When Raf Simons arrived at Jil Sander in 2005, he found a fashion house with a cultlike, almost monolithic following — with a set of customers who would wear only Jil Sander, head-to-toe. He knew he had to respect the existing fans while attracting new ones to secure the brand’s future, so he set out to shake things up a bit.
“There was a huge audience back in the day and, for them, Jil Sander was only a double-face cashmere coat in a camel color, a white shirt, black pants and nothing else,” recalled Simons. It’s Thursday and he’s sitting inside the lobby of Chelsea’s Maritime Hotel after arriving in New York from Tokyo, where he held a runway show for his spring Jil Sander collection and promoted the upcoming release of “I Am Love,” the 2009 Italian film for which he designed Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe.
Those clothes helped Simons further his new vision for Jil Sander. “Women have very different expectations now,” he said. “They do not [devote] themselves to just one designer, they mix it up. They have a bag from this brand, shoes from a different brand and a jacket from another.”
In the six years of showing collections for the house, Simons has managed to evolve the Jil Sander aesthetic to serve that mind-set. Where other designers may find themselves challenged to take over a house from a designer, let alone a living one, Simons has increasingly been injecting the brand with his own modernist aesthetic while respecting its DNA — all without being nostalgic about it. In a few seasons, Simons moved away from Sander’s more severe aesthetic and added eveningwear and a sense of fluidity. His approach crystallized with the spring 2009 collection, which mixed an African theme with a Twenties, Charleston charm.
“I started with the idea of being inspired by everything that I thought was not allowed in the brand Jil Sander — other cultures, another time, another moment in history,” Simons recalled. “It was very naked, very exposed — at least for the Jil Sander brand. That  show was very well received. When I saw that it started to work, and the followers of the brand were open to it and we also got a new customer in, I thought it was the moment to start exploring a new form of language.”
Since then, Simons has been on something of a roll. He’s been toying with couture silhouettes for ready-to-wear and his spring 2012 lineup was one of the highlights of Milan with prints (gingham, paisleys) and a distinct Fifties feel. But there’s nothing vintage about Simons’ approach.
“For me, modernism is very much the idea of dreaming about what the future could be, and then, as a creative person, dealing with form and shape,” he said. “It’s very much about the challenge to come to a form, a language that people find new. It does not mean I erase the past, but generally, I don’t find it very challenging or romantic. I respect it a lot but I [store] it, like a library.”
Even though he started out in men’s wear with his own label, Simons said he is more comfortable designing for women. “I find it easier,” he said. “It’s less limited. We will see that [at the Night of Stars]. For sure, every man there will be in a black suit with a white shirt and a tie.”
As for his Jil Sander vision, he hopes to expand his vocabulary even more.
“The audience is very educated these days,” he notes. “Fashion is not niche anymore like it used to be three decades ago.…Sometimes I think women are more advanced than designers. There has been a strong kind of free self-expression in the last decade of fashion. It’s the combination of different worlds, brands and aesthetics from different designers. About a decade ago, that seemed really new, but now it’s less so. For me, somebody who would dedicate themselves to one brand, like Audrey Hepburn did with Givenchy, would look very controversial again. I am thinking it over now.”
But first, he must prepare for his Fashion Group honor. He says he’s very nervous, yet honored, to go onstage, “especially because it’s New York. I love this place so much,” he remarked, adding that he spent his first day checking out galleries in Chelsea. “It’s my favorite city in the world. I keep talking about it and wish I would live here for a while.”
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