Jil Sander is a minimalist German fashion designer, who’s trademark is a contemporary, somewhat odd, “New Look,” originally intended for women conquering executive positions in the 1980s. Jil Sander’s return to her corporate brand followed an eight year absence. In her heyday, Jil Sander enjoyed a cult-like following that she seems to have retained. There was the white set with a concave, spherical ceiling that resembled an architect’s idea of a modern, corporate conference room. Ms. was going to speak and the audience, seated around the square platform, was going to listen. You just knew before the end of the show she would have fashion editors swooning.
There were the words on the first line of the program note: “Reset to zero.” This implied that Ms. Sander was going to erase, more or less, the designs of Raf Simons, even the progressive ones. She now held the controls, and there was a good chance she would bleach his modernist palette.
The quietly spoken Hamburger gave working women a template that was pared back, understated and masculine in inspiration, but womanly in execution – the Phoebe Philo-at-Celine of her day, but without the accessories, which weren’t such a big deal back then. Sander paved the way for Helmut Lang and, it’s fair to say, Raf Simons, who took over when she left her own house for the second time in 2004.
Of course she wasn’t entirely absent. From 2009-11 she brought her rigorous cutting and colour palatte to Uniqlo. Fashion editors swooned. The public…well it was always hard to get a handle on how much of it sold at full price. Anecdotally, there often seemed to be plenty left in the sales.
So could this 69-year-old woman, returning to her label for the third time, possibly be a worthy successor to fashion’s current darling, Simons? Haven’t women’s requirements for every day changed beyond recognition since her high water mark in the mid 90s?
Before the show began, there was a palpable sense of expectations being managed, of anticipations being primed for disappointment. Then came the first look: a russet-brown, V-necked, sleeveless wool pinafore with a slightly tulip shaped skirt cut from below the bust, over a white sleeveless shirt; deceptively simple, confident and to the point. A good start, it was rapidly followed by a succession of loose cotton and wool mix dresses and jackets, some with wide, raglan sleeves. Waists were marked, rather than cinched, and cut high. And while embellishments were confined to the saucer sized plastic spots on white, V-necked ‘cocktail’ dresses, nothing felt austere. Partly this was thanks the slouchy cut and the side pockets that came with many of the clothes (showier flap pockets were just that: for show) and the way A-line tops were designed to flare over the tops of waistbands. Skirts were either skinny or fuller, with inverted kick pleats. Her colour mixes – white, navy, orange and that russet-brown – sound simple enough, but like the controlled voluminousness of her silhouettes were extremely sophisticated.
The only time Sander almost dropped the baton was with a series of long sleeveless waistcoats, worn over cropped trousers – an obvious nod to last season’s Prada. But she’s hardly the first designer to borrow from Miuccia. High cut, square toed bi-coloured boots and small cross-body bags helped this collection look not just contemporary, but in some ways, ahead of much of the competition. There was never any question that Sander knows how to cut clothes that remain current long after their season, and reveal their interesting details and quirks gradually and subtly. One of her long term PRs, wearing a pre-Simons cornflower blue Sander dress from eight years ago that still looked completely modern, made that point – as will many of the pieces in this show.
Have women’s needs for beautifully engineered, slyly luxurious coats and separates changed so much since the 90s? Maybe less than we thought.
Nonetheless, having thrown her lot in with the democratic high street, she has to demonstrate, as she acknowledged backstage after the show, “why you have to pay so much for some clothes. I’ve worked for eight months on this collection,” she added, “with two Sundays off. But having my recent experiences in Asia where there are 40 million people in some of the cities, made me realise that we all need to nurture what’s beautiful and artisanal…”.
Looking tense, she said her return had been “far more emotional than I expected, but I feel great to be here. I hope you enjoyed the first step,” she added, before being dragged away to oversee the second show. She’s back on the fashion roller-coaster: but so far, so in-control.
Maybe the most important thing to take away from her show on Saturday was how powerful the Jil Sander brand is. At the most basic level it has survived three different corporate owners in the past decade. But Ms. Sander’s minimalist concept has proven to be incredibly durable and also expansive.
The point is she demonstrated just how everlasting and rich minimalism is in fashion. And almost by default, Jil Sander has become its chief pilot again.