Queen of the Austere


Every journalist soon learns that while some interviewees are easy-going and prepared to deliver as much information as required, others need to be coaxed into surrendering even the most trivial snippets. German designer Jil Sander indisputably belongs in the latter category. She is certainly neither ill-mannered nor discouraging, just a rather shy woman who understandably feels discomfited when being questioned by a stranger. Although in the fashion business for almost 30 years, only recently has she begun to give selective interviews and they clearly remain something of a strain. Slight of figure and fine-featured, Sander feels her clothes are sufficiently eloquent not to require any additional statements. "I don't have to say anything," she comments when asked how she would summarise her style. "You have to feel it. Wherever we have gone, women have found their way to my clothes." For a variety of reasons, the number of such women has always remained limited. Sander's clothes are not to everyone's taste. They have a rigorous simplicity and discipline many consumers simply cannot manage.

"I don't like pretentious design. I try to make things pure - in the end, that means quality. And by this means, you also get the right consumer; the product is speaking for itself."

Devoid of any unnecessary decorative details and based around clean functional shapes, her work is the fashion equivalent of the great 19th century German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel's buildings. The clothes are very beautiful, but in an intensely ascetic manner. If the Trappist order needed to change its habit, she would be the perfect choice of designer. Sander's clothes suit the contemporary woman because their designer recognises what is needed: strong but versatile pieces with plenty of staying power. For this reason, she has long been a fan of fabrics traditionally reserved for menswear.

"I always used men's fabrics because I thought they wore better. I knew a lot of men when I was young and I had a lot of respect for their clothes." The surprise is that only this season has she finally produced a line of clothes specifically for men. "I like to try everything on myself but unfortunately I couldn't do that with this line, so I tended to get many different men to wear them for me. I believe in inside proportion - trying to get out from the flat form. I'm not a cutter or sewer so my way of learning to do clothes is by training my eye and vision." Most designers develop their ideas about clothes over a long period, but there appears to be very little difference between Jil Sander's outlook now and when she produced her very first collection. Born and raised in Hamburg, where she still lives, she travelled in the United States for a number of years before returning home to open her own boutique in 1968.

Having built up a strong domestic market, she first ventured into the international arena by staging shows in Paris in the late 1970s. "I thought if I had a beautiful collection, everyone would find out." Famously, during those Paris seasons, she was either ignored or mocked, and Sander waited for almost another decade before deciding in 1987 to try Milan instead. The response was sufficiently encouraging for her to continue presenting her collections in the north Italian city - her spring/summer 1998 range will be shown there tomorrow - aided perhaps by close associations with the country's fabric producers. Fabric provides the starting point for every collection. "I go really deeply into understanding how fabrics drape;I love to experiment with them." Sander uses only the very best materials, as a rule manufactured exclusively for her in her own factories in Germany and Italy. This is another reason why the eventual clothes are never going to sell to the mass market: they are simply too expensive for most women. Nor does she necessarily believe in wide distribution. Jil Sander has her own shops in a number of major cities worldwide and allows a number of other stores to stock the range. A rigorous check is kept on where the clothes may be sold so as not to devalue the image of the product.

Relative scarcity of retail outlets, high price points and stripped-back purity of form all combine to suggest Sander can only hope to attract a handful of followers. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, she sold 33 per cent of her stock on the Hamburg and Frankfurt stock markets and has watched the business enjoy steady expansion ever since. Ironically, four years ago she was able to open a flagship, three-storey shop on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris where she had failed to make an impact earlier.

The list of admirers, nicknamed Sandernistas, continues to grow as more and more women discover the merits of these impeccably tailored, unfussy clothes. Jil Sander's time seems to have come and, after coolly holding her nerve for so long, she is entitled to relish the prospect. In an understated way, of course.