“It Is Not Easy to Dress Well”: Jil Sander’s Words of Wisdom

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Jil Sander campaign S/S 1996© Craig McDean

As a new exhibition about the astute designer’s legacy opens in Frankfurt, we recall ten of her most memorable messages

Few fashion designers work with the precision of feeling that Jil Sander possesses. Now, Present Tense, a retrospective at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst, delineates what it is about Sander’s designs that has been so influential. The exhibition, which runs until May 2018, credits Sander with “an extraordinary perceptivity which enabled her to anticipate trends and changes in society”, and perhaps this is part of the thread that runs through her wide and varied work. Through runway looks, fashion imagery and multimedia installations, the exhibition, curated by Matthias Wagner K, explores the compelling constants of Sander’s career.

That career has spanned over 25 years, during which time the German designer’s name has become a by-word for minimal elegance and luxury. Her early collections in the 1970s and 1980s built a dedicated following, allowing her to go public on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange by 1989. But outside investment from Prada in 1999 led eventually to creative differences, with Sander walking away from her own eponymous label in 2004. It was a loss for the world of fashion, and a personal one for the designer herself, who saw her name being sold to holdings companies around the world. During the following years, fashion’s concept of minimalism changed, with her own brand in the hands of Raf Simons, whose approach was less about the lives of the women wearing the clothes and more about a rich, evocative luxury.

But Sander didn’t stay away from fashion for long. In 2009 Uniqlo announced the launch of J+, womenswear and menswear designed by Sander and riffing on her classic modes of purity and demureness. This successful collaboration lasted five years, whetting the palates of her dedicated fans and ensuring that her own design legacy can carry on into the future, undiluted by the shifts of ownership and the storms surrounding those who work under her name. Here, we recall ten occasions on which Sander voiced that legacy herself.

  1. “If I had the power, I would ban leggings.”
  2. “Initially, it was the unpractical in fashion that brought me to design my own line. I felt that it was much more attractive to cut clothes with respect for the living, three-dimensional body rather than to cover the body with decorative ideas.” 
  3. “You don’t have to pay more to have a great form.”
  4. “I do have strong convictions which evolved but never radically changed over time. I never tried to be provocative, but I never indulged in nostalgia, either.”
  5. “One glass of water doesn’t equal another. One may just appease the thirst, the other you may enjoy thoroughly. In Japan, people know about this difference.”
  6. “It is not easy to dress well.”
  7. “If you cut a painter’s hands off, he’d still feel the urge to pick up a brush.” 
  8. “I like femininity, not of the devout, but of the self-assured, cool and sophisticated kind.” 
  9. “I feel very strongly that clothes that fit well make a person feel better. It’s maybe half the value of the merchandise.” 
  10. “In the end, you can’t talk to everyone.”

Jil Sander. Present Tense runs until May 6, 2018, at Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt.