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WWD Collections issue 11/08/2010

Let other designers dabble in the so-called “new minimalism” that swung back into fashion over the past year. On a mission to free and expand the Jil Sander universe, Raf Simons flung open yet another window of possibility—and electrified the Milan season—by invoking the grandeur of couture.

This story first appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

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

It’s plain from his excited tone that the Belgian designer was energized to tackle an opulent fashion universe that is Mars to his Venus. One can only imagine the reaction of his design team when he mentioned among references for the spring collection Elisabeth of Bavaria, the iconic royal popularly known as Sisi and synonymous with extravagant style, up to and including, on occasion, diamonds brooches in her hair.

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

While some observers detected nods to Yves Saint Laurent—which were rife on runways in every fashion capital—Simons notes he did not attend the YSL retrospective that wound up at the Petit Palais in Paris last August and is credited for spurring a fashion revival.

“I was looking more at certain pieces from Givenchy,” Simons says, citing a fascination with Sixties-era couture in general. “I was interested in going to a very different kind of proportion and shape for a house like Jil Sander, which has really never done long lengths and big volumes.”

While some designers have been using minimalism as a jumping-off point, Simons prefers to take a far-flung aesthetic or concept and 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 needs to start from a pure idea or a pure concept. You cannot pure-out from nothing!”

Simons took the dramatic silhouettes of couture—the bulbous skirts, infanta gowns, elephant pants and peplum jackets—and rendered them “light and loose” in simple fabrics like cotton, taming them further by mixing in T-shirts, parkas and rainwear. “For me, it was very much about avoiding excess, which is so present in couture,” he says.

And then he ignited it all with searing color, worn in arresting combinations and pileups. Here, Simons allows that he was paying homage to the late Saint Laurent, describing him as one of fashion’s most inspired colorists. Indeed, the spring Sander men’s collection, paraded last June in a spectacular Tuscan garden during the Pitti Uomo trade fair, was all about intense color, an idea he decided to carry over into the women’s line. “That’s what’s going to make it challenging and new because that’s what your eye is not used to,” he explains.

The collection certainly caught retailers’ eyes, helping the company log a high single-digit increase in its spring order book, and double-digit gains among U.S. clients, who were particularly enamored with its sportswear approach, according to Alessandro Cremonesi, Sander’s chief executive officer. Long skirts and outerwear were the top-booking items, he says.

“There is good momentum for the Jil Sander brand overall,” reports Cremonesi, adding the company posted an operating profit in its fiscal second-half, and is on track to remain in the black in fiscal 2011. He credits a strong product focus and improved deliveries and efficiencies for the brightening picture. The company has been tracking solid gains in online sales and is plotting retail expansion to meet growing demand in the Far East.

Also, in late November, the company will deliver its new lower-priced line, Jil Sander Navy, to about 300 doors worldwide. Cremonesi says it’s on track to lift company revenues by about 30 percent.

Simons notes, however, that he is “not involved” in the Navy project.

After five years at the design helm of the Milan-based fashion house following the second retirement of the house founder, Simons has endured three ownership and management changes. He was recruited by Patrizio Bertelli when Sander was owned by Prada Group. In 2006, Sander was taken over by Change Capital Partners, a London-based private equity fund, which in 2008 flipped it to Onward Holdings, the Tokyo-listed apparel group, and its European subsidiary Gibò Co. SpA.

Despite all the turmoil, Simons says he sees as his mission challenging his audience with new and unexpected ideas, while also focusing increasingly on the garments and end customers. “I want to see these clothes succeeding,” he says. “Jil Sander is a very interesting environment because it’s still a company that sells a lot of ready-to-wear.” He says it’s essential to “make a link to a woman wearing garments today, on the street or at home.”

Simons expresses relief that the last decade in fashion, largely defined by cocktail dresses 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 not connected with the idea of ease,” he says.

Still, Simons likes to push the creative envelope—and his runway shows are designed to surprise, given his wide-screen view he’s adopted for the Jil Sander brand. “It creates a dialogue and a reaction,” he explains. “Fashion people want to see fashion change all the time.…If all fashion shows looked like decent pre-collections, how long would it last?”

Despite his reputation as one of fashion’s deepest thinkers, Simons stresses, “I’m not at all somebody who sits isolated in the corner throwing sketches.”

On the contrary, “I wanted to become a fashion designer because I think it’s one of the creative jobs you can’t do alone,” says the 42-year-old, who founded his signature men’s wear label 15 years ago, taking on women’s wear only when he joined Sander. “From the second you start, you’re already collaborating, with people who make fabrics, with people who make patterns. That’s what makes it interesting.”

Simons also continues to glean energy from the vibrant contemporary art scene, and recently spent several days combing the Frieze Art Fair in London in lieu of a vacation. “I like to see this creativity of other people,” he says, mentioning Simon Fujiwara among his recent discoveries, and Los Angeles-based Stewart Ruby as a running favorite. Indicative of how much the designer’s art fixation and fashion career collide, he tapped Ruby to envision the Raf Simons boutique in Tokyo that opened in 2008.

The designer’s ears are also alert for new sensations, the latest being songs by an electro rock band called Goose that turns out to be Belgian, also. Simons, famous for street casting in his early days, also realized the lead singer, Mickael Karkousse, modeled in the first three shows for his signature men’s brand. Indeed, in the band’s official bio, Karkousse cites Simons as a formative influence, as he discovered the music of electronic pioneers Kraftwerk at a Simons show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Simons muses, “I should get in touch with him.”


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