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Timelessness as a vision, craftsmanship as a basis: Jil Sander, who was honoured with the German Design Award’s Personality award for her life’s work in 2018, is an exceptional figure in German fashion. Her importance for local fashion culture remains undisputed to this day. Her maxim of producing less and better and viewing garments as an investment for life has always focussed on sustainability and appreciation.

By Silke Bücker

Jil Sander © Peter Lindbergh (courtesy Peter Lindbergh Foundation, Paris)

On 27 November, the “Queen of less”, who was born Heidemarie Jiline Sander in Hedwigenkoog in 1943, celebrated her 80th birthday. In her typically reserved and modest manner, she merely told the German Press Agency that she would be travelling to mark the occasion so as not to have to think about it too much. In 2017, Jil Sander organised a comprehensive exhibition of her work in cooperation with the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt: “Jil Sander. Presence”, which presents her impressive oeuvre in detail; in 2018, she was honoured with the Personality Award of the German Design Award for her life’s work. Like the Japanese or Belgian avant-garde, she always saw fashion as (functional) art. And although the exhibition impressively presented several decades of her work, it was important to her to anchor the overall concept recognisably in the present day.

Inspired by Bauhaus

Jil Sander’s three-dimensional design language and references to the Bauhaus era are fundamental to her work. But what makes her concept so perpetually relevant in detail? It is the clear silhouette that sometimes defies and sometimes contradicts the contours of the body, the geometry of the lines, the architecture of the volume, the subtlety and sophistication of the details and colours, the exquisiteness of the qualities, such as cashmere, soft leather or fine synthetic and natural fibres. Jil Sander’s avant-garde is well thought out, clever and reflective, free from the narcissistic urge of a creator. She draws her inspiration from Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, who outlined the idea as follows: “Design is a message to the senses. Craftsmanship has the task of conveying this message from the designer. Through the honesty of the material and through flawless workmanship that is true to the design down to the last detail. The quality of the craftsmanship is therefore indispensable for the quality of the form. The ability to master both is the prerequisite for the ideal combination of function and aesthetic appeal, for timelessly valid design.”

Clothing Must be Designed with People in Mind, Not on Paper

In this respect, Jil Sander is above all a craftswoman who conceives her creations from the material as a basis. She follows the texture and drape of the fabric with her cuts and only then considers how she can bring it into the sculptural forms she has cultivated. She prefers to drape in the studio rather than draw her designs. Clothing has to be conceived on people, not on paper, not on a mannequin. Just as the Bauhaus with its concise, clear design language has a timeless effect, so do Jil Sander’s perfectly balanced designs – an interplay of elegance, minimalism, beauty, functionality, comfort, quality and form. In doing so, she resists any suggestion of creative repetition. The aim is always to move forwards, to look to an even more promising future: “I focus on the highest quality of materials and workmanship, I concentrate on perfecting the details. Apart from that, in my opinion, the chance to make good fashion lies in not adapting to a frenetic rhythm, in not changing your own signature style,” she confesses in Maria Wiesner’s “Approach”. Continuity and maintaining her own vision are her greatest recipe for success, without ever becoming banal or redundant – even and always against the current. Jil Sander foresaw the frenetic rhythm for a long time. In the 1980s, one trend followed the next: loud, colourful, dazzling, eccentric. This was followed in the 1990s by the boom in “fast fashion” with the copy-cat strategy of copying designer fashion straight from the catwalk and offering it at unrivalled low prices. At the same time, a new minimalism was popularised in high fashion, which Jil Sander saw as her vision from the very beginning.

Jil Sander – Presence 2017 at the Museum Angewandte Kunst © Paul Warchol

The Search for Textile Liberation

Her aim was to instil self-confidence, strength and also protection in women at a time when they were allowed to be anything but self-determined. This drive unites Jil Sander with another fashion icon, Vivienne Westwood, about whom she said in her obituary: “In fashion design, she was the counter-project to my statement, but in terms of motivation, I felt a kinship with her.” In her search for authenticity and freedom, she not only met Westwood, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel also wanted to free women from their corsets in a double sense. For all her discipline and ambition, Jil Sander is ultimately a rebel who constantly questions values and maxims. So she categorically rejected the object-like, over-feminised and yet staid image of women of her time. Her indignation about this led to the motivation to take matters into her own hands: “I felt that clothing for women had a rather ephemeral character. Something so whimsical and capricious that often culminated in a fashion designer’s nonsense, who apparently only wanted women to have the intellectual and aesthetic backbone of a Barbie doll.”

