Jil Sander: Less for Success
Jil Sander, dubbed the “Queen of Less,” has embodied the concept of minimalism throughout her designs since the late 1960s. As a fashion editor, Sander became frustrated with the impracticality and limitations which fashion posed on the contemporary woman. Taking matters into her own hands, she began making garments on her mother’s sewing machine and eventually launched her first collection on the Milan runway in 1973. Jil Sander argues that it is both more flattering and logical to create garments with regards to the living body rather than covering, adding on and reshaping bodily features into an illusion of what’s really there. However, considering how little Jil Sander is actually concerned with trends, it’s impressive how the brand has managed to reach immense success and worldwide recognition.
Jil Sander is a pioneer in sustainability, creating clean and timeless pieces that always feel just “right,” but how do designers like Jil Sander, whose entire design aesthetic is based on simplicity, manage to keep things interesting? Fashion is founded on reinvention—reinventing trends, reinventing other work, reinventing yourself—but how many times can you tweak the features of the white cotton poplin shirt? What makes this season’s navy wool-blend blazer different from previous years? Furthermore, what’s the key ingredient to Sander’s success and how has she avoided being consumed and influenced by the prevailing fashion trends?
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As a graduate in textile engineering, Sander possessed a great understanding of fabrics. Her appreciation of materials has always been evident through the use of luxurious and, for the most part, natural fibers in her collections. Textiles are a large component of Sander’s work and she argues that, by exploring alternative fabrics and sustainable textiles, she finds constant innovation in her creative process. In addition, a comprehension and a knowledge of the female silhouette has also manifested itself in her collections through explicit tailoring. Zeitgeist, a German philosophical term translated in to “spirit of the times”, is a concept Sander often looked to for inspiration in order to design contemporary garments which reflected the prevailing times and needs. Ultimately, the post-war German zeitgeist helped her launch her career as women's wardrobes began to change with the progressing social, economic and political times. In order to keep relevant her very spare designs—or “pure” as she prefers to call them—she tweaked and changed the details and proportions of her creations in ways that often reflected a sense of modernity. However, how much of the zeitgeist can truly be communicated through Sander’s elemental designs? What can the length of a sleeve actually disclose about a moment in time? It is both true and peculiar how the smallest component of a garment can make the entire piece feel very “now” or shockingly dated—the extension of a shoulder, the widening of a pant, the rise of a waist.
Sander has always been successful in translating the Zeitgeist into products: She became the first luxury label to ever collaborate with a sneaker brand when she partnered with Puma to create the sneaker “King” in 1996. Sander was fascinated by the sneaker culture at the time and she aspired to produce a sneaker which offered both comfort and sophistication. She visualized a sneaker that could be paired with a coat—something we consider a no-brainer today—which was an unusual pairing at the time since sneakers were still very much associated with leisure time and sports. “King” was a boxing shoe by appearance but made in the finest glove leather, hence conveying a feeling of luxury like no sneaker had done before. Similarly to her collaboration with Puma, Sander partnered with Uniqlo in 2009 through 2011, offering a luxury take on the best of basics. She designed a collection named "+J Collection" which was especially known for its lightweight package down jackets. Once again she realized that there was a market for jackets that offered the same benefits and qualities as the ones presented by The North Face and Patagonia but with a more refined and elegant appearance.
Despite Sander’s greatly minimalist aesthetic and seemingly recurring designs, much of her success actually lies in the fact that she has the ability to make the slight adjustments necessary to improve products tremendously. Sander is capable of detecting areas which are in need of improvement by actively listening to and observing the zeitgeist—her timing is often unmistakably right. “Needs” are frequently referred to in fashion, however, there are no needs beyond a piece's most basic elements. There are, however, wants—which we only become aware of once we are offered a way to fulfill them—and Sander is a master of visualizing these wants. Less is not necessarily more, but Jil Sander has definitely proven to us that sometimes all it takes is very, very little.