“Don’t ask me why,” Jil Sander said with a laugh Tuesday, when asked why she had decided, at age 68, to leave a comfortable retirement and return to the fashion fray. Three days earlier she had shown her first menswear collection, to enthusiasm from buyers and positive media reviews, in the showroom that architect Michael Gabellini designed for her more than a decade ago. Maybe it is a creative compulsion, she added.
“If you cut a painter’s hands off,” she said, miming an ax blow with hand striking wrist, “he’d still feel the urge to pick up a brush.”
There is something else, of course. It was not Sander’s hands she was deprived of when she lost control of the company she started almost 40 years ago. No one likes losing a business. But even for designers less passionate or prideful than Sander there is a particular distress in seeing others producing designs you disapprove of under a label that still bears your name. Ask designers like Romeo Gigli or Herve Leger how that feels.
Much has been made of Sander’s back story, how Heidemarie Jiline Sander taught herself fashion, slowly built up an empire on a particularly clear and modernist (not minimalist) vision of dressing, disastrously went into business with Prada, battled with her partners, left the fold and returned and then finally was sent packing when her business was split off and sold. During the early years away from the business, Sander turned her back on fashion, working with her partner, Dickie Mommsen, on their houses and gardens in and outside Hamburg, Germany. When she re-entered the workplace, to work for the Japanese fashion giant Uniqlo, it was an experimental foray into a segment of the marketplace she had never encountered.
“It was such an intense learning process for me, ” Sander said of trips she made every six weeks to Uniqlo headquarters in the Midtown Tower in Tokyo, where more than 100,000 workers stream in and out every day. “I always wanted in my design to bring value, and I started there just at the beginning of the biggest financial crisis in the world in 2008,” she said. “So the idea was very interesting to bring good design to young people who cannot afford, let’s say, higher prices.”
It might surprise some people to learn that not every designer is as interested as Sander in the value proposition. When she was creating her (PLUS)J lines for Uniqlo, she mined her deep knowledge of textiles and unerring eye for proportion, and used the company’s manufacturing capacities to produce clothing that offered truly fine, low-cost design.
You won’t see any $159 jackets in Sander’s new collection.
“In the end, you can’t talk to everyone,” she said, taking a reporter through a showroom where she handled each garment as though this were her maiden outing in fashion, and not something she had done a thousand times in the past. “Everything, in a way, I’ve already said,” Sander said. And it is true that the lightweight techno fiber jackets, the cashmere coats built precisely as machines, the knitwear woven on special 12-gauge looms, the suits cut with subtle drops that make reference to custom tailoring without looking fuddy-duddy, as bespoke clothes often do, would be familiar to Sander’s longtime fans.
“Now I have more skills and more experience and we’re in a different moment,” the designer said. “Maybe it was good, maybe it was my destiny, that joint venture world and the time away.” Now that she’s back, what she wants to convey, Sander said, “is the importance of the quality and of respecting heritage.”
If you don’t know your history, she added, you have no future. The same is true if you don’t know your market. Sander is aware that her clothes, now as always, fall under the rubric of investment dressing. Yet in a down market it’s possible that even investment bankers might have trouble affording them. “That is why it’s so important to express this idea of the value in the design,” she said. “We want to make essential clothes, clothes where you understand what the value is and why you pay more. ”