A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander
Jil Sander is known as the ‘Queen of Less’: a designer who achieved a balance between sobriety and elegance in women’s fashion. She’s also known as the designer who returned to her brand twice after it was no longer hers. On view at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst (through 6 May 2018) is Sander’s first ever exhibition ‘Präsens’ (Present Tense). To discuss the show, I met Sander – who gives interviews only very rarely – in the Hamburg villa in upscale Harvestehude district where her consulting firm is based.
Jan Kedves A designer who programmatically set her logo in Futura opens a retrospective that doesn’t want to be retrospective at all. ‘Present Tense’ means ‘now’.
Jil Sander I was never interested in looking back, but in asking what can be made new. I was also always extremely busy running my company. Believe it or not, I fitted every piece myself, even after we went public. A museum exhibition was never what I had in mind: old clothes on mannequins with people walking past them. Too lifeless for me. Frankfurt seemed right because we started out as a German label. The city is modern in its urban planning and architecture, with close ties to the Bauhaus. The Richard Meier building at the Museum Angewandte Kunst is also part of what convinced me.
JK As with your design, in the exhibition you seem to resist the temptation to fill every empty space.
JS But purely minimal is also too little for me. It becomes too cool, too lacking in emotion. An empty room only works, for example, when it has excellent proportions. Then you can put in a chair and it’s perfect. It’s the same with fashion. You’re always working with the same forms: the jacket, the coat, the shirt. It’s always about a modern cut and an innovative use of materials. Even if the things end up looking easy and simple, we ultimately know how difficult it is to make things appear effortless.
JK It’s remarkable that your designs, and the compilations of runway shows presented in Milan, never look ‘old’, though some are over three decades old. Normally, fashion marks the passage of time. Can you make any sense of the paradox ‘timelessly modern’?
JS I hoped that the exhibition would have this effect. I’m very aware of the paradox you mention. I’ve always said I would never design the same white blouse twice, because the zeitgeist is reflected in details and proportions. The development of fabrics brings constant innovation, too. You can develop new fashions season after season that seem ‘timelessly modern’ and nonetheless look old after a while. Our eyes, however subconsciously, are good at distinguishing what’s familiar from what’s new.
JK Can you still remember the very first thing that inspired you to start designing clothing 50 years ago? You’d studied textile engineering and worked as a fashion editor. What is it that you simply had to make yourself because nobody else was making it?
JS Everything needed to be done differently. The cuts in women’s fashion at the time were problematic because they typecast women as feminine in an old-fashioned way. It was simpler to design according to my own ideas than to painstakingly seek out existing clothing that fit my needs. I didn’t like the fabrics, either. As a young woman, men’s fabrics inspired me to spend time developing more androgynous fabrics. But as far as my first inspiration, it was while I was working as a fashion editor. Because I wanted to have more photogenic designs for my fashion spreads, I naïvely suggested alterations to the manufacturers. This led to my first design jobs.
JK Which fashion magazines did you edit?
JS First Constanze, and then Petra. Both magazines were published by Gruner & Jahr in Hamburg. Petra still exists. Back then, in the mid-’60s, it was a modern magazine. When I produced a fashion spread, I would go to the clothing manufacturers and cheekily ask them to change one detail or another for me to better photograph the clothes. This meant I always maintained good contact with manufacturers. Then I started with freelance design, and finally I thought: I can do this myself.
JK The exhibition also includes a biographical detail about you that is not very well known: you went to California for a year after university, before you were a fashion editor. What led you to California at that time?
JS I was enrolled at UCLA, where you could study whatever you wanted. I stayed with a host family as a foreign exchange student. My father was skeptical. He had given me a VW and told me to stay in Germany. But after a few months I told him he could keep the car, I wanted to go to California after all. This was a very important decision; the time I spent in California made me more decisive and assertive. When I flew there, it was the first time I’d ever taken an airplane. Like a baby. In West Germany at that time, the California attitude and lifestyle was familiar only from posters. I loved this sense of freedom, this dream of being outside all the rules – nobody telling you things like ‘you have to be punctual’. California was a world without hierarchies, too, at least as far as clothing was concerned, because dress codes are extremely relaxed in that climate. I was especially enthralled by the physicality of that world, by its different kind of sportiness, this casualness and also the light.
JK Would you say that California is reflected in your design?
JS Perhaps you could say that I wanted to translate something from this beautiful, dynamic life into European clothing even though the climate in Germany was less hospitable. That’s why I didn’t decorate the clothing, but rather let a bodily presence come to the fore through modern cuts. I was trying to demystify the physical.
