JIL POWER

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK--Jil Sander has her standards.
The unflinching designer retailers describe as a "perfectionist" doesn't do diffusion and will drop an offending licensee or retail account in a heartbeat.
But amid all this vigorous image control, Sander is bent on expansion on a global scale and, rumor has it, wouldn't mind signing a mega licensing deal with the right company.
The Hamburg-based designer was in high spirits last week during a brief visit here to check out her new office space on lower Fifth Avenue, which will be the launch pad for U.S., Canadian and Latin American business.
The new office is part of Sander's painstaking growth plan, which, the designer hopes, will bring her name to a larger but no less sophisticated audience.
Mapped out by Sander and her managing director Roland BUhler, the plan includes several familiar strategies, such as opening stores and shop-in-shops, producing men's wear, and building on Sander's fragrance, leather goods and eyewear businesses.
But what sets Sander apart from many designers--by nature a controlling bunch--is an extra measure of obsession with managing her image.
She's reduced her U.S. retailers from 33 to 27 over the last year--partly because I. Magnin went out of business, but partly because some of the stores weren't doing it exactly the way she wanted it done.
She currently has only three licenses, with plans to perhaps go up to seven over the next two years.
And, most surprisingly, Sander refuses to do a secondary line.
"We don't have a cheaper line, and we won't do a cheaper line," she said. "We have worldwide business, we have a global concept and we have proof that we can grow all over the world."
"We didn't launch a secondary line, because we didn't want to water down the image," said BUhler. "There's an enormous potential worldwide [for the collection], and we wanted to realize that first. We believe very much in Jil Sander as a franchise."
BUhler and Sander are vehemently against selling the name to product lines simply to build volume.
"Valentino, he has what, 162 licenses?" said BUhler. "Pierre Cardin, he has sold his name for toilet paper. At what point do you lose your identity? You have to focus on what you do. We have three licenses now, which we are very happy about. Maybe in two years we'll have seven."
It's Jil Sander as a franchise that will produce healthy growth over the next five years, according to BUhler and Sander. There are plans to open six more Jil Sander stores in the U.S. by 1998, with Atlanta, Manhasset, N.Y., and Los Angeles leading the list.
U.S. orders for Sander's fall 1995 collection were up 66 percent over the previous year, according to a recent report from the British investment company Robert Fleming Securities Ltd.
According to financial information released by Sander's board of directors Tuesday, earnings last year at Jill Sander AG increased 24.4 percent to $7.4 million (10.6 million marks) on a sales increase of 14.3 percent to $95.2 million (136 million marks).
The company said that after dividends, cash flow was sufficient for financing capital expenditures, reducing short-term bank debts and accumulating liquid reserves.
The Fleming report characterized Jil Sander stock, which is publicly traded on the Frankfurt stock exchange at around $685 (980 marks) a share, as "a stylish growth stock" with a "positive investment view." The designer owns 33 percent. Fleming projected that sales would hit $175 million (250 million marks) by the end of 1996.
Currently, international sales account for 48 percent of Sander's business, with German sales making up the rest. If all goes according to plan, international sales should become 70 percent of the company's business by the end of the decade.
"We have a global strategy," said BUhler. "We believe Jil Sander is an international designer who can access all cultures. We've proved that through [our business] in the Far East, and of course in Canada and the U.S."
Worldwide, Sander plans to add stores in such cities as London, Milan, Singapore, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, by the end of next year. One recently opened store is a Jil Sander in the Landmark Hotel in Hong Kong, opened by designer impresario Joyce Ma.
And each shop has sufficient room for a men's collection, which is in development, Sander said, and will possibly be launched for spring-summer 1997.
As for shop-in-shops, she's currently in Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York on Madison Avenue and Linda Dresner here, as well as Neiman Marcus in Houston and Dallas's North Park suburb, Holt Renfrew's Vancouver store and Louis, Boston. This year, she'll open in Neiman Marcus's Washington, D.C., store, Barneys' Houston store and Holt Renfrew in Montreal. The goal, said BUhler, is to have 100 shop-in-shops worldwide by the end of the decade.
"We also want to stay longterm in the specialty stores," said BUhler. "We want to stay at about 300 [worldwide]."
"We don't need 500 stores, because we have very close partnership with our 300 stores," said Sander. "We have to make sure the presentation and concept are well understood by the store, and by the customer. They have to trust the line and the product."
Sander's purist sensibility extends to her retail partners. The stores that carry her have a strict line to toe when it comes to display and merchandising, including paying for the in-store shops.
"There are designers who are sacrificing a lot of money into their shops," said BUhler. "But Jil Sander's partners put their money into the shops."
In return, Sander said, they get lavish attention, including an elite, pristine image that comes partly from its limited retail distribution.
"We have the pure concept, we have exclusivity and we don't throw the name around," said Sander.
