STORES PRAISE THE NEW SANDER

Byline: Miles Socha

PARIS — “To go to Hamburg after the queen has abdicated, it’s a different kingdom.” That’s how retailer Janet Brown characterized her trip to Germany last weekend to buy the pre-spring collection of Jil Sander, the first women’s line since Sander resigned from the company following a dramatic falling out with her new owner, Prada Group.
Echoing the opinion of most of her retail peers, Brown praised the collection as solid and saleable and extended congratulations to Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli.
“My hat is off to Mr. Bertelli because this was an enormous job, an enormous responsibility to take the reins of someone whose business grew with every shop she was involved in season after season,” Brown said. “He’s given more than 100 percent to try to uphold this minimalist, modern and multifaceted collection, and he didn’t have a lot of time.”
That said, however, Brown acknowledged that the line lacked the special spark that inspired a cult following among her customers. “There is a safety about this collection,” she said.
“It wasn’t revolutionary, but it was certainly decent,” agreed Linda Dresner, who carries Jil Sander at her stores in Manhattan and Birmingham, Mich. “We were certainly able to make an order and have something nice for our clients. We weren’t overcome by anything new, but it was comforting to see things that were familiar. It was a clean, lovely, commercial collection.”
Dresner cited particular strength in the pants and sweaters categories. But she said overall the collection lacked a strong “color or design message” and “we didn’t see any technical miracles going on as we have seen from time to time.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, who owns a Jil Sander store in Atlanta and a multibrand emporium in New York, was midway through his two-day buying appointment Tuesday in Hamburg. He said there was “lots to buy” and good assortments of all-important product categories. “I really liked the accessories a lot. I loved the shoes. The clothing was very focused. There were beautiful leathers and there was a beautiful hand-tailored group.”
Still, Kalinsky said it was detectable that Sander’s hand was not involved in the collection.
“Anybody as talented and creative as Jil would have to be missed,” he said. “I think it’s an emotional thing, too. There’s a certain spirit that is missed.”
But he noted that “different doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In both the men’s and women’s collections, they were much more focused.”
Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of Barneys New York, said she was planning a “substantial” increase for the season for the three doors where Jil Sander is carried: New York, Beverly Hills and Seattle. “It was a really strong collection,” she said. “It was very much in the spirit of the house.”
Collinson said she found no lack of innovation and cited particular strength in the blouse, coat, knitwear and pants categories. “And there were some incredible dresses with draping that reminded me of the Thirties,” he said. “[The collection] had newness but it was definitely geared to the customer that has always been the Jil Sander customer.”
Peter Rizzo, president of Bergdorf Goodman, said he planned to increase the store’s pre-spring order by 15 to 20 percent. “It was an excellent first effort,” he said. “I was not disappointed. The shapes were beautiful, the fabrics were beautiful. It was a little more sexy, perhaps.
“Jil is a major talent, and when a designer at her level leaves, there are going to be changes, but that doesn’t mean the changes will be bad. It’s a matter of delivering beautiful, modern, sophisticated, sexy products and there isn’t a house better in the world able to do this than Prada.
“I’m very much a fan of what that fashion company produces in terms of apparel and accessories,” said Rizzo.
The assessments should come as music to the ears of Bertelli, who acknowledged in a recent interview that the biggest risk he faced at Jil Sander is “how well the next men’s and women’s collections will be accepted.”
Certainly a lot of business is at stake. Sales of the Jil Sander women’s collection totaled $86.5 million last year. The fast-growing men’s division totaled $21.4 million. Bertelli has projected the Jil Sander label to kick in about $135 million for 2000, helping the group reach a sales target of $1.5 billion. Sander’s men’s collection for spring 2001, unveiled in Milan last month, was well received by editors, retailers and the press, who deemed it true to the designer’s ultra-clean design esthetic.
Fashion publications, including WWD, were not invited to see the pre-spring women’s line, and Prada Group declined a request to photograph the new collection, explaining that the image they want to project will be best showcased on the Milan runway during the upcoming spring 2001 ready-to-wear shows.
Women’s wear retailers who traveled to Hamburg, where sales of the pre-spring line commenced last Thursday and continue this week, confessed to considerable anxieties about what they might discover, given their admiration of Sander’s talents and the rabid following for her designs they’ve cultivated among their top customers.
Dresner confessed that she and her buying team were “very nervous about what we might find.”
Brown shared the sentiment. “[Jil Sander] is an enormous presence in our business,” she said, noting that she logs sell-throughs of 92 percent of the Jil Sander label in her store in Port Washington, N.Y. “Each season, when you would come to Hamburg you never thought there could be another coat that was more beautiful than the one last season, but there was. She was a bull’s eye. She never, ever missed. The collection was always scintillating, tempting. You needed a seat belt season after season.
“I do have compassion for Mr. Bertelli because it’s like [standing in front of a half-finished] Mona Lisa and having to pass it on to another artist.”
Many retailers said their die-hard Jil Sander customers related strongly to the designer herself, and are well aware of her resignation and will need some reassurance that the collection will still serve their needs and pique their desires.
“The customer has always been aware of the person Jil Sander and identified her with her clothing,” Barneys’ Collinson said. “When they see this collection, they’re going to find that the things she’s been developing with this collection are still there.”
Dresner agreed that her customers will need some assurance that the design integrity remains intact.
“If they can get what they need, they’ll be satisfied,” she said. “If we chose carefully, we can really make a lovely presentation for them. I think we can satisfy them in the beginning.”
Most retailers agreed that Bertelli made the right decision in deciding to work with a design team instead of hiring a marquee name. Immediately following Sander’s resignation, Bertelli had contacted two designers with enormous buzz, Hussein Chalayan and Hedi Slimane, as potential successors, as previously reported.
However, he later came out strongly in favor of having a team, trained by Sander, oversee the collections. “The individual fashion designer is less important than the company,” he said.
Brown agreed with Bertelli’s decision. “To bring in someone at this late date would have sunk the boat rather than rock it,” she said. “He’s trying to maintain the status quo. Even showing the collection in Hamburg [rather than in Milan] was a strong sign.
“But this will take time, this will take study and this will take a good deal of research.” Indeed, Bertelli is determined to preserve the roots of the company. He decided to expand production in Hamburg and in Eller, Germany, where clothing collections and samples are produced, and is renting the Hamburg showroom from Sander herself. The designer still has a 25 percent stake in the company, and a Prada spokeswoman denied reports in the German press that Bertelli had purchased her shares.
Like most retailers, Collinson said it will take a few seasons to fully assess how well Bertelli’s team at Jil Sander will carry on the designer’s legacy. “From the look of this collection, it’s definitely working,” she said. “There was enough newness there.” Although more fashion houses are adopting a team approach — Balmain, Herve Leger and Byblos all recently moved in this direction following the exit of their respective designers — retailers cautioned that the future is still something of a mystery.
“This is the first time a major designer we have dealt with has left,” Dresner said. “What’s going to happen in the future, we don’t know,” she said. “It’s a beginning. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Milan when we come back.
“But I do think that no matter what, Mr. Bertelli is not an unintelligent person and he will try to be sensitive to what the world of Jil Sander has meant.”
Bergdorf’s Rizzo agreed. “It’s only a beginning here, but already there are elements of the line that show long-term potential. I have tremendous confidence in Bertelli and his approach to modern fashion.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
“We weren’t overcome by anything new, but it was comforting to see things that were familiar. It was a clean, lovely, commercial collection.”
— Linda Dresner

“Different doesn’t have to be a ad thing. In both the men’s and women’s collections, they were much more focused.”
— Jeffrey Kalinsky, Jeffrey

“There is a safety about this collection.”
— Janet Brown

“[The collection] had newness, but it was definitely geared to the customer that has always been the Jil Sander customer.”
— Judy Collinson, Barneys New York

“It was an excellent first effort. I was not disappointed. The shapes were beautiful, the fabrics were beautiful.”
— Peter Rizzo, Bergdorf Goodman

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