HAMBURG — Jil Sander loves driving her 30-year-old Bentley, eats the occasional Big Mac, tends a “very Eighties” garden, and is contemplating a foray into beauty products.
But the German designer often described as the Queen of Less still bristles at “senseless decoration” and remains devoted to the power of streamlined, modern, quality designs.
On the eve of a major retrospective at Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Arts, the minimalist designer is in fine fettle, sitting down for a rare interview at her Hamburg atelier. It remains a prime example of her appreciation — and need — for well-proportioned, beautifully lit and unencumbered space. Except, that is, for one large area filled to the brim with white architectural models and all manner of materials related to the 32,000-square-foot multimedia exhibit, which is slated to open Nov. 4. Characterized by her as a “life project,” the show will cover all aspects of Sander’s creative and aesthetic vision throughout her trailblazing 50-year career.
She founded her fashion house in Hamburg in 1968, and rose to fame in the Eighties and Nineties with her pristine tailoring crafted from luxurious fabrics. A hands-on designer with a meticulous attention to detail, Sander expanded her universe into men’s wear in 1997. She sold a majority stake in her company to Prada Group in 1999 and made a highly publicized exit a year later. She would return and exit two more times, and the company would also change hands two more times, sparking a revolving door of designers with varying degrees of success. In 2009, Sander did a stint as a design consultant for Japanese retail giant Uniqlo, winning acclaim for her +J range.
Her rigorous approach — hinged on uncluttered shapes, precise proportions and exceptional quality — cemented her stature as a preeminent and influential practitioner of minimalism, which has drifted in and out of fashion since her glory days. That influence is what makes her the first in what WWD is dubbing The Originals, which will be an ongoing series of profiles of people who are literally one of a kind.
While not prone to looking back, preparing the museum show and the accompanying catalogue put Sander in a reflective mood — not only about her legacy, but the surprises she’s found upon finally delving into “those boxes” for the first time. And she’s happy to share some pointed thoughts on where fashion and the zeitgeist appear to be taking us.
Yet she appears more accepting and perhaps generous, too. Beyond briefly alluding to those “difficult situations” that caused her to walk away from the company and label that still bears her name on those three occasions — the last in 2013 — there’s no sense of acrimony. Nor any need on her part to go into details, other than acknowledging, “it’s really not easy to say goodbye. But you have to understand it’s all part of [life’s] comings and goings.”
So have been her successors at the house that Jil built — which isn’t really a topic of conversation on this day. More than once she emphasizes her good relationship with the company and, at the mention of the brand’s new design duo Lucie and Luke Meier, wishes them every success. With conviction.
Here, a catching up with Sander on fashion, the zeitgeist and her life today.
WWD: I think the first question so many people want to ask you is simply: How are you?
Jil Sander: We all need a little energy because it’s the last days [before the exhibit opens]. And, as usual, the complexity is much more than you think. Still, I feel much better because I worked very deeply the last year on the archive and the exhibit. I wanted to give something to the world. I wanted an exhibit with energy. I wanted to see it [my work] with my eyes of today, and I wanted no one to get bored. I hope it can be like this. We tried, and now it seems like everything comes together….It’s a little bit like a life project.
WWD: Has preparing the exhibit and the accompanying catalogue changed your perception of your work, and in what way?
J.S.: I was happy to realize that everything I did belongs to a coherent vision. Also, when I looked at the campaigns, the runway videos, the packaging, I felt that most of it would still be relevant today. And, finally, I was surprised how feminine my runways were. I was often associated with the female trouser suit, but that was just an aspect which meant a lot to women who entered the job world en masse. Yet there was much more, a poetic side, if you will.
WWD: To quote you, “My aesthetic ideas develop out of what I have appreciated and learned in my life and what I sense of the zeitgeist.” What is it you have appreciated and learned? And what do you sense of the zeitgeist at this point in time? The world, not only fashion, seems to be in a particularly tumultuous stage.
J.S.: There are two sides to my design. On the one hand the puristic ideal that developed out of everything that seemed outlived and purposeless to me in my German youth. And out of things I appreciated like the sartorial quality of Hanseatic men’s clothing, which had a lot in common with English values. Or, from my early time in California [as an exchange student], where dress codes were very relaxed. The other side of my design is the zeitgeist, and in this respect my attention to contemporary art meant a lot. Proportions, textiles, flights into ornament — all that was influenced by what became possible in the given moment. And our textile research played a cardinal role in seasonal innovation.
Right now, the zeitgeist seems more occupied with turning away from avant-garde tendencies. There may be fear involved, not only in respect to the political, but also to technical development, if you think of artificial intelligence, for example, or of the alienation that goes with virtual communication. Yet, I think that a more streamlined, modern fashion could do its share to make us feel up to the moment and give us strength. With my line +J for Uniqlo, I tried to advance in this direction. Our motto was “For everyone.” If many people are able to afford well-cut, subdued, quality designs that make them attractive, then there will be more openness for a global common goal.
