Jil Sander has been off the fashion scene for a while, but now the queen of understatement is taking on a new project - high-class design for the masses - with the Japanese brand Uniqlo.
Tamsin Blanchard | 17 September 2009
Jil Sander with Yukihiro Katsuta, left, and Tadashi Yanai, the chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing.
The last time Jil Sander designed a collection - for spring/summer 2005 - she used the softest cashmere, the finest cotton and the lightest silk. She honed every item of clothing, cutting, draping and re-draping, tailoring and fitting over and over until she was satisfied. Almost. And then she did it all over again until, finally, she was ready to show the collection on the catwalk at her light-filled showroom in Milan. She has been described as a minimalist, but perfectionist would be a better description. When Jil Sander makes clothes, she makes them to fit as comfortably, and look as perfectly proportioned, as possible. She is interested not in fashion or trends, but in what she describes as purity. Her clothes have never been showy, but for those who could afford to spend £1,200 on a cashmere jumper, or more than £2,500 on a leather jacket, they were the ultimate in discreet, elegant luxury.
Five years on, she is back. Her name is absent from the label, which reads simply +J, but the style, cut and unbearable lightness of the fabrics are un-mistakable. The slightly military line of the coats; the narrow shoulders; the supersoft, superlight down coats; the cashmere knits; the precision-cut white shirts are all 100 per cent Jil. The only thing that has changed is the price: £44.99 for a down coat, £24.99 for a shirt. Nothing - not even the impossibly light and deliciously soft cashmere scarf that I can't quite put down - is more than £100. It doesn't seem believable, but, at 66, Jil Sander has discovered the high street. And the high-street shopper, who has never previously been able to afford even the tiniest piece of the Jil Sander dream, is about to be able to dress from head to toe in her clothes.
On October 1 her collection of 40 pieces for men and 100 for women will go on sale across the world at selected branches of Uniqlo, the Japanese high-street retailer known for its cheap and cheery cashmere jumpers that come in every colour of the rainbow. Tadashi Yanai, who founded Uniqlo 25 years ago and is now the richest man in Japan, told me, 'It is our opportunity to offer innovative clothing to people who perhaps wouldn't have had the opportunity to experience this before.' What Sander adds to the mix is a huge amount of credibility. It means Uniqlo can develop tailoring, dresses, skirts, shirts and take the brand beyond its comfort zone of jumpers, fleeces and downy jackets.
For Sander there is a thrill in offering a utopian ideal of high-quality clothing to the masses. 'I like the concept of basic clothes in a democratic world,' she said. 'Uniqlo reminds me of Apple computers; fantastic design for everyone. And I like what is Japanese about Uniqlo, a strong sense of tradition, the orderly approach to everything, great know-how and logistics.'
Uniqlo's parent company, Fast Retailing, has ambitions to be the world's biggest fashion retailer, a position currently held by Inditex, the Spanish company that owns Zara (4,264 retail outlets in 73 countries, including the Zara chain, with 1,292 stores). Under all its brands - including the New York fashion label Theory, and the French brands Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princess Tam-Tam lingerie, Fast Retailing has 1,974 retail outlets worldwide, 866 of which are Uniqlo. It is the sixth-biggest apparel retailer in the world according to the retail analyst Planet Retail, below Inditex, H&M, C&A and Next.
At a press conference on September 3 Tadashi Yanai made aggressive claims, announcing that by 2020 pre-tax profit from operations is targeted at one trillion yen (£6.6 billion), with sales expected to be five trillion yen. Current profit up to August 31 was estimated at 101 billion yen (£662 million) and sales were about 682 billion yen (£4.5 billion).
By then the company expects to have 4,000 Uniqlo outlets worldwide (Gap has 3,465). Yanai told me, 'Our dream is to be the number one apparel company in the world by 2020.' In the past he has talked about buying Gap or H&M to achieve his aims. He recently offered one million yen (£6,555) and 30 days additional paid holiday to the Uniqlo employee who comes up with the best vision for the company for 2020.
