Jil Sander Northern German icon of purism and “Queen of Less”

Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014
© Jil Sander | Photo (montage): © Jil Sander

Sleek and sculptural: no other female fashion designer represents German design tradition and casual elegance better than Jil Sander.

When Jil Sander garnered international acclaim for her minimalist women’s collections in the early 1990s, she was already an established forty-year-old designer with a very clear idea of women’s fashion. This clarity also marked her design: simple, unadorned garments made of high-quality cloth, and exquisitely tailored and crafted.

Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 | © Jil Sander has always created fashion for grown-up women, even though a hint of delicacy has also been resonant through all her collections. The designer herself was never one of those fashion prodigies – mostly male – who even as young as 22 make a splash on the Paris runways. Instead, ever since the early seventies, Jil Sander has been steadily bringing a pure, minimalist style back to fashion. In other words, she retrieved precisely what apparently got lost in the frenzy of the 1980s with the excesses of Thierry Mugler and Christian Lacroix.

The most German of all female fashion designers

From an international perspective, Jil Sander creates very German fashion – and since 1997, also for men. The designer, who studied textile engineering, combines uncompromising, razor-sharp styling with a Bauhaus-inspired form which, together with a markedly androgynous city look, has become her signature feature. Antonella Giannone, professor of fashion theory at the Weissensee Academy of Art Berlin sums it up as follows: “Jil Sander doesn’t make women’s fashion explicitly, but rather modern fashion modeled on male apparel, such as the suit. Her philosophy has more in common with the austerity of Japanese and Belgian design than with the ornamental character of south European fashion. Sander creates classic, Central European fashion that urban career women can wear very well.”

The Hamburg style: expensive and good

Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 Slide show: Jil Sander Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 | ©
From a German viewpoint, you could say specifically that Jil Sander makes North German fashion. Raised in Hamburg, she best embodies the understatement traditionally cultivated in this Hanseatic city. Dressing well and expensively has always been important in this old port town and commercial hub in particular – although this pricey flair needn’t be obvious at a first glance.

The sleek garments should last for a couple of seasons and not be impossible to wear after one season because of extravagant style. Jil Sander perfected this Protestant attitude as style as no other female fashion designer has. This philosophy lay at the heart of her success. The designer first did well in Germany. Long before her big international breakthrough, even in smaller German towns it was common knowledge that a black Jil Sander turtleneck or a tailored white shirt-blouse can be a timeless piece of fashion culture.

The face of her own brand

Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 | © A factor surely contributing to this widespread recognition is the fact that Jil Sander herself, who is actually very publicity-shy, promoted her own perfume and make-up lines – she was always the stern, beautiful face of her own brand. With these stylized campaigns, she was one of the first designers to imprint a fashion brand with her personal image.

When her company was first sold to the Prada group in 1999 and later indirectly acquired by a major Japanese fashion corporation, Jil Sander left the company twice but returned as chief designer – most recently from 2012 to 2013.

During her absence, the Belgian Raf Simons, who is today the artistic director at Dior-gave the Jil Sander label the only thing that it may have been missing: street style.

Modern? Yes. Subculture? No

Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 Jil Sander Collection Spring/Summer 2014 | © Jil Sander has always stood for luxury, understatement and quality –and absolute modernity. Subculture it was not. Simons, who borrowed from the punk and Goth cultures, brought precisely this aspect into Sander’s clean, geometric elegance – to the delight of fashion critics and the general press. A highlight of this period was the label’s collaboration with actress Tilda Swinton which reached its highpoint in the film “I Am Love.”

During this time, Jil Sander created several collections for the Japanese fashion house UNIKLO that also garnered rave reviews from the design press. In 2012 she returned to her own label, where she spent a year. Once again, the collections she designed drew great acclaim from the critics who, as always, paid respect to her exquisite craftsmanship, on the one hand, and on the other, expressed pleasant surprise at the freshness of her new work.

Jil Sander explained her final retirement at the age of 70 in 2013 in her usual curt and calm way, as owing to “private and personal reasons.” A design team she selected herself will be responsible for creating and developing the upcoming collections of the Jil Sander label for the time being. Let’s hope her successors honor her legacy with dignity. Nevertheless, they might smuggle just a tad perhaps of street culture under those fine cashmere coats.