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MILAN — As fashion rumors go, it’s practically a classic.

But three years after Jil Sander’s messy divorce from Prada Group, sources say the designer is in talks to return to her namesake company.

This story first appeared in the April 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli is said once again to be eager to woo her back into the fold, while sources describe Sander as rested and raring to reclaim her name and reputation in the fashion firmament. The progress of the most recent round of talks could not be learned, but one source pegged the likelihood of a deal at 70 percent — with creative autonomy being the linchpin issue.

According to sources familiar with the discussions, Sander’s list of demands also includes the dismissal of two key business managers at the company and the right to assemble her own creative teams.

Sander had already left for her Easter holiday and could not be reached for comment Thursday. However, sources close to the designer confirm that the two parties have been talking. But a Prada spokesman said, “There are no new developments in the relationship between Jil Sander and the Prada Group.”

Although there have been rumors of on-and-off talks between Bertelli and Sander since she exited the company, it appears this time around Prada is under increasing pressure to cut a deal with the designer. Sources in Italy say the group is feeling the heat from Deutsche Bank — one of Prada’s biggest lenders — to reduce its debt load by selling some of its assets. “The bank is pressuring Prada to sell Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, and/or Azzedine Alaïa,” said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In an interview in WWDThe Magazine this month, Helmut Lang denied that Prada had its stake in his label on the block.

“[The rumor] does not come from anywhere,” he said. “It’s like this homemade thing from [WWD].”

Sander exited in acrimonious fashion as chairwoman and chief designer in January 2000, just a few months after selling her company to Prada. She was succeeded by Milan Vukmirovic, a former buyer at the hip Paris boutique, Colette, whose collections have kept sales humming, even if the brand image has shifted and reviews have been less than stellar.

It’s no wonder. Sander enjoys cult status as a designer, and her loyal followers have been mourning her absence from the business, secretly pining for her return, while continuing to sell the Vukmirovic-designed Jil Sander collection.

“She’s been gone for three years, but we still have gone and bought the line,” said one retailer. “But it’s a different brand now, and a different customer. It’s a bit more razzamatazz. The women who is wearing Cavalli is buying Jil Sander.”

As discreet and unpredictable as her clothes are exacting, Sander has firmly held her tongue about her intentions for three years. Curiosity spiked anew last January, when her non-compete clause with Prada Group expired, leaving her free to start a fashion venture if she so desired.

Sander’s silence has spawned an endless stream of rumors, which have had her headed to Hermès, Banana Republic and Dunhill. All those rumors were later denied by the respective companies.

But most speculation has centered on her returning to the brand she painstakingly built over more than 20 years — and abruptly quit after vicious battles with Bertelli over pricing, fabric sourcing and creative issues.

Creative autonomy for fashion designers recently made headlines with Tom Ford, creative director of Gucci Group, making it clear he would exit the company if majority owners Pinault-Printemps-Redoute start meddling in his affairs. Some industry sources suggest Ford’s posturing in the face of his owners might have emboldened Sander and bolstered her bargaining position with Bertelli.

Also, it is believed Helmut Lang, whose company Prada bought in 1999, enjoys firm control of product, communication and image.

“The most probable and the most recommendable solution is for Jil Sander and Patrizio Bertelli to get back together,” said Armando Branchini, a luxury goods consultant in Milan. “It’s in both their interests. There is a niche to fill with that brand and it has so much potential to grow.”

What kind of impact might a Sander comeback have?

It would unleash a media bonanza, to be sure, and make Sander’s return show the hottest ticket in fashion. Industry consultants and retailers also suspect it would ignite the Sander business anew.

Sales at Sander have risen roughly 20 percent, to $149.2 million last year, from $125.6 million in 1999, converted from the euro at current exchange. Prada Group has opened flagships in London, New York and Tokyo and invested heavily in advertising the brand. As reported, the company’s net loss swelled to $28.3 million last year from $11.5 million in 2001, related to higher fixed costs in opening the London and New York flagships.

Retailers said the label continues to sell, and allowed that some Jil Sander customers are not aware that the designer herself has left.

“It’s still the best pair of pants a woman can buy,” said one retailer. “But the collection has not evolved. I literally have been really sad since she’s been gone. I would be jubilant if she came back.”

Sander’s fashions are quiet and in the minimalist vein, but her precision cuts and fabric research have kept the fashion cognoscenti rapt. One retailer said her designs are deceptively simple, but perfect: “It’s like when you get a great haircut and you don’t exactly know why.”

Louis Boston, one of the first American specialty stores to sell Sander, dropped the line when Sander left. Owner Debra Greenberg said she would cheer a Sander return.

“There’s nobody who concerned herself with the product the way Jil did,” Greenberg said. “She works first and foremost with fabric and make, and then with fit. She studied fit to the point where anybody who put on Jil Sander would be so pleased with the fit that the expense of the garment became irrelevant. Also, the styling was always something that was fresh and subtle, beautiful and timeless in a modern way.”

Greenberg said Sander’s exit left “a big hole that we’ve never replaced. She’s from a different generation of people who were really concerned about clothing. I think that’s why young people like vintage clothing today. Yes, they like that it’s one of a kind, but I think it’s also because of how well it is made.”

Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said his Jil Sander business is “healthy” and growing, but it would be a plus if she came back. “It would be wonderfully positive,” he said. “There hasn’t been one designer that’s filled her shoes and we would welcome her back with open arms. She had a unique design approach and an understanding of a modern woman’s needs.”

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