Byline: Bridget Foley, April 1990

Twenty-two years ago, Jil Sander, a young German fashion journalist who had become a freelance designer, opened a shop in the Poseldorf district of Hamburg. She stocked it with clothes from a handful of French and Italian designers, as well as with some one-of-a-kind designs of her own.
Today, that shop carries only Sander’s designs. It is but a tiny part of a business that has grown into one of Germany’s fashion powerhouses, an international apparel and cosmetics business with combined annual sales of more than $125 million.
This includes about $60 million in wholesale and retail sales from Jil Sander AG, her ready-to-wear and accessories company that went public last spring and that has averaged increases of 13 percent over the last four years. This year, Sander expects to register an increase of between 16 and 20 percent.
In addition to the cosmetics currently licensed by London’s SmithKline Beecham, Sander also produces eyewear, handbags and luggage under licensing agreements. She recently moved her headquarters into a 40,000-square-foot renovated roller rink in Hamburg and purchased her first factory.
Sander started her wholesale firm with a bank loan and remained sole owner until the recent stock offering. She favors a style of fashion simplicity she calls minimal.
“My clothes combine quality with modernity of fabrics and shapes,” she says. “They’re minimal, but on the edge of forward.” She likes to offer a lot of options so that a customer can find “her private, personal image.”…
The designer, who claims her style in related to that of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons — although not as experimental as theirs — maintains that fashionable minimalism is more difficult to achieve than fashion that is heavily embellished. For her, traditional, heavy-handed concepts of “luxe” clothes “look old today.”
“Believe me,” she continues, “pureness is not so easy to achieve without being banal.”…
Fabrics are key to her collection. Fifteen years ago, after a failed attempt to launch an Indian-manufactured wholesale line that delivered good quality at a price, Sander reworked her philosophy, this time opting for impeccable quality using “very refined materials.” She decided that for the strong, tailored look she wanted to achieve, men’s wear fabrics were preferable to traditional women’s wear fabrics….
Sander started at a time when there were virtually no major German players on the international fashion scene. “For me, it was very important to get out of my own country to make my country believe in me,” she says.
Though she produced her clothes in Milan, she showed in Paris. Soon however, she realized the Paris does not open its arms to foreign designers. Now, though her base remains in Hamburg, she maintains a happy affair with the Italian city, both for production and as a showcase for her collection.
And despite the trend of designers leaving other cities to show in Paris, for the moment she prefers to stay put. “I feel very welcome in Italy, That’s not so normal in France.”
About 70 percent of Sander’s production is done in Milan, and the balance in Germany. She considers her clothes something of an Italian-German hybrid, explaining, “It’s through the expertise of Italians that I can give this quality.”…
Sander’s distribution is international, although her account base is a modest 250 specialty stores, as well as 10 franchised shops. Two more are scheduled to open later this year, in Tokyo and Hong Kong, and the designer herself owns a second shop, in Dusseldorf.
In the United States, distribution has grown from virtually nil five years ago — but for Lina Lee, who introduced a line here in 1982 — to 18 stores, including Ultimo, Lou Lattimore, Maxfields and Dayton’s Oval Room. Sander says she could easily build the number to 50 without hurting the collection’s exclusivity.
“For us, it’s been a very good experience to own boutiques,” she says. “I know what it means to keep a shop, and I have tremendous respect for retailers.”
Like so many designers, she keeps a close eye on the in-store merchandising of her collection: “The right presentation for clothes is essential. It’s the key to success.”
Still, Sander would rather franchise new boutiques than own any more herself. “If you find good retailers, I believe it’s better than doing it yourself,” she says, but notes that she might make exceptions “in certain cities like Paris.”