"Truly, this is a very important time for Jil," said Joseph Boitano, vice president and general merchandise manager for Bergdorf Goodman, which has carried Sander for four years. "She's become an international designer, and the opening of her new shop in Paris has been an aid to that. She's been very strategic in her planning. She reflects a sense of quality and a sense of design that's very much in keeping with the modern woman who's building a wardrobe.
"Over the years, she's softened her approach to design, so that it's a bit more feminine," he said. "There's a relationship to quality, an attention to detail and a standard of production."
"Her fabrics are the best out there," said Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women's of Barneys New York. "It's clean merchandise, but modern and classic, sophisticated and elegant. For us, it was an easy introduction. She's coming into her moment now because she's recognized all over the world, and that brings a new designer customer.
"I have Jil in my closet from five years ago that I still wear. Whether you wear it as a suit the first season, and then break it up to wear with jeans or khakis later, there's a timelessness. Women aren't into fall and spring clothing anymore, they're into seasonless clothing. Getting dressed in the morning needs to be easier, and she fits into that."
The Sander company so carefully guards its retail partners that although it plans to open several freestanding stores in the next few years, New York is not on the list.
"We have a beautiful presentation," Sander explained, "in Barneys, in Bergdorf Goodman and at Linda Dresner.
While Sander is very demanding about what her in-store shops look like--and insists on at least 1,000 square feet of space--Pressman said she respects the designer's requirements.
"She's a perfectionist," said Pressman. "I'd rather work with someone who has a goal, an opinion and a vision than someone who doesn't know what they want. I don't think her demands are outrageous. She works very, very hard to get what she wants."
If stores don't meet her halfway, she drops them.
"We've actually retracted our distribution in [U.S.] specialty stores this year, from 33 to 27 doors," said Lee. "That's in part due to the unfortunate closing of some of our retail partners" but in other cases, it was because the stores weren't measuring up to Sander's requirements.
But all of this will be accomplished without yielding any control over the pristine image that Sander has been building for the last 20 years. For example, Sander won't even be selling the collection from the New York office--it can only be bought from the Hamburg and Milan offices. Instead, said Lee, New York will be used for servicing existing U.S. business and developing more in Canada and eventually in Latin America.
Sander's licenses are Lancaster Group for fragrances, Alain Mikli for eyewear and Goldpfeil for leather goods. Market sources have put the Lancaster business at $90 million worldwide. Lee noted, however, that even that distribution will be scaled back this year in an effort to "clean it up."
Although he's talking global, BUhler said there's still plenty of Sander potential in its home market. There's a new Jil Sander boutique going up in one of Munich's tony neighborhoods opposite the Vierjahreszeiten Hotel.
"We still haven't exhausted the potential in the German market," said BUhler. "We will double our turnover there in the next five years, with the growth coming from inventory turnover in the Jil Sander shops."
With suits retailing at around $2,500 and outerwear at around $2,600, Sander is a very expensive habit, but she insists she's not unapproachable.
"We have integrated some very young things into the line as much as we can," she said. "We do have reasonable prices--we have a T-shirt line, we have shoes, bags, sweaters. I know that we have very high-price image, but I have a saying: The middle price is always too expensive, because the quality is never good enough."
The American customer gets it, Sander said. American women "are very close to my image and vision. When we see people in the stores, when we talk to the store managers, they are like friends.
"The Jil Sander concept is for the modern woman. And America as a country is so much ahead. They always are ahead, and if you are in New York it's even more that way. They understand the concept, the collection very quickly. It's very avant-garde, but they get it. And one of the things I love about America is that when they get something, they get it very quickly, and then they push it."
Sander's design is often called "minimalist," but the designer prefers the word "pure."
"Minimal is a word I don't put too much meaning with," she said. "I work out so much in the designing that really the word 'pureness' is better. You can have the most opulent fabric, but still, the shape is very pure.
"I propose a fashion where there's not only good quality and cut, but there's an expression of innovation. For example, gabardine. There are hundreds of gabardines in the world. We look at that best, and we go one beyond that.
"For this suit, I wanted a very clean line," she said, pointing at her own dark blue pantsuit. "But I didn't want it so heavy that you don't want to wear it. This is a very tight yarn, woven so that there's a twist and almost a rib in it. So it's very light, but it has shape."
Despite her high spirits and healthy business, Sander said that even after 20 years of designing, she still gets the jitters before every collection.
"Every season there's a new vision," she said. "It changes by fabric, by color, by proportion. You want to be animated every season by what you see, but you also want it to be classic. So that you don't look at that jacket you bought five years ago and say, 'Oh, this is awful. I have to throw it away right now.'
"Innovation definitely comes from the fabric. Color can be very cheap and vulgar, but I don't want to be only black or only beige. If you do it right, even a color like bright orange is OK in the right fabric and the right shape. I always say I can't design until I know the fabric. This is the great challenge for a designer."

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