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MILAN — She’s back, she’s refreshed and she’s ready to get to work. She also once again owns part of her business.

Jil Sander — who surprised and pleased the industry earlier this week by making amends with former sparring partner, Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli, and returning to the fashion house she founded — appears to have attained an almost zenlike sense of calm. She said her three-year hiatus has served her well.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“After I stepped back, I was really…finding another life. I did a lot of things I never did in my life like traveling and getting interested in other things like gardening and sailing,” she told WWD in a joint interview with Bertelli at Prada’s stark white minimalist headquarters here.

“I became a little bit social. I went out. I was communicating with my friends,” she said, appearing relaxed in an oversized blue blazer, a crisp white shirt and black trousers.

If it seems like Sander has just returned from a long vacation, it’s because she has. So used to channeling her energy on work, Sander said the break finally gave her a chance to catch her breath and observe the world around her.

“I’ve gone through this change of living another life and getting a new perspective,” the designer, once known for her hard-driving perfectionism, said. “I’ve changed…I hope it will influence my work.”

Work she will. Sander’s new deal with Prada is a six-year contract as creative director of the label she founded and also has allowed her to buy a minority stake in the business from Prada. Sander now will crank out a men’s collection in a matter of weeks to be presented here next month.

Watching Sander and Bertelli pal about like old chums, laughing at each others’ jokes and clowning around with a book for a photo shoot, one would never have guessed that the pair’s acrimonious breakup three years ago rocked the fashion world and dominated the headlines. Sander stepped down in 2000 as chairwoman and chief designer of her label just months after Prada bought control of the company. In the months they worked together, she and Bertelli continually clashed over creative direction and management of the brand. Following her departure, Bertelli famously said in June 2000: “A brand that’s as strong as Jil Sander doesn’t need to rely on the name of a designer. It’s not the name that counts, but the quality of the product.”

On Thursday, Bertelli was hesitant to relive the past and explain in detail just what went wrong the first time. But he seemed optimistic that whatever was broken then is fixed now.

“There was no breakup. For certain reasons we were not able to work together,” he said. When asked to elaborate on their differences, Bertelli said he couldn’t identify them. “I was away a lot and Jil went away at the end of February. I came back in March. We saw each other. There wasn’t a period of continuity.”

Characteristically, Bertelli downplayed the squabbles of the past to focus on the future. He stressed that in fact, he and Sander share many philosophies on brand development —like the fact that neither is ready to risk cheapening the brand with a second line, jeans collection or a series of licenses.

“Now that Jil Sander has returned, we are very happy and we are sure we’ll find not only energy and the right strategy to increase sales but also, above all else, give Jil Sander that same kind of impulse Jil Sander provided with her very first show,” Bertelli said

Bertelli clearly is hoping the designer’s return will reignite the growth of the brand. Prada is aiming to trim losses so Jil Sander can breakeven on an operating level in 2004 and on a net level come 2005.

As reported, Jil Sander widened its consolidated net loss last year to $30.6 million from $12.5 million as the company opened costly flagships in London and New York. Sales in 2002 dipped to $161.6 million from $162.7 million.

Sander also seemed just as eager to get it right this time.

“We’re taking the patience and the time to learn about each other,” said the designer. “We are two strong characters and two entrepreneurs and different cultures.”

It also appears that Bertelli has given Sander more power on the decision-making front. As part of the deal, Sander gets to sit on Prada’s strategic committee flanking Bertelli, Miuccia Prada and perhaps others. She also has the option to join Jil Sander’s board at some point in the future. As for Sander’s minority stake in the business, neither Prada nor Sander would confirm its size. But Bertelli reiterated his denial of speculation that Prada hopes to sell the brand to ease its debt burden ahead of a possible initial public offering next year or the year after. As reported, there were rumors that Bertelli might try to sell Jil Sander back to the designer herself or another party such as Hugo Boss, which has also denied interest in the brand.

Sander said she wants to send a clear message to her staff, including the creative team she is still in the process of forming: “We can make mistakes, we can make wrong decisions, but in the end, we can redo it and rethink it and have another chance.”

The designer said she was overcome by the emotion shown to her by the employees she greeted Thursday in the company’s Milan and Hamburg offices. “The reaction at the company of all the people, even the people I don’t know, everybody is very energized,” she said.

She was fairly tight-lipped on her opinions regarding outgoing designer Milan Vukmirovic and just what it felt like to watch someone else designing a collection bearing her own name.

“I think it’s very courageous to work on a line like Jil Sander. And we have to say that it’s very natural that if someone else works on a line it will be different. And I’m not here to criticize.”

Still, it’s clear Sander feels the house’s transition will require plenty of work.

“I felt very energetic to go back and to straighten everything out. Mr. Bertelli and I had a lot of time to communicate and discuss strategies and the positioning of the Jil Sander brand,” said Sander, alluding to confirm reports that she and Bertelli had been in talks about her possible return to the label almost since the day she left. “So we’re very optimistic that we can work in a very good way for the future.”

The future also means coming to grips with a world that has changed dramatically since the late Nineties, when Sander and her minimalist tailored pieces reached their peak in popularity.

“Time goes by. That’s also the soul of fashion,” said Sander. “You always have to understand the time you are in.”

Still, she said simplicity and pure design could be just what consumers need in a post-9/11 world of multiplying complexities, as the threat of terrorist attacks looms and unease grows.

“I think pure design is something more. It exists out of time…it means saying ‘this much I can take away because I don’t need to overdesign and complicate design.’ Design is almost thought. Design is energy. Design has material qualities and proportions. I think that a Jil Sander design was always very innovative, very modern, very sophisticated.

“I will focus strongly on taking care, being subtle and taking a conceptional approach [to make my customers] feel something,” the designer promised.

But who is the Jil Sander customer of the future? Sander said she’s intent on keeping those cult clients who followed her with quasi-religious devotion throughout the Nineties while striving to broaden her appeal to others outside the flock.

“They are so strong, the Jil Sander clients. We want to have them, we want to keep them but we also want new spirits and maybe new fans,” she said.

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