WWD: The exhibition notes speak of your “modern mission.” How are we to understand that today?
J.S.: The fashion cosmos have vastly expanded in the last two decades. There are enormous new consumer groups worldwide who have been starved of fashion or who are just growing into appreciating it money-wise. So, we are in the middle of a nostalgic era where people retrace what has been done for Western fashion long ago. But I am confident that there will always be a desire for the new, and consumers who appreciate quality and avant-garde ideas.
WWD: To continue with the notes, “The crucial question is: How do we define quality in design?” How do we?
J.S.: I know and I don’t know what quality is, because, aside from the vocabulary that I have developed, there is always the zeitgeist, which reigns absolute. You cannot design perfect clothes for people who don’t know this kind of quality. So we all have to learn. It would be challenging to propose fashion today that answers to the lifestyle conditions: to the dissociation of social networks from spatial relations; to a wish to cover up and feel safe; to a certain desperation in finding the necessary reliable basics which are, at the same time, able to make us look serene and beautiful.
WWD: How do you see your legacy?
J.S.: I wish I knew. Everything is so much in a state of flux. But I hope that I contributed to the translation of certain tendencies in modern art and architecture to the realm of fashion. For, if you think about it, the work of people like Frank Lloyd Wright or [Walter] Gropius arrived rather late in fashion. The concept of femininity was not ready for it. Yet their vision has not aged.
WWD: Would you have done anything differently?
J.S.: I am not so fond of Eighties’ proportions, even though, looking back, I didn’t overdo it.
In another connection, I recently invited a garden architect over, and he told me “You have an Eighties garden.” I said, “What? Eighties?” It’s not my favorite era — in fashion. But he explained that in garden design, the Eighties means it’s an English garden and that you have to do a lot. So I understood.
WWD: What’s your view of the fashion industry today?
J.S.: Fashion houses face great challenges in the face of globalization, instant information and the blog world of instant communication. Campaigns have become more important than quality. And with all the high-street brands and the international runway scene, fashion has lost its central stage from where contemporariness and future trends can be defined.
WWD: What do you like or don’t like?
J.S.: I try to understand things, even if I am skeptical. That is something I am learning now. You have to put yourself in the perspective of other people. But I still react strongly to all kinds of stuffiness. I am still adverse to senseless decoration. You asked me what I learned about myself. I realize that I am really on a mission. I always try to talk people out of or into things, dress-wise and otherwise.
WWD: The fashion market has sped up into turbo overdrive. Would the Jil Sander story be possible if you were starting today?
J.S.: Who knows what a strong-headed person can do? We all wait for them, don’t we? But if I look at myself, I had a very fortunate run. In Germany, there was very little in terms of aspiring fashion designers. So there was no competitive pressure at first. On the contrary, I almost felt that I had to do what I undertook since there was next to nothing [on offer] for women who didn’t want to play the Madame. I was very unworried. I took one step after the other, every step was energized by a need to learn. The fashion I had to photograph as a fashion magazine editor didn’t look promising, so I contacted the producers to propose some changes. Out of that came the first collections. And when the textiles didn’t match my expectations, I contacted the Italian manufacturers. And they were happy to be challenged. When I saw that the presentation of my work in the stores wasn’t strong enough, I decided to open my own flagship store. It went on like that, very homogeneously. Today’s pressure is much greater. Everything I discovered and established on the way is a self-understood requirement today.
I also had a lot of support in my life. I had so many people supporting me and giving me the energy so I could do what I did. And when I look back now I ask myself how could you do all these things and on a certain quality level?
WWD: The show in Frankfurt, which was curated and developed with the museum’s director Matthias Wagner K., is the first major retrospective of your work. All of it — from fashion to beauty, advertising, store design, even your garden. You’ve said you wanted to “take a different approach” to most designer retrospectives. Why?
J.S.: I am not so fond of exhibiting vintage clothes. It seems a little bit pretentious to present them as art pieces. But we will have some to show the intricacies of 3-D cutting and how my reduced aesthetics work. Otherwise I prefer to show the design on living people, as in the runway videos. The decision was simple because the archive was not complete.
We will show the fragrance as well as beauty and care products. I am fond of the flacon and packaging design, which was very advanced in its time and still seems up to date. Then there will be the campaign and look book photography, which tells a lot about my stand on modern life. I worked with photographers like Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh, Nick Knight, Craig McDean and David Sims, and these collaborations lead to very different angles on the Jil Sander aesthetic. Nevertheless, there is a common thread in everything.
We also have an architecture section, which concentrates on the flagship store design. When I opened a 1,000-square-meter, or 10,700-square-foot, store on Avenue Montaigne [in 1993] with the help of the American architect Michael Gabellini and his office, the concept of a flagship store was still very unusual. Especially our generous treatment of space and light caught on.
The garden and landscape design section offers an outlook on my private world as well. It concerns my work with nature in the north of Hamburg. We did a drone video for an impression and added an early Renaissance painting of an unknown German painting, “The Little Garden of Paradise.” It hangs on the opposite wall, and aside from its beauty, it documents the beginning of 3-D painting, which gives an extra angle to my 3-D work.
Finally, there is an art section, which deals with influences of contemporary art on my work, especially Arte Povera. We also show a project I jointly developed with Mario Merz for the “Biennale di Firenze: Looking at Fashion” in 1996, which was curated by Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant.
WWD: Social media — do you or don’t you?
J.S.: I know next to nothing of social media. But I have the impression that no one does. It’s simply too vast to master it. Young people are getting bored by it, too.
J.S.: I know that they exist and that fashion houses have to appreciate them. I also realize that a designer today would have to play into their hands. I would probably try to educate them according to my ideas.
J.S.: I hate to have my photograph taken. And I don’t take pictures of myself. In the drone video of my gardens, I appear as a small figure, a bit like a Caspar David Friedrich. That’s just right for me.
WWD: A closet question — what do you wear these days?
J.S.: My beloved white shirt, and I still wear Jil Sander and +J. But I am looking for other possibilities. For me, classic quality is great, but one also wants fashion and a little kick inside. It’s difficult to find, but it was never easy.
I did an issue for Zeit Magazine [February 2017] looking at all the collections to choose what I would like, and it was quite difficult. [Fashion] for shootings is different from having to wear it. Though I think we have to accept that today the younger designers want to break out, want to find or to repeat…in all kinds of ways. On the street level it’s a flea market today.
WWD: I came across some surprising Jil Sander ephemera lately. You’re into Big Macs?
J.S.: People are so amused by that. For 30 years we had a house in Gstadt. My friend always went for two or three months or for Christmas, so we went with the car. And we stopped at McDonald’s because frankly McDonald’s is much cleaner than those restaurants on the autobahn. I always eat the classic McDonald, but I don’t eat it all the time. I don’t want to be a promoter — though we are showing our McDonald’s bag in Frankfurt, so that fits. [laughing] Actually, we wanted to show something where we can say it’s fun. Accessories don’t always have to be too serious. They can be amusing.
WWD: You love to drive?
J.S.: My father dealt in cars and driving on the autobahn always felt like being on holiday. I had my first Volkswagen when I was 18. And I was always interested in car design and how it changed. I can drive for 10 hours with no problem.
WWD: In what?
J.S.: Believe it or not, for the last 30 years, in a Bentley. I said other women buy diamonds, I buy a car. At that time, a Bentley was even more British. Now it’s closer to an Audi. But mine is really comfortable. And cool. I could be a racer.
WWD: But you’ve also gotten into train travel.
J.S.: When we started with Frankfurt, I started taking the train. It was a long time that I’d been in a train, and I bought a great roller [bag] and it’s really fun.
WWD: There’s also Jil Sander olive oil?
J.S.: It’s a virgin oil, very green, and we have a nice bottle and label. We planted about 80 big olive trees in Ibiza that are more than 100 years old — they came from the mainland. And we have a modern press. When the olives come off the tree they must immediately go to the press, and the timing of the olives is crucial. They shouldn’t be too ripe. You get more oil if they are, but the quality isn’t as good, and since we are always fighting for quality…this year we had 200 liters. Last year it was 120. So I’m in the olive industry.
WWD: What else sparks your interest these days?
J.S.: I would be interested in doing an extremely effective beauty line.
WWD: This is going to perk up some ears.
J.S.: I’ve already had several discussions, but I’m very careful and very sensitive today to use my time in a good way….
I’m quite spoiled. When you do something it has to fit, and I’m in the position where I can choose and that’s quite a good point. But I’m also learning at the moment to live life — normal life.
In my life before, I was a worker. I was like in a boarding school, always surrounded and creating and fighting for beauty. I’m also a team person. I like to communicate, though maybe it didn’t seem so, because I was a little distant. But I like to create. And we did it our way. We had a vision.
My heart is lighter now, and I feel I am much more open than before because I’m looking like a little child into the world. Another world. Somehow I manage always to be busy, and when we finish with the museum, I’ll see what’s next.
Editor’s note: The Originals is a new, occasional feature in WWD dedicated to mavericks in fashion, beauty, retail and culture.