MILAN — Hoping to turn off the rumor mill but ignite a new buzz, Prada Group on Thursday appointed Raf Simons as creative director of Jil Sander.

The Belgian men’s wear designer, who takes over July 1, will be in charge of Sander’s men’s and women’s collections, starting with the fall-winter 2006 season. Prada’s announcement confirms a report in WWD on Thursday.

Simons’ appointment comes six months after Jil Sander surprised the fashion world by leaving the company she founded more than 30 years ago, for the second time. Since then, the collection has been done by Sander’s design team, which will continue to oversee the line for cruise and spring-summer 2006. Simons’ first effort for Sander will be the men’s wear collection to be shown in January 2006.

Gian Giacomo Ferraris, chief executive officer of Jil Sander, told WWD that when he met Simons last January, he was impressed by the designer’s “managerial sense.”

“He is a great communicator and is one of the few designers who doesn’t leave a business meeting after two minutes,” said Ferraris. “The premise is that we’re not doing a Raf Simons women’s line, but bringing innovation to an iconic brand that already exists.”

Simons declined comment Thursday. In a statement, he said, “I couldn’t be happier to work for a brand as pure and clean as Jil Sander. I am eager to carry forward the simple and pristine design that Jil Sander has come to represent. There is a strong affinity between how I perceive my own design and the core values that the Jil Sander brand embraces.”

Simons will continue designing his namesake men’s wear collection, shuttling between Antwerp, where he is based; Hamburg, the base for part of Jil Sander production, and Milan, where Prada and the remainder of Sander’s operations are based.

Clearly, Simons has become one of the most influential men’s wear designers around today. True to his Belgian roots, he has a penchant for innovative outerwear and surgically cut silhouettes. The designer, who likes to explore proportions and push the envelope with unlikely mixes of volumes, favors shape and quiet tones over loud colors and prints.

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Simons, who will celebrate his 10-year anniversary during Pitti Uomo with a sprawling event at the Boboli gardens in June, started out as a furniture designer for galleries and private homes. In 1998, he did a one-year detour at Ruffo Research, the experimental line of the Italian leather wear specialist. He was in charge of men’s, while Veronique Branquinho handled the women’s side.

In his new post, Simons will supervise a design team that delivered a well-received collection for fall, melding Sander’s unmistakable sense of calm elegance, neutral palette and geometric silhouettes.

Ferraris said he made a point of briefing the members of the design team — who include stylist Joe McKenna, Pierangelo D’Agostin and Gunn Johansson — on Simons’ appointment. “We are very lucky to have very valid designers with strong personalities that shouldn’t only be catalyzed by one person,” said Ferraris.

Even though Simons will enter the women’s wear arena for the first time in a major way at Sander, retailers generally applauded his appointment. Janet Brown, owner of a store in Port Washington, N.Y., wasn’t concerned about the fact that Simons hasn’t proven himself in women’s. “His predecessor [Milan Vukmirovic] was a buyer for Colette. I’m not nervous. I want to think of the glass as half full,” said Brown, adding that all she wants is someone at Sander who will give the brand direction.

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, described the news as “awesome.”

“I’ve wanted Raf to do women’s for a long time, because he has talent and a vision,” she said. “I’m so not worried, because we’ve been able to keep our Jil business really strong despite the changes.”

Furthermore, his tailoring could provide a fresh alternative to all the girly looks at retail now. “We have enough really pretty clothes right now,” said Gilhart.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey in Atlanta and New York, said, “he has his finger on the pulse and combines that sensibility with strong tailoring skills.”

Kalinsky, who has carried Raf Simons in his New York store for six years, is not concerned about Simons being a men’s designer, since Jil Sander’s collections have always had a men’s wear influence.

“He’s a very cool designer,” noted Kalinsky. “For the label [Sander] to continue, it needs a strong person at the helm.”

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