JK In the famous Peter Lindbergh portrait from 1991, which appears on posters for ‘Present Tense’, you clutch the collar of your coat protectively in front of your neck. In the room with the black felt mannequins, there’s a coat with gold plating on the inside of the collar. It’s an inconspicuous article of clothing that then becomes eye-catching when the wind blows and the collar is folded over. And the +J collection that you designed for Uniqlo from 2009 to 2011 was known above all for its ultralight down jackets. These are designed for protection from the cold.
JS Those are lovely observations. Very early in my youth, I became fascinated with the way that, in menswear, the unseen interior is almost more important than the external appearance: the workmanship, the designer’s label or the lining. I like it very much when clothing harbours those sorts of secrets.
As far as protection is concerned, I’ve always found excessive ornamentation and decoration bothersome because they display the wearer’s ostentation or insecurity. A bit more restraint and cohesion seemed more appropriate to me. This was in keeping with my native Hanseatic northern Germany, and it’s also what I myself needed as a young businesswoman. When I was negotiating with American department store groups, I wanted to interact with them on an equal footing and not as some little lady decked out in pretty frippery. Reserved colours and purist cuts earned me respect.
JK The exhibition contains sneakers from your 1996 collaboration with Puma. At the time, Jil Sander was the first luxury fashion label to partner with a sneaker manufacturer.
JS At the time I was very interested in the new sneaker culture, but I wasn’t happy with the materials. I had already begun producing my own sneakers in Italy that looked sophisticated and elegant; they could be worn together with an elegant coat. At the time we couldn’t vulcanize the soles in Italy due to technical requirements. So then we asked ourselves: do we go to Nike, Adidas or Puma? We went to Puma, the smallest of the three, and with them developed the ‘King’ (1996). These were boxing shoes that we shaped out of very soft glove leather into a form that represented luxury. You can’t imagine the response. In Tokyo people waited in front of the stores at three in the morning.
JK These days, luxury sneakers are a huge market. Raf Simons collaborates with Adidas, and even Hermès and Louis Vuitton sell sneakers…
JS Yes, it was the right moment in time.
JK You sound very modest.
JS It happens repeatedly in fashion that something is invented and you say it was the right place at the right time. The Puma shoe was an answer to the question of how casual that moment actually was. And with the down jackets for my +J line at Uniqlo, the key question was: how can the trend for light down (known as package down), already present at North Face and Patagonia, be picked up in such a way that the jacket still looks refined and not – if I may say so – as camping gear?
JK You also got into designer cosmetics very early on, bringing out your first scent, ‘Woman Pure’, in 1979.
JS It could be said that we did cosmetics in a different way. For example, the little beauty bottle for nail polish: we invented it because the big bottles always dried out so quickly and looked so clunky. Or the small lipsticks. At that time, there was still no stretch in tight jeans, so you had to lie on your back to zip them up. I always said I wanted to keep my lipstick in my jeans.
JK All of these products are actually about mobility too, aren’t they?
JS That’s true. When you translate the kinds of personal needs that you feel and that fit the moment into products, it can be very successful.
JK Is the impression in the exhibition that you did not book models of colour in your shows in the ’90s deceptive? It was the only point in the exhibition where I thought: that would no longer be up-to-date today.
JS Perhaps you haven’t seen enough, then? For example, I booked Naomi Campbell from very early on, and repeatedly for several years during the supermodel era. I have absolutely nothing against black or Asian models. I remember that this was brought up when I went back to Jil Sander for the last time in 2012, and we followed through with it in our casting too. What is ultimately important to me personally, though, is the model’s personality and poise, and perhaps a spirit that you see when you look at a model. I’ve actually always made casting decisions on the basis of that feeling.
JK Would you have been able to do an exhibition like the one in Frankfurt under your own name earlier? Or was there a blocking period that you had to wait out after you sold your company to Prada in 1999?
JS I had to wait. The whole thing was actually originally planned as a joint venture. It definitely was not about me wanting to sell my company. Prada wanted to become a large conglomerate like LVMH or Kering, and at the time we had a lot of growth potential in the area of accessories. Today luxury labels generate up to 90% of their revenue from accessories such as glasses, shoes and bags. At the time, 80% of our revenue came from clothing. Clothing had always been my focus. Joint ventures were fashionable at the time, and Prada made an offer. In the end it didn’t work, and after four months I stepped down. That was very difficult for me, but necessary.
JK In an interview with British Vogue in 2011, your successor at Jil Sander, Raf Simons, described his first – and presumably only – encounter with you at Art Basel. You ran into each other randomly at a hot dog stand. He said that you were very friendly to him and that you seemed happy. Does his description line up with what you remember?
JS Yes, I remember that pleasant encounter.
JK Do you have anything more to say about it?
JS No, because I don’t know Raf Simons. I’ve only met him once. Of course, when you’ve spent your whole life building up a company, as I have, you’re interested in whether the company continues to thrive, whether the company carries on. In the time when Raf Simons worked for Jil Sander, he helped keep the label from going under. I also hope that the new designers…
JK …Lucie and Luke Meier…
JS …that they’re successful and that things turn out well for them. We have a good relationship with the company in Japan that Jil Sander belongs to today. The Jil Sander management came to Frankfurt for the opening and had a look at my exhibition. The new designers did, too.
JK Helmut Lang made a cleaner break from his label than you did. He says very matter-of-factly that when you’ve sold something, it’s not yours anymore. He also sold his label to Prada.
JS A lot of people who’ve sold their companies give this advice, of course: that you should never go back; that you always have to keep moving forward. When one door closes, another one opens. But perhaps I was really like a divorced woman who still has children with her ex-husband and wants to take care of them. Both times that I went back to Jil Sander as a designer, I had the same feeling. And I can tell you, sitting here today, that I’ve stomached everything well, that everything is OK.
JK Little is shared publicly about your private life. The exhibition catalogue quotes you as saying, ‘Freely unfolding sensuality is more important to me than the classification of people into two genders.’ This is a very beautiful, poetic statement that a lot of people would probably shorten to ‘I’m queer’ or ‘I don’t see the world through a heteronormative lens’.
JS Perhaps stating those sorts of positions creates new boundaries that I consider unnecessary. Freedom consists precisely in liberation from unambiguousness. As a designer, I have always sought clothing that brings us sympathy as human beings and emphasizes our personalities rather than our sexual preferences, however varied they may be.
JK The exhibition shows that in 1996, you conceived a large outdoor sculpture for the Florence Biennale together with Mario Merz. What does your engagement with art mean to you?
JS What has always interested me about art is its distinctive perception of the world and its individual signature. The emotional presence of the hand in a work by Agnes Martin or Cy Twombly, the surprisingly touching effect that Robert Ryman generates through his concentrated exploration of non-colouredness, or the moods that James Turrell produces with the medium of light. I admire the way Eva Hesse’s works combine power with fragility, and the lightness that Richard Serra’s sculptures evince despite their heavy materials.
JK Has looking at and collecting art influenced your approach to your own exhibition?
JS Not at all. But my engagement with art has been reaffirmed to me frequently. And it has repeatedly led me to see more sharply. I’m interested in quality, and that’s true for all areas and can be very simple sometimes. After all, I’m a gardener too. Nature has always inspired me.
JK This is apparent in the video installation Garden, perhaps the most surprising inclusion in ‘Present Tense’: a 15-minute video from summer 2017 about the giant English garden in your home in Schleswig-Holstein. It makes the viewer want to go there immediately.
JS The garden was created over a long period, over 30 years. I designed it together with Dicky Mommsen. There used to be woods and a paddock. We planted everything that appears in the video. I’d say that it too is a little life’s work.
JK Almost everything the video shows is nature, and yet it’s moving and very intimate.
JS At first I wasn’t sure whether to show the garden. But I thought it was a good idea to film it from above with a drone. I made this video with the photographer Norbert Schoerner with the ambition of finding a form different from a BBC nature documentary. The video was also, perhaps, supposed to be a bit spiritual or meditative. For example, the water fountain shoots up into the sunlight, where a rainbow then appears. It was a little greeting to Dicky Mommsen, who can’t see the exhibition for herself.
JK I’m surprised to hear you mention Dicky Mommsen by name…
JS For my whole life, I have made sure that my privacy was protected. Nonetheless, there were headlines in the newspaper Bild in 2013 when Ms Mommsen became ill and I decided to give up my work at Jil Sander. I don’t know where that came from. I didn’t want it. But in this case…you already know that she died. With the video, I’m saying: she would like this. It’s highly personal, but that doesn’t bother me. But the video of our garden is also a reference to nature. Nature has always played an important role in my design, because I wanted to give a leading role to the different natures of the people wearing my designs.
JK Is it you in a hoodie, riding boots and a baseball cap who we see from behind, standing by the pond and gazing into the distance?
JS Yes, that’s me, in a sort of Caspar David Friedrich perspective.
JK So it’s a combination of Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun (1818) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)?
JS As you know, I really don’t like to be photographed. I’d rather just do my work. Beforehand we had nothing but thunderstorms and rain, and only three days to film. Then, like a miracle, the weather turned and the video became so intimate. We got up at three in the morning and let the sun come up. I find it very beautiful, the way it is.
translated by Jane Yager
Jil Sander’s first ever exhibition ‘Präsens’ (Present Tense) is on view at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst until 6 May 2018.
Main image: ‘Jil Sander S/S 2005 campaign. Photograph: © David Sims