Uniqlo achieves its low prices by the sheer volume it produces - eight to nine million units of clothing every week at 70 tightly controlled factories, mainly in China. 'To offer our customers high-quality products at the best prices, we control all stages of the supply chain,' Yanai said, 'from product design through to final sale. This approach strives to cut unnecessary processes by third parties. Our "code of conduct" for production partners requires them to comply and provide decent working environments for all factory workers. We monitor employee working conditions in these factories, and in the event of any problems we make all efforts possible to resolve the problems, together with management of the factories.'
For Yanai, the link-up with Jil Sander was a necessary step in the expansion of his brand. Up to now Uniqlo - in Britain at least - has been more of a must-stop shop for men than for women. The two flagship stores on London's Oxford Street and Regent Street are bursting with raw energy and bright colour. Despite the economic downturn Uniqlo's British sales have increased from £19.3 million in 2007 to £37.3 million in 2008. In 2007 it opened five new stores and launched its website. In February it opened a concession on Selfridges' menswear floor in London. There are 15 stores, all within the M25, and it hopes to expand into other parts of Britain soon.
When Uniqlo first launched in Knightsbridge in 2001, it didn't get it right. Everything, it seemed, was made of the same synthetic fleece and there was little reason to return to the shop a second time. But after a long think, the brand relaunched in Britain in 2007. 'They really looked at how to position themselves,' Mary Portas told me. 'I think the best part is the men's; it's extraordinarily good; great product in a very utilitarian environment with a big dollop of coolness about it. Every time I look at basics, that's going to be my benchmark.'
Yet a collaboration with Uniqlo is a strange and almost unthinkable twist in the career of one of fashion's most innovative and uncompromising designers. In November 2004 Jil Sander walked out on the company she founded in 1973. Previously she had studied textiles, worked as a fashion editor, and opened a shop in a Hamburg suburb in 1968 selling Sonia Rykiel and Thierry Mugler along with some of her own work. She developed a cult following of women who could not get dressed in the morning without their Jil Sander shirt, dress, suit or coat. She also expanded into fragrances, her first launching in 1978, and cosmetics, menswear and accessories. She single-mindedly controlled everything from the casting of the models in her shows to the design of the shops. She had sold a 75 per cent share of her $200 million empire to Prada in 1999, but promptly left as creative director six months later after falling out with Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada (and the husband of Miuccia), who famously said that the brand was more important than the designer. Proving him wrong, sales started to drop under an unknown designer brought in to replace her, and in 2003 Sander agreed to return to the helm. She and Bertelli came to blows again and she finally washed her hands of the label in 2004, apparently retiring to tend to her extensive gardens outside Hamburg, and travel the world.
Sander is one of the fashion world's few truly private people, living a quiet life in Hamburg. She does not have children and little is known about her partner, but Sander says she spent her time away from fashion in Africa, Iran, Russia, Israel and several Arab countries. 'Before that, I had been too involved with my work; all I got to know were the hotels of most of the capitals of the world,' she said. 'Since my garden is my other passion, it profited a lot from my new freedom. Whenever I can manage, I still steal away to relax, working among the flower beds. It was a great joy to be the master of my days, to spend as much time as I wanted with friends and family. But I always considered that period as a phase of rest and recreation, of summing up, but also of planning ahead. It is wonderful to be back working, but sometimes I wouldn't mind if the pace were less frantic.'
For the past year, since setting up her design consultancy, Sander has been travelling to her studio in Tokyo to work on her new passion - high-quality, mass-market clothing. 'I am really excited about the project at Uniqlo,' she said. 'I feel an energy that reminds me of my beginnings in Hamburg, when I set out to change women's clothes into something more rewarding for the wearer and less dependent on outlived formulas of femininity. It's quite an idealistic energy, and it tells me that