Born: Heidemarie Jiline Sander in Wesselburen, Germany, 27 November 1943. Education: Graduated from Krefeld School of Textiles,
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Jil Sander has often been described as the Queen of German fashion, but her style and ambitions have always been international. Her company headquarters were located in the north German city of Hamburg, but her clothes were manufactured in Milan, where she showed for almost a decade before changing her venue to Paris. A self-made success story, Sander designed for independent, intelligent women around the world. She also created fragrances for both men and women, and began producing a menswear line in 1993.
Sander has a strong, modern sensibility, and her style has been described as luxurious minimalism, on the edge of forward. There were no frills or fads in Sander's world; everything irrelevant is eliminated. Like Giorgio Armani, she is one of the fashion world's most austere purists, a creator of designs so clean they seem stripped down to the bone. Yet it is not entirely accurate to describe her clothes as classic, because this would imply they are static, and Sander has never repeated bestselling designs from the previous collections.
"I find 'timeless' classic terribly boring," Sander told German Vogue in January 1990. "A classic is an excuse, because one is too lazy to confront the spirit of the time." Her own style of classicism always had a modern edge, and the woman who wears Sander's clothes "knows perfectly well what is 'in' this season, and has consciously reduced [it] to suit herself." Sander loves fashion and change and believes other women feel the same way. "We don't buy a new coat because we are cold. We buy things that animate, that give us a good feeling."
Sander has been one of the most important women designers working in both the 20th and 21st centuries, believing there are definite differences between male and female design sensibilities. Male designers, Sander told Mirabella in June 1991, tend to "see things more decoratively—more from the outside. I want to know how I feel in my clothes." She tries on all the clothes in her women's collection herself, to ensure they look and feel exactly right. They consistently have the high quality of the best menswear; they are beautifully tailored, and made from menswear-derived fabrics, often her own luxury fiber blends such as wool-silk or linen-silk. Yet her palette tends toward pale neutrals, which read as both strong and feminine.
Sander's combination of masculine and feminine design elements results in clothes that feel comfortable and look powerful but are also sexy in a subtle way. Her version of understated chic is not cheap, however. "If you want quality, it costs," she bluntly told Mirabella 's journalist. (Her women's suits range from $1,500 to $6,500.) Think more and buy less, she advised. "People have already consumed too much." But as journalist Melissa Drier observed, Sander's clothes give women the same confidence that a hand-tailored suit gives a man.
The words "strong" and "powerful" occur frequently in Sander's conversation, revealing something of her own personality, as well as her design aesthetic and her ideal customer. "A powerful woman, a woman who knows who she is—I would say that is more interesting than a doll with the most beautiful nose in the world," she told Marie Claire in August 1991. And as if to complement the strong modern woman, Sander has called her men's fragrance Feeling Man.
Sander has had no sympathy for the old-fashioned concept of woman as sex kitten or status symbol. "It is possible to have a very sexy feeling without looking like a sex kitten," she commented to W in fall 1991. A woman wearing an austere, brown wool trouser-suit can look and feel sexy, she believes. The typical alta-moda woman might not be happy in Sander's clothes, but many women today do want clothes that express a liberated sensibility and a modern sensuality.
Sander's intuition, too, has guided her into unusual modes, which Women' Wear Daily typified as the "bold and controversial punch" that is her trademark. In 1997, she opened a Hamburg flagship on Neuer Wall, which she dubbed the city's emerging "Madison Avenue." Interior Design applauded her collaboration with American architect Michael Gabellini and characterized the two visionaries as "masters of minimalism." Her ambition turned to locations in Osaka, Zurich, Basel, St. Moritz, London, New York, Miami, and Costa Mesa, California.
In 1999 Sander abandoned the airy femininity of 1998 with its drapey rayons, metallic threads, and mesh and invigorated her line with vinyl tunics. Later in the year, she paired top and skirt in contrasting patterns. To soften the look, she reversed fabrics to present the faded underside. She detailed with ruching and pintucking and experimented with felted or rubber-coated wools. For a new men's line, she replaced the power suit with pared-down tweeds, cashmere, and boiled wools. For herself, she commissioned Renzo Mongiardino to refurbish her 19th-century villa in Hamburg.
Just as Sander was revolutionizing unyielding, cookie-cutter men's businesswear, her unforeseen exit from Hamburg-based Prada in January 2000 bemused the fashion hierarchy with more questions than answers. The dust-up with moneyman Patrizio Bertelli occurred five months after Prada invested in her fashion house. At the time, Sander saw Prada as a partner and looked to Bertelli for strength as she aimed at introducing a line of fashion accessories.
Chief executive Bertelli obviously discounted the element that sold Jil Sanders clothes. His refusal to budget her choice of fine fabrics and trims for her $3,000 suits, $6,000 coats, and $1,000 sweaters irrevocably destroyed their synergy. Critics tended to take her side on the issue of marketing versus quality. In March, the Washington Post mourned, "Sander's cool dedication to business, smart women and fine tailoring will be sorely missed."
Of Sander's instinct for fashion, Nancy Pearlstein of Louis in Boston stated, "I think she's probably one of the most talented people in the business. She has an exquisite sense of fine fabric and that knowledge is irreplaceable." Appropriately, the Council of Fashion Designers of America nominated Sander for the 2000 International award. Fashion analyst Boyd Davis crowed her the Queen of German Fashion.
Ironically, Sander's exit her company occurred when the firm was showing strong sales and profits. Milan Vukmirovic, formerly with Gucci, eased into Sander's place but without replicating her knack for style and luxe. Exuding confidence in Sander's replacement, Bertelli stated to Women's Wear Daily, "A brand that's as strong as Jil Sander doesn't need to rely on the name of a designer." A legal settlement prohibited Sander from designing a competing line until January 2003. Speculation envisioned her making up with Bertelli and paired her with Hérmes as a replacement for Martin Margiela, but both rumors proved untrue. As models hit the runway wearing spring 2002 designs, the fashion world missed Sander's élan.
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass