Fashion's 'Queen of Less': Jil Sander turns 75

Nobody stands for the Jil Sander brand as much as the designer herself. At 75, Sander is feminine, self-confident, determined. Her unwavering vision and diligence have, from the very start, shaped her international fame and success.

Born on November 27, 1943 in northern Germany and raised in Hamburg, Heidemarie Jiline “Jil” Sander was already inclined as a child to advise friends and family on fashion. After studying textile engineering in Krefeld, where she discovered her penchant for high quality and fine fabrics, she moved to Los Angeles for two years, returning to Hamburg in 1965 to work as a fashion editor for various women’s magazines.

But the fashion of that time did not convince the young Sander: too many frills, too much chichi. So at the age of 24 she went into business for herself, opening up a boutique in the fashionable Hamburg district of Pöseldorf.

At first, Parisian designer pieces adorned her displays until her own collection appeared in 1975. When she first presented it in Paris, the French were initially unenthusiastic. But a year later her minimalist fashion, characterized by its easy interchangeability and thus known as the “onion look,” helped her to soon garner worldwide acclaim.

Read more:  Jil Sander fashion exhibition shows off Germany’s influential ‘Queen of Less’

A breath of fresh air

Sander created a completely new kind of fashion for the modern business woman. Fine fabrics, clear lines, no frills. She underlined the unique characters of her customers, who in the 1980s began taking senior positions. Her clothing gave women self-confidence in an otherwise male-dominated business world.

“For me it was all about form, function and proportion. I never just wanted to decorate,” Sander said in an interview.

Her fashion was supposed to be comfortable, stylish and of high quality. Meanwhile, she never tried to copy men’s clothing styles. It was always her intention to let self-determined women preserve their feminine charm. The Sander blazer, which quickly became a hit thanks to its precise cut and ability to emphasize female proportions, is arguably her most influential design.

The fashionista kept reinventing herself, but also remained true to her vision. She captured the changing times anew with collections that were always signature Sander. Her lean and understated lines were especially distinguished from the playful and flashier designs of contemporary design giants like Dior and Armani.

Read moreRevisiting Germany’s style and icons

Face of her own brand

Sander also too a unique approach to her own perfume line, which was created and marketed at the end of the 1970s in cooperation with cosmetics manufacturer Lancaster: using her own face. Never before had a designer marketed herself as an advertising medium. And this despite the fact that Sander had always avoided the limelight.

Her appearances after fashion shows were notoriously brief. She was always reserved and did not like to give interviews. The strict protection of her privacy never made it easy for the media to uncover Jil Sander the person.

“Jil Sander is hot, Armani is not.”

In the following years, the Jil Sander brand expanded and opened branches in fashion metropolises such as New York, Paris and Tokyo. A men’s collection followed and in 1989 her company was one of the first to go public on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Sander demanded maximum participation in decision-making, not only in creative tasks. She also asserted herself as a businesswoman in the men’s world.

When the company merged with fashion giant Prada in 1999, everything seemed perfect. The Italian partner was to help further expand the accessories business. But only five months later, Sander unexpectedly left the company. The differences between the cool northern German and the spirited managing director Patrizio Bertelli were too great.

Taking time out

The decision was not easy Sander has said, but she happily took time out to design the garden on her estate, to simply read and take long walks.

But Sander has sporadically returned to the fashion scene, and as chief designer created a summer collection for 2012-2013 for the Jil Sander label. She also became creative director of the Japanese fast-fashion group “Uniqlo,” creating fashion for the masses in a lower price segment — which garnered her one of the most prestigious design prizes, the Brit Insurance Design Award given by London’s Design Museum.

With her timeless style, Sander has continued to prove that less can be more. And the “queen of lean” keeps inspiring generations of women after her. No wonder that the 2018 “Präsens” (Presence) exhibition in Frankfurt was devoted entirely to her oeuvre. Click through the gallery below to discover this retrospective of Sander’s lifework. 

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