Against the Flow, but Never Anti

Her first idea was to offer good, solid design for little money. Around the same time, at the age of 24, she took the plunge into self-employment and opened a boutique in Hamburg’s Milchstraße in 1967, whose blackwashed façade was revolutionary for the time. Initially, she sold fashion by other designers, such as Sonia Rykiel and Thierry Mugler. She quickly moved on to adding her own designs to the “Jil Sander Moden” range. She realised that her initial concept wasn’t working, so she turned it around: “I realised how difficult it is to handle huge quantities for little money, and so I said to myself, I’ll try again, with small quantities, but with fantastic quality and reduced design.”

Jil Sander – Presence 2017 at the Museum Angewandte Kunst © Paul Warchol

She launched her first own collection in 1973, a selection of perfectly cut essentials in luxurious, natural qualities. An antithesis to the prevailing hippiesque eccentricity of the time, which immediately struck a chord with emancipated, working women in search of freedom (like Sander herself). The collection sold out in no time at all. Her aesthetic was aimed at artistically orientated, enlightened, reflective and self-determined female customers who often had to assert themselves in their professions against a male domain. Designers, journalists, artists or architects, she wanted to give women a sense of strength and self-confidence through her avant-garde fashion. She focussed on reduction to the essentials: no distraction from the essence, no loss of focus. She usually shows herself dressed in a trouser suit (one of her “signature pieces”), flat shoes and a Rolex as her only jewellery in the sense of function, not decoration.

Sander’s Maxim as an Expression of Sustainability

No distraction from the essence, this approach runs like a red thread through her career – and is now regarded as the new old maxim of fashion. Producing less and better and viewing garments as an investment for life is the current demand for “quiet luxury”, more sustainability and appreciation of textiles. Even when the first excesses of the fast fashion era became apparent and clothing and the associated manufacturing processes were robbed of their value, Sander stood up to them out of conviction. This also shows how ahead of her time she was and still is. Her eye for objective, timeless design was already honed during her training as a textile engineer. She also learnt from her mother that it pays to invest in a few high-quality garments with a long half-life. She ultimately created these herself and anyone who comes across a well-maintained Jil Sander piece in a second-hand boutique today will be surprised at how outstanding the quality and how contemporary the aesthetic is. Her unyielding perfectionism in getting the maximum out of the minimum earned her the title “Queen of less” early on.

Jil Sander © Peter Lindbergh

One of her most popular designs is her much-loved trouser suit, which she reinterpreted in an iconic way. The key attributes – a perfect silhouette, subtly emphasised shoulders and collar and casually cut trousers – give women freedom of movement and self-confidence. In this way, she countered the exaggerated power dressing of the 1980s and early 1990s, which only gave the appearance of strength. On closer inspection, the silhouette with overly broad, padded shoulders and an ultra-slim waist almost resembled a caricature. In contrast to Sander’s relaxed yet meticulously tailored designs, which are inspired by classic tailoring and appear simply natural. She was also the one who launched the first linerless jacket on the market, which was cut so precisely that no lining was needed to create the perfect shape. At the end of the 1990s, Jil Sander continued to develop her signature without neglecting her very own DNA. Her designs now featured asymmetries, curves where one would not expect them or deliberately ill-fitting sections, inspired by Japanese deconstructivism à la Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons. Sander never became playful or eccentric.

A Meaning that Remains

Time and again, she looked for textile solutions to make garments comfortable and functional. After all, fashion is only relevant if it works in life, supports and lifts its wearer, but never hinders her. She last achieved this for her own brand in 2013, after returning to the company for the third time in 2012 as Raf Simons’ successor, only to leave shortly afterwards, and this time for good, for personal reasons. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes put it succinctly: “Jil Sander instinctively knew what modern women want because she is one herself.” Jil Sander’s significance as a feminist designer has certainly lost its relevance in today’s world, in which fashion, like gender and role models, has long since taken on a life of its own. But only to the extent that emancipation or liberation by means of a “demonstrative look” is no longer necessary. However, her pared-down style and quality fetishism ensure that her creations will endure for decades and can still be found – in the wardrobes of her fans or in places that offer “preloved fashion”, whether online or in stores. Jil Sander remains a role model for the next generation of German fashion designers who interpret her principles in a contemporary way. With sophisticated collections based on zero-waste or circularity principles, with an uncompromising claim to lasting relevance based on what already exists in order to protect the environment and conserve resources.

When asked in an interview in 2021 whether she still wanted to beautify the world, Jil Sander replied: “When it comes to beauty, the demands are different, although nature offers moments that touch everyone, like the recent unexpected onset of winter – I was fascinated by the clear light here in the north and the extremely pure snow. Nature is ahead of us all, even as a designer. About myself, I would prefer to say that I like to organise things and reduce them to the essentials of the moment. And the essentials are a function of time and change. Beauty is also the feeling of appropriately reflecting the present in one’s own existence.”

The quotes are from: Jil Sander – An Approach by Maria Wiesner

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