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Jil Sander Makes Her Return

Coming back to her namesake brand for the second time in a decade, the designer says she’s in a mood to experiment.

MILAN — Returning to her namesake brand for the second time in a decade, Jil Sander says she’s in a mood to experiment — and create fashions that are right for a changed industry.

“At the moment, there seems to be a craving for authenticity and clear visions. I am confident that this is the time for modern sophistication, for attractive, wearable fashion which is true to the new century,” the German designer, 68, told WWD.

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“I do have strong convictions which evolved but never radically changed over time,” added Sander, who has been absent from the label for eight years. “I never tried to be provocative, but I never indulged in nostalgia, either. Fashion is experimentation, and if you keep the sophistication, it can also be eccentric. You have to break rules, if there is a good reason. And now is the right time to be daring, there are few new ideas.”

Many retailers and editors applauded the return of Sander to her namesake brand, while others praised departing designer Raf Simons for moving the label forward.

“I say hallelujah,” Albert Eickhoff, founder of the Eickhoff specialty store in Düsseldorf, said of Sander’s return. “The idea couldn’t be better. Jil Sander was ‘the’ designer of Germany. She was the number one, and her coming back is great for Germany. I told her office we’re very happy. And whether she’s 68 or 45, in the head, she’s young.”

She officially starts at the company on Tuesday and is to parade a men’s collection on the runway here in June for the spring 2013 season.

RELATED STORY: Industry Thoughts on Jil Sander Move >>

Many observers expressed regret about the exit of Simons, who wound up an acclaimed seven-year stint at the design helm with an archly feminine fall collection that won him a standing ovation.

“No one was expecting this, and the truth is, Raf has done a brilliant job in continuing what that brand means,” said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “Of all of the designers who have been placed at houses that are not the namesake’s, he was the most perfectly placed. He really understood the DNA of that house and moved it forward.”

Downing said the challenge now lies with Sander herself. “She doesn’t only have to beat her own expectations of herself, but she has to now exceed the expectations of what Raf has created in her name.”

Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, called Simons’ final collection “extraordinary” and a highlight of the Milan season.

“I also appreciate Jil’s talent, but we all have to recognize the enormous contribution Raf has made to the house,” she said. “And we will look forward to seeing what he does next.”

News of Sander’s return to the Milan-based firm — and Simons’ exit without a clear next step in his so-far stellar career — generated plenty of discussion during the Italian collections, which wind up here today.

In a statement released on Friday, Sander’s Japanese owner, Onward Holdings Co. Ltd., and its European subsidiary, Gibò Co. SpA, characterized Sander’s return as an “important step to foster a long-term growth development that was part of the strategic plan which led to the brand acquisition in 2008.”

Company principals, while praising Simons’ contributions, said they expect Sander’s return to deliver a bump in sales — as was the case the last time she came back to the brand.

In 2011, Jil Sander brands generated revenues of 100 million euros, or $139 million at average exchange, up 14 percent compared with the previous year, and the company reached breakeven.

But those numbers are lower than they were in Sander’s heydays. In 2001, revenues totaled $150.3 million, which grew to $170.5 million in 2004 and to $191 million in 2008.

“It was important for the company to maintain the company’s DNA and values and nobody could have reflected them better than Sander herself,” Alessandro Cremonesi, the house’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Raf had very big shoes to fill and he was very good for the brand, but this is the perfect opportunity, strategically speaking.”

The executive noted that Sander would be in place as the company celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. “It’s a dream for everyone. Values and dreams can pull growth and positivity to create a long-term future,” he said.

Cremonesi said he was “surprised” by the German designer’s “strength, young attitude and forward-looking approach,” noting that her previous experience with Uniqlo “gave her more flexibility.”

Cremonesi said Sander’s former design team no longer exists, and she will work partly in Hamburg and partly in Milan, where the team and structure is mainly located.

“This operation is not to replace a designer with another one, but to bring back the brand to what it was before she left,” added Franco Pené, chairman of Gibò. “Raf is one of the three or four most talented designers around with a creative vision, and I think we’ve proven this — with collections that were each more beautiful than the previous one.”

However, Pené said, “if there is a possibility to work with the designer who founded it and is the soul of it, there’s nothing better.”

He continued: “The analogy may sound arrogant, but when Apple’s Steve Jobs left and then returned, that’s when Apple really took off. And Jobs never replicated another Apple. “

Onward is an industrial operator with a long-term horizon, not a financial investor, Pené noted, stressing that the Japanese company remains the sole owner, and Sander will not buy back any shares. “We never had nor do we have now any intention of selling the company, or even a stake. It’s the farthest idea from us,” Pené said.

Looking ahead, Cremonesi said the company plans to continue expanding its business in China, the rest of Asia and North America. The U.S. accounts for between 20 and 25 percent of revenues; Europe for 35 percent, driven by Sander’s home country, and Japan for between 15 and 20 percent.

Boutiques recently opened in Harbin, China, and in Taiwan’s Taichung. Up next are units in Macau and in China’s Majin and Shanghai. There are 32 directly operated venues globally.

Cremonesi added that he is “monitoring” Turkey and Brazil, a vivacious market that is still encumbered by high customs taxes.

There are between 300 and 400 points of sale that carry the brand. “Our business is mainly retail, but we have strong collaborations with department stores, and are in talks to open new doors,” said Cremonesi, adding that business in the U.S. is strongly picking up.

He also said the company plans to continue production of the Navy collection. “She is very interested in it,” explained Cremonesi of Sander’s involvement. There are plans to open Navy stores in Asia and the U.S., in addition to the five existing ones.

Sander, who founded her namesake house in Hamburg in 1968, sold 75 percent of her company to Prada Group in 1999, and made a highly publicized exit a year later after clashing with hard-charging Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli.

She was replaced by Milan Vukmirovic, who did sporty disco flash until Sander returned in May 2003, only to split again 18 months later. After her second departure, the brand’s creative reins were handed over to its long-standing design team.

Prada tapped Simons, an acclaimed men’s wear maverick, as Jil Sander’s new creative director in July 2005. He demonstrated an immediate affinity for women’s wear, making dresses a top-selling category at Sander, and making the show one of the most anticipated and influential of each Milan season.

Simons elaborated on the founder’s aesthetic, adding eveningwear — and even bridal dresses — to its signature tailoring. “I knew in the long run, I couldn’t only think about minimalism and purism,” Simons told WWD in a 2008 interview.

For his spring 2011 collection, he invoked the grandeur of couture and the extravagant style of Elisabeth of Bavaria, the iconic royal, a riposte to other designers who had muscled in on minimalism. “It almost challenged me to do the opposite, to do the idea of maximalism,” he told WWD at the time.

The brand changed hands two more times during Simons’ tenure, with the value of the company more than doubling, according to sources.

Change Capital Partners acquired the brand from Prada in February 2006, and flipped it to Onward two years later. The Tokyo-listed apparel group and Gibò paid 167 million euros, or $244.1 million at current exchange.

Last June, Sander wrapped up a highly publicized two-year stint at Uniqlo, a unit of Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. It was seen as an unlikely partnership, both sides acknowledging that there were challenges meshing Sander’s exacting standards with Uniqlo’s desire to push for big volumes.

In an interview last year to discuss her partnership with Uniqlo, Sander did not rule out returning to high fashion at some point.

Yet the designer, who rose to fame in the Eighties and Nineties with her tailored basics crafted from luxurious fabrics, said she revels in taking a democratic approach to fashion.

She even went so far as to praise the Sander company for launching a new diffusion line of its own, Navy. “I think it’s very zeitgeist…a reflection that is very right and is maybe also the same feeling I have,” she told WWD in 2010.

Sander returns to the designer arena following a recent evolution of minimalist fashion, perhaps best exemplified by Phoebe Philo’s influential work for Celine.

In an e-mail exchange, Sander seemed sanguine about her return to the company.

“It feels very natural, even though it is like a miracle,” she said. “My head is already there. I feel that things happen for a reason and open up new opportunities. Life is full of challenges and surprises.”

The designer said it was too early to articulate her plans for the brand, but she allowed that the industry has changed immensely in recent years, particularly with the explosion of online communities.

“They add up to a social revolution and they change how things work. Fashion is currently living in the most media-powered age in history, but behind the media there are people, and they need content. That’s why things must turn back to creativity, quality and research,” she said.

Sander also stressed that “many parameters have changed, me included.” And the industry in general.

“The euphoria for merging and expanding business is gone. We witnessed the disappearance of personal fashion signatures in the course of things,” she said.

Sander said she was contacted about returning to Sander “quite a while ago, but since I was still working for Uniqlo, I couldn’t respond immediately.”

The designer said her experience working for a mass market company would come to bear on her as she returns to the designer arena.

“We operated on a global basis and acted according to the pulse of time,” she said. “I really familiarized myself with the art of designing excellent basics, and I feel that the spirit and enlightened development of basics has a lot to do with the future of fashion. I also realized the problems high fashion is facing, namely universal sameness.”

Sander said she would not take any equity in the company.

One source close to the company said Onward realized that, when Sander was no longer tied to the Uniqlo deal, it made sense to try and understand what her intentions were. At the same time, rumors started circulating around Simons, whose contract expired in 2011. “Whoever manages a company worries about giving continuity and future to it: This is the history of human beings, not [designers] closed in golden cages,” said the source. “Simons is a talented artist, and one of the glorious historical companies, from Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, are bound to zoom in on him eventually.”

Unprompted, Sander also addressed concerns about her age, 68.

“I also get questions concerning my age,” she said. “But I feel that today, it isn’t a question of age anymore. People are more concerned about what you do.”