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WWD Collections issue 10/27/2008

Man cannot live by minimalism alone- and that includes Raf Simons, one of its most loyal and expert practitioners. The Belgian designer, who has been at the helm of Jil Sander for three years, already has opened the door by introducing dresses and eveningwear into the vocabulary of a brand prized for tailoring and  design purity. But for spring 2009, Simons flung the door wide open, letting the energy of Africa and the Twenties pulsate through one of the finest— and most refined—collections in Milan, with jewelry, sunglasses and fringed handbags adding to the excitement of witnessing a designer unleashed.

This story first appeared in the October 27, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I knew in the long run I couldn’t only think about minimalism and purism,” says Simons over the phone from Milan, where he is already doing fittings for the Sander pre-fall collection. “I am who I am and I need to be free to be inspired by what I think. I want to create my own freedom more than ever.” Ditto for the Jil Sander customer. “I want her to evolve,” Simons says. “I don’t want her to be stuck with one thing.”

For this season’s collection, shown in Sander’s spare white Milan showrooms, guests may not have read too much into the black-and-white Man Ray photograph, which served as a backdrop. It was commissioned by French Vogue and published in the May 1926 issue. But for a designer as exacting and thorough in his thought process as Simons, the photograph revealed plenty. Through the image of Ray’s lover, Kiki de Montparnasse, her pale, oval face resting next to an African mask, the entire collection could be decoded, along with the designer’s fascinating new wide-screen approach to the brand. Simons says he often told stories with his signature men’s wear collection, and he now feels free to explore other times and cultures at the helm of Jil Sander.

Simons explains that the work of Brâncusi was a starting point for a collection  more about tribalism than Africa. He says he was attracted to the “natural and  tribal” feel in the work of the sculptor, who filtered his inspirations through a process of modernizing, minimalizing and purifying—much like Simons did with the knockout Sander collection. Simons’ two key references, Africa and the Twenties, were etched in subtle, contemporary ways. For example, consider the fringe that was a key leitmotif. “I didn’t want to end up with some Charleston,” Simons says, referring to the flapper dance craze. “It was more like a Jil Sander approach.” That meant treating the fringe as a sinuous material to drape over the body.

The fringe pieces, along with tailored jackets with open backs, were a wink to the “body aesthetic” of that period in history. “I’m very interested in how we can deal more with the body at Jil Sander,” Simons says. “At the end of the day, it’s the body that speaks: No matter what you cover it with, you can’t ignore the body language. That was very much the intention: that I would make people think that this brand can be sexual and sensual.”

Given the rapid acclaim he has accumulated at the house, it’s easy to forget that Simons is still a newbie in women’s wear, forging his reputation with his 13-year-old signature men’s line. Perhaps it’s this distance, along with his youth (he’s 40), that allows him a fresh perspective that is still reverential of Sander’s legacy, yet hardly stuck in the Nineties, the decade the German designer helped to define.

“I think I have a responsibility to make this brand relevant for the next decades. It has to open itself up,” he says. “I always want to stay very, very open, and I think people in fashion who do that are the people who will be here for a very long time. They don’t limit themselves to a particular aesthetic.”

Simons lauded Miuccia Prada as an example, because if one arrives at her show expecting to see a certain look, “it will surely be something altogether different.” Sander’s foray into fine jewelry, a collaboration with Damiani revealed on the Milan runway, was certainly a surprise, although completely in tune with his tribal rhythm: delicate metal spears quivering with clusters of dark diamonds piercing the earlobes and counterweighted with a Tahitian pearl. “If you’re interested in tribalism, you can’t ignore body decoration,” he says, adding: “[Jewelry] is becoming a serious topic in fashion.”

Simons originally had intended to show Sander’s new range of eyewear, licensed to Marchon Eyewear, folded up, thinking the pieces could resemble exotic African insects hung on a chain. In the end, he liked how they looked on the face, and sent out a few models wearing the glasses properly. “I’m so proud that Jil is one of the last brands that sells so much ready-towear,” he says. But at the same time, he’s aware that he can’t neglect accessories “because [we] will miss a huge audience. Logic says we can grow a lot with the non–ready-to-wear part.”

Next up? “I really want to seriously focus on the footwear and the bags,” Simons says. “We are also working on jeans, but it’s a process I want to take my time on.”

For all his talk of free-range inspiration, the designer has brought continuity, calm and confidence to a brand that has seen more than its share of turbulence. In fact, less than a month before his latest show, the second ownership change was announced with Japan’s Onward Holdings Co. Ltd. acquiring a majority stake in Sander from Change Capital Partners. (Change Capital had announced its purchase of Sander from Prada only days after Simons showed his fi rst Sander collection in February 2006.) Jil Sander swung back into the black last year with operating profits of 6.1 million euros, or $8.4 million at average exchange, compared with a net loss of 14.1 million euros, or $17.8 million, in 2006. Sales for the year ending January 31 stood at 131 million euros, or $181.5 million.

The brand’s current financial health and underexploited potential, combined with Simons’ strong aesthetics and management, are said to have piqued Onward’s  interest in the company. The designer, in his brief tenure, is relieved reviewers stuck to the clothes rather than the dealmaking. “I was so happy nobody even wrote about it. I’m happy it was the show that made the impact,” he  says. He also reveals that he recently signed a new three-year contract with Sander, a decision about which he has no doubts. “I feel very at home now,” he says. “The people are happy with what I’m doing. I feel like it’s open now. I can go for it a little bit more.”

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