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.
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’?
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?
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?
, 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?
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?
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.
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.