the end of the second showing, however, which was mainly for retailers, the room erupted into an ovation with hoots and hurrahs and cheers. They were elated that Sander was back.
And, for the moment, so are her bosses. "It's a real continuity of what she has done in the past, even if it is different because times have changed," Pene says as he watched the second women's show from the back row. "It is the essence of the brand."
Sander agrees. "Honestly," she says, as the late afternoon sunlight streams into the all-white showroom where she sits, "I'm so lucky to be able to return and finish this."