By  on November 8, 2010

Let other designers dabble in the so-called “new minimalism” thatswung back into fashion over the past year.On a mission to free and expand the JilSander universe, Raf Simons flung openyet another window of possibility—andelectrified the Milan season—by invokingthe grandeur of couture.

“It almost challenged me to do the opposite,to do the idea of maximalism,” Simons saysgleefully from Sander’s Milan headquarters.

It’s plain from his excited tone that theBelgian designer was energized to tackle anopulent fashion universe that is Mars to hisVenus. One can only imagine the reaction ofhis design team when he mentioned amongreferences for the spring collection Elisabethof Bavaria, the iconic royal popularly knownas Sisi and synonymous with extravagantstyle, up to and including, on occasion,diamonds brooches in her hair.

“People think of dresses made of 27 metersof fabric weighing 35 kilograms [77 pounds]—and with a corset inside,” he says with a chuckle.“But sometimes you have to say somethingreally extreme to make yourself clear.”

While some observers detected nods to YvesSaint Laurent—which were rife on runwaysin every fashion capital—Simons notes he didnot attend the YSL retrospective that woundup at the Petit Palais in Paris last August and iscredited for spurring a fashion revival.

“I was looking more at certain pieces fromGivenchy,” Simons says, citing a fascinationwith Sixties-era couture in general. “I wasinterested in going to a very different kindof proportion and shape for a house like JilSander, which has really never done longlengths and big volumes.”

While some designers have been usingminimalism as a jumping-off point, Simonsprefers to take a far-flung aesthetic or conceptand then, as he puts it, “pure it out.”

“I find it very beautiful this idea of pure-ing things out,” he says. “I don’t think it needsto start from a pure idea or a pure concept.You cannot pure-out from nothing!”

Simons took the dramatic silhouettes ofcouture—the bulbous skirts, infanta gowns,elephant pants and peplum jackets—andrendered them “light and loose” in simplefabrics like cotton, taming them further bymixing in T-shirts, parkas and rainwear. “Forme, it was very much about avoiding excess,which is so present in couture,” he says.

And then he ignited it all with searingcolor, worn in arresting combinations andpileups. Here, Simons allows that he waspaying homage to the late Saint Laurent,describing him as one of fashion’s mostinspired colorists. Indeed, the spring Sandermen’s collection, paraded last June in aspectacular Tuscan garden during the PittiUomo trade fair, was all about intense color,an idea he decided to carry over into thewomen’s line. “That’s what’s going to make itchallenging and new because that’s what youreye is not used to,” he explains.

The collection certainly caught retailers’eyes, helping the company log a highsingle-digit increase in its spring orderbook, and double-digit gains among U.S.clients, who were particularly enamoredwith its sportswear approach, accordingto Alessandro Cremonesi, Sander’s chiefexecutive officer. Long skirts and outerwearwere the top-booking items, he says.

“There is good momentum for the JilSander brand overall,” reports Cremonesi,adding the company posted an operatingprofit in its fiscal second-half, and is on track toremain in the black in fiscal 2011. He credits astrong product focus and improved deliveriesand efficiencies for the brightening picture.The company has been tracking solid gains inonline sales and is plotting retail expansion tomeet growing demand in the Far East.

Also, in late November, the companywill deliver its new lower-priced line, JilSander Navy, to about 300 doors worldwide.Cremonesi says it’s on track to lift companyrevenues by about 30 percent.

Simons notes, however, that he is “notinvolved” in the Navy project.

After five years at the design helm of theMilan-based fashion house following thesecond retirement of the house founder, Simonshas endured three ownership and managementchanges. He was recruited by Patrizio Bertelliwhen Sander was owned by Prada Group.In 2006, Sander was taken over by ChangeCapital Partners, a London-based privateequity fund, which in 2008 flipped it to OnwardHoldings, the Tokyo-listed apparel group, andits European subsidiary Gibò Co. SpA.

Despite all the turmoil, Simons says hesees as his mission challenging his audiencewith new and unexpected ideas, while alsofocusing increasingly on the garments andend customers. “I want to see these clothessucceeding,” he says. “Jil Sander is a veryinteresting environment because it’s still acompany that sells a lot of ready-to-wear.”He says it’s essential to “make a link to awoman wearing garments today, on thestreet or at home.”

Simons expresses relief that the lastdecade in fashion, largely defined by cocktaildresses and ridiculously high-heeled shoes,is hopefully yielding to something more relaxed, a direction he fully endorses. “Me,personally, the idea of a cocktail dress is notconnected with the idea of ease,” he says.

Still, Simons likes to push the creativeenvelope—and his runway shows are designedto surprise, given his wide-screen view he’sadopted for the Jil Sander brand. “It creates adialogue and a reaction,” he explains. “Fashionpeople want to see fashion change all thetime.…If all fashion shows looked like decentpre-collections, how long would it last?”

Despite his reputation as one of fashion’sdeepest thinkers, Simons stresses, “I’m not atall somebody who sits isolated in the cornerthrowing sketches.”

On the contrary, “I wanted to becomea fashion designer because I think it’s oneof the creative jobs you can’t do alone,” saysthe 42-year-old, who founded his signaturemen’s wear label 15 years ago, taking onwomen’s wear only when he joined Sander.“From the second you start, you’re alreadycollaborating, with people who make fabrics,with people who make patterns. That’s whatmakes it interesting.”

Simons also continues to glean energyfrom the vibrant contemporary art scene, andrecently spent several days combing the FriezeArt Fair in London in lieu of a vacation. “Ilike to see this creativity of other people,” hesays, mentioning Simon Fujiwara among hisrecent discoveries, and Los Angeles-basedStewart Ruby as a running favorite. Indicativeof how much the designer’s art fixation andfashion career collide, he tapped Ruby toenvision the Raf Simons boutique in Tokyothat opened in 2008.

The designer’s ears are also alert fornew sensations, the latest being songs by anelectro rock band called Goose that turnsout to be Belgian, also. Simons, famous forstreet casting in his early days, also realizedthe lead singer, Mickael Karkousse, modeledin the first three shows for his signaturemen’s brand. Indeed, in the band’s officialbio, Karkousse cites Simons as a formativeinfluence, as he discovered the music ofelectronic pioneers Kraftwerk at a Simonsshow at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Simonsmuses, “I should get in touch with him.”

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