TOKYO — Fresh out of fashion limbo, Jil Sander is dreaming about how to build a “new paradise.”
This story first appeared in the March 19, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
To do that, she said she can meld her unique fashion aesthetic of fine lines and precision with the consummate work ethic of Uniqlo, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd.’s fast-growing empire of low-cost but contemporary clothing. It’s a far cry from her attempts to make a success out of her namesake fashion label, which she famously left in 2004 after clashing with the brand’s then-owner Prada Group. But a visibly enthused Sander said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Certainly I thought I did not want to go back where I came from,” she told WWD a day after inking the Uniqlo deal. “I wanted to have a new challenge and a new dream.”
Sander, speaking in a private room at the Four Seasons hotel overlooking a tea house and a Japanese garden, said she felt the time to return to the fashion business was right. Just over four years since she left her own brand, Sander, dressed in her trademark navy blazer and a crisp white shirt, concedes she missed the design life despite an active break from the industry filled with travel, gardening and jaunts to Miami and Basel to take in the contemporary art scene.
“I was feeling almost a little bit alone because I was always used to working with my people,” said the designer, her voice slightly quivering with emotion. “You talk a lot and you create a lot.”
Although the designer fielded many offers from companies eager to work with her, none of them really clicked until she met Fast Retailing president and chief executive Tadashi Yanai a little less than a year ago. “I was always talking about the future but it never really appeared,” she said. “I was also very careful after my experience — [a new opportunity] had to fit. It had to be a dream where you say, ‘OK, this is really something that interests me; this is something where I can use my skills.’”
Still, the designer herself is quick to admit she’s taking on a major task and expresses a healthy dose of humility. She’ll be overseeing a design team of about 100 people, 80 of whom are in Japan and about 20 of whom are in New York. Sander said it’s too soon to know if she’ll make any changes in the design studio, but she might add some assistants and fabric researchers. Although she started working on Uniqlo’s fall/winter lineup in January, she’s still in the process of learning more about what the company will need to “build our new paradise.”
“I’m quite scared to know what I want and how to move on to the processes,” said Sander, who noted she’s a person accustomed to running her own company, and added with understatement, “I’m not [too] compromising.”
Luckily, both she and Uniqlo appear to share collective values. “I’m lucky here with Uniqlo that they really are also dreaming about quality, and the other impressive thing is that they have the tools,” she said. “They have the logistics. They have very good production control.”
Raw materials are another point of common ground. Although it prides itself on cheap basics, Uniqlo has partnered with Japanese textile Toray Industries to develop innovative fabrics, like one that moisturizes the skin through milk proteins. “Fabrics for me are very important. They can kill everything,” Sander said. “I like three dimensions and modern cuts. This is of course something that will take a lot of work for the company, but it doesn’t cost more in the end.”
Sander said she’s out to create a “modern, contemporary product” that will resonate with price-conscious consumers who still want to dress well — recession notwithstanding.
“Even when we [do] a simple cotton undershirt we’re going to have the right look, the right material, the right aesthetic,” she said. “The dream is to make a line everybody can buy. We make no exceptions and I’m sure there’s room in the world for a certain aesthetic and a quality product at a reasonable price. So that’s what fascinates me.”
The designer has spent the last three months shuttling between her home in Hamburg and Tokyo to come up with Uniqlo’s fall/winter lineup. She’ll continue to divide her time between the two cities, using her Hamburg studio for fittings when she can’t make it to Japan. The collection, set to be unveiled later this year, will feature a mix of men’s and women’s coats, suits, outerwear, T-shirts, “very nice knits” and pieces suitable for a casual dinner out, Sander said.
“It’s really interesting what we did already,” she said. “It’s really astonishing what comes out.”
As for picking up her life and moving every three weeks between East and West, that doesn’t faze the designer at all.
“I’m very used to traveling around the world all my life. So for me it’s quite normal. I always change the clock and say, ‘OK, I’m here,’” she said, adding that early-morning strolls through Tokyo’s scenic cherry tree locales help keep her “in balance.”
Sander recalled her long-standing ties to Japan, where she opened stores and sourced many of her former label’s high-quality fabrics. “I think I was 27 when I was here the first time,” she said, recounting how it was much trickier to navigate Tokyo back then. “It was [very] different. Much more, let’s say, isolated. Today you feel it’s like every world city.”
Observing an arrangement of cherry blossoms on the table in front of her, she spoke of her affinity for the country. “The culture is so beautiful. All the fine lines I love very much,” she said, adding she likes how Japanese precision carries over to the work culture as well. “You can really be sure that things will be done.”
Though she notes how much the world of industry has changed in her absence, she’s more diplomatic than forthcoming on her designing peers.
“I think we’re all trying to do the best. We have these huge accessories companies so we have different visions,” she said. “But today I will say maybe you have to be very corporate and very strong to really fulfill the global market or you have to be very creative — maybe smarter — where you can control the processes very well.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s also hesitant to talk of her former company’s turbulent history or Raf Simons, who succeeded her as the Jil Sander fashion house’s creative director.
“It’s so hard for me,” she said. “I don’t look back. It’s a new world now….You see things go, and new things are coming, and we have to let it go.”