Jil Sander: The Queen of Less

Jil Sander, one of the most influential fashion designers of her generation, may have come from Northern Germany and be at home on the international catwalks of Paris, Milan and New York, but it is Frankfurt that is now mounting a memorial to her.

Jil Sander
Jil Sander Showroom Milan PHOTO Paul Warchol

     Museum Angewandte Kunst (The Museum for Applied Art) has dedicated an extensive exhibition to the 73-year-old using almost the entire house. It spreads throughout the museum building on some 3 000 square metres of exhibition space and will be on view until May 2018.
     Her first solo exhibition ever, Jil Sander: Present Tense consists of large-scale, multi-media installations and tableaux devoted to the impact of her design approach on the aesthetics, material and form of fashion and product design, architecture and garden art. Ultimately, it was the architecture that decided that Sander chose Frankfurt: Richard Meier‘s building on Frankfurt’s Museumsufer fits in perfectly with the designer’s aesthetics, according to Museum Director Matthias Wagner. ‘Her purism changed the idea of ​​beauty.’
     Jil Sander, born in rural Schleswig-Holstein in 1943 as Heidemarie Jiline Sander, studied textile engineering at the Krefeld Textile School of Engineering. In 1964, she went to Los Angeles as an exchange student and on her return to Hamburg worked as a fashion editor for various women’s magazines. What she saw and was asked to photograph did not correspond with her ideas of fashion. It didn’t correspond with her understanding of proportion and material, nor with her image of women, or her intuitions as to the shifts in the aesthetic demands of a rapidly changing society. She, therefore, began designing fashion herself, with her creations being distinguished by subdued colours and formal rigour. She first presented them in 1973 at the prêt-à-porter shop she opened five years earlier in the Pöseldorf district of Hamburg. In 1979, the designer undertook the development of her own perfume and body-care product ranges, starting with Jil Sander Woman Pure and Jil Sander Man Pure. These fragrances – as well as Jil Sander Sun, launched in 1989 – became classics.

I think there is always a need for pure design. With pure design, you don’t need so much decoration

Jil Sander
Jil Sander MODEL Edie Campbell PHOTO David Sims

     In contrast to the typical Parisian couture aesthetics, Jil Sander refers to German concepts of modernity. Her aesthetics go back to the Bauhaus vision of joining craftsmanship and industrial production. She supports teamwork, enlightened sycophancy, prototype art as well as easily comprehensible and accessible structures. Even the ideas of German Classicism find reflections in her work. What Goethe called ‘style’, differentiating it from simple imitation and mannerism, returns in Jil Sander’s concept of purism. In her campaign photography, she is inspired by the art of graphic reduction typical of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement.
     Sander’s design leads, by way of new cutting, weaving, processing and manufacturing techniques, to a new way of dressing. It is always the material itself that remains at the centre of her attention. She devotes herself intensively to the research of fabrics, imports state-of-the-art high-tech weaves from Japan and works with Italian producers on the development of new materials with sculptural tractability. Materials and techniques that cannot be found in Europe must be invented anew, or traced back to remote locations of the world. Her design principles – harmony of proportion, sophisticated three-dimensionality, understatement and dynamic elegance – have always remained the same. And yet she has presented the fundamentals of her aesthetics in each of her collections in completely new ways.

Jil Sander
Jil Sander MODEL Lily Donaldson PHOTO David Sims

     Jil Sander: Present Tense sheds light on its aesthetics, says Wagner, who curated the show with Sander. In one room, cut-outs from catwalk shows run on floor-to-ceiling screens, while in others, photo spreads hang on the walls. In a bare room are black dresses, jackets and coats on abstract dolls. In another, colourfully patterned creations disappear in front of equally patterned walls.
     All of this is airily arranged, simply and elegantly staged. Hypnotic music, fed by classical and electronic music, floods the light spaces. From the inside, illuminated glass showcases display perfume bottles as prized treasures, fabric patterns arranged by colour and cut pieces arranged as a collage, look like works of art.
     Sander was heavily involved in designing the show and her influence is clearly visible. The show could almost be a flagship store. The cooperation does not always seem to have been easy. Wagner experienced Sander as someone who always gives her all. He is known for working hard, but she is on another level.

Her design principles – harmony of proportion, sophisticated three-dimensionality, understatement and dynamic elegance – have always remained the same. And yet she has presented the fundamentals of her aesthetics in each of her collections in completely new ways

Jil Sander
Portrait Jil Sander PHOTO Peter Lindbergh, Marie Claire Germany 1991

     She was never interested in a museum exhibition, Sander told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. She was always ‘against a doll parade,’ because ‘clothes, when not worn, lose their energy.’ But now she has asked herself: ‘How do I see what I have done so far, with my eyes of today, how do I judge what I see?’
     At the preview of the exhibition, the 73-year-old designer was silent. Although she was in the museum, she did not sit on the podium at the press conference. Wagner apologised for the rigours of the preparations and referred to a photo shoot on the second floor. Hoping for a few words, photographers and camera crews, journalists and fashion bloggers trotted up the ramps – where Sander appeared in black with sunglasses for a few seconds and disappeared without a word.
     With her decision to exhibit her work at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, Jil Sander has turned her attention to the past. This 
is quite a new experience for someone who has always preferred to look at the up-and-coming.