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Jil Sander Settles In

MILAN — Just over a year after her return to the fashion fold, Jil Sander has learned something surprising about herself: She’s not that different from her former nemesis, Prada chief executive officer Patrizio...

MILAN — Just over a year after her return to the fashion fold, Jil Sander has learned something surprising about herself: She’s not that different from her former nemesis, Prada chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli.

“Maybe when I made the joint venture with Prada, I didn’t take the time to understand whom I was marrying,” she said in an exclusive interview at her company’s immaculately white offices here, exuding a relaxed and calm aura despite speaking to WWD between fittings and last-minute touches on the collection she’s showing today. She is tight-lipped on the details, except to say that it’s “very cool and like a breeze.” Word has it that hand-tooled prints are key looks.

“The more we work together, the more we realize that we are similar,” she said of Bertelli. “We are both entrepreneurs. We understand how to respect one another,” she said of a relationship that still generates the occasional whisper about the inevitable frictions between two strong-willed people.

Instead, Sander seems most preoccupied with growing her brand — and she’s full of ideas how to do it. The designer is intent on expanding the group’s accessories business, but she also has plans to roll out a new fragrance next spring and open stores in locations ranging from Manhasset, N.Y., to Bangkok. But she wants to do it her own way.

“I follow my vision, I follow what I feel and hopefully I will have followers,” Sander said. “I’m not worried about growth. I’m worried about doing it right.”

While the fashion world pondered just how easy it would be for Sander to return after a three-year hiatus, the designer said she has been working steadily, either on the product or her stores, bringing everything back to her vision after Milan Vukmirovic’s uneven stint as creative director in her absence. She said she was ready for the challenge because it’s just part of fashion to reflect the changing times. Of course, her absence from fashion directly coincided with events that radically altered the world — from Sept. 11, wars and economic slowdowns to the rapid growth of technology and consumer choice.

“We had to run to catch up. Our vision and our company have to be connected to the floating situation of the world,” she said. “When you have 90 television channels you have to decide what you want to see.”

Sander thinks people should also have a better choice of what to wear, and that means an alternative to the girly looks that have dominated the past few seasons. She maintains that there has always been an element of femininity in her collections, even if it doesn’t conform to others’ clichéd interpretation.

“I like a way of dressing in which you see the personality of someone. I feel very feminine even if I’m wearing the most tailored of jackets. It’s just not as obvious,” she said, explaining that she thinks people are starting to look past hyperdecorated and opulent clothes to pieces with more substance to them — right down to their coat linings. She calls it a “correction” in fashion’s yin-yang.

“I think people are looking for something with more content to it. I feel it’s a good moment,” Sander said.

It will be an even better moment if Prada and Jil Sander can manage to pull her company back into the black. Financial results for the fist six months of 2004, figures that include sales of the spring-summer collection, her first design effort since her return, show an improvement, but there’s still a way to go.

Sales for the six months ended June 30 rose 4 percent to 65.4 million euros, or $80.5 million at current exchange, and the company expects a further increase in the second part of the year. Cost-cutting helped Jil Sander narrow its losses before extraordinary operations to 17 million euros, or $20.9 million, from 20 million euros, or $24.6 million, the year before.

Also on the corporate front, Sander said she is glad to be working once again with newly tapped ceo Gian Giacomo Ferraris, a Jil Sander veteran who went to Gucci to head up ready-to-wear manufacturing and returned to Jil Sander earlier this year in the aftermath of the Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford departures. Ferraris replaced Roberto Massardi, who still works for Prada in business development.

Prada and Sander are working especially closely together on developing the brand’s accessories offering. Prada, a leather goods powerhouse, makes an apt partner, but Sander stressed her line’s accessories are manufactured in separate plants from those of Prada to maintain a strong identity.

“We need our own culture, our own signature. We can’t be like Prada or anyone else,” she said, most of all because Sander said her house’s focus will continue to be on apparel. Unlike accessories-driven houses like Prada or Gucci, Sander said accessories could eventually make up 40 to 45 percent of sales.

Turning to retail, Sander said she’s been adjusting elements in her stores like lighting, merchandising mix and staffing. Currently the brand sells in 400 doors worldwide, including 16 directly owned stores and 13 franchise sales points. But new stores are on the horizon, some with franchisees. In mid-October, a stand-alone store will open in The Americana shopping center in Manhasset on New York’s Long Island, in conjunction with Hirshleifer’s. Next year, two shop-in-shops in Neiman Marcus are slated to open, one in Boston and another at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif.

Next year, Jil Sander will also open the doors on a freestanding store in Bangkok with franchisee Club 21. Sander said that longstanding partnerships in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, have piqued her interest in opening a Shanghai store. She also said she would like to revisit the idea of a Moscow flagship — a plan that was originally on the table before her departure.

When it comes to the shoppers who frequent those stores, Sander said she’s trying to reach out to a wide audience of women, from younger career gals to the middle-aged. While she doesn’t have any plans to introduce a diffusion line, Sander pointed out that her separates, like simple shirts and pants, are going over well with a younger clientele with a propensity to mix-and-match labels and who are looking for an especially good fit.

Sander herself joked that she is not aiming to become a slave to youth fashion trends or to target teenagers, but she’s more than happy to reach out to the next generation of consumers.

“A brand always has to be fresh,” she said.