Hamburg, 1968. A 24-year-old textile designer by the name of Heidemarie Jiline Sander opens a little boutique in an affluent area of the city which, until now, has not exactly been known for its fashion forwardness. Her mission is to give the growing number of working women – independent and self-reliant – a wardrobe to suit their increasingly fast-paced lives; femininity and functionality are her buzzwords.
Smart and dynamic
Sander herself had long traded petticoats for trousers; a fan of modernist architecture, she translated its sleek lines into a smart and dynamic style. This new aesthetic cut like a blade through the bourgeois streets of Hamburg and soon conquered top management levels around the world, as women rushed to executive positions. ‘What Donna Karan did in New York, Jil Sander did in Europe for the confident business woman who was not seeking to ape men’s dress to show equality,’ says Markus Ebner, founder and editor-in-chief of Berlin-based Achtung magazine, which keeps a close eye on cutting-edge fashion trends. To this day, says Ebner, Jil Sander is one of the most internationally successful and respected fashion brands from Germany.
Jil Sander’s recipe was simple: a mixture of impeccably shaped trouser suits, slim-fitted white blouses and unembellished yet elegant coats made from high-quality fabrics in a subdued palette of colours. It was plain and rather reductionist in style, in contrast to the gaudy aesthetics dominating the catwalks of Milan and Paris at that time. Moreover, the pieces were designed in such a way that they could be combined in a number of ways to produce different outfits. Sander herself would later put it this way: ‘The purism, which I talk about in my work, is to be understood as an antithesis to a disconcerting present; it’s an attempt to balance forces and make them somewhat weightless.’
A celebrated return
The present times are disconcerting indeed, and so it is wonderful news for fashion lovers that the ‘Queen of Lean’ is back where she belongs – at the helm of her eponymous fashion label, which she left in 2004 after falling out with the brand’s then owner. Sander’s return, celebrated unanimously by the international press, is as logical as it is promising. The designer has been credited with revolutionising the advertising industry and navigating her company through economically stormy weather in its earlier years. The cool blonde first made headlines when she used her own face to market her perfume in 1978. She started collaborating with other brands long before it became fashion business-as-usual and was soon able to go public with her company, listing it on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
After Sander’s departure in 2004, the brand continued under the stewardship of Belgian wunderkind Raf Simons. ‘It was he who pushed Jil Sander into being a more fashion-forward brand,’ Ebner explains. Though he had never designed women’s clothing before, he immediately wooed critics with his ‘calm conceptualism’. Simons quickly revealed himself as strong believer in back-to-basics. He introduced a series of sinuously floor-sweeping dresses and, when he started injecting colour to soften the lines and reflect women’s changing attitudes, this low-key Belgian helped an army of strong women make a fashion statement once again. It was still minimalism – but with a bold, 21st-century twist.
A modernist vision
Sander herself was keeping busy. Until last year, she worked as a consultant to the Japanese high-street giant Uniqlo, bringing her modernist vision to fast fashion. Her brand, meanwhile, was bought by a Japanese multi-brand fashion conglomerate – and it was thrilled to invite her back after Raf Simons took over from John Galliano at Dior. ‘The Jil Sander brand is ingrained in my very being,’ the 68-year-old said in a statement. ‘Naturally, my vision of sophisticated, truly modern design stayed with me, as vivid as on the first day.’ She added on a more nostalgic note: ‘Paradigms change and evolve from season to season, but the heart of a brand doesn’t alter. It feels like coming home after a brief journey.’ Those women who rely on the label as a fashion uniform will be welcoming her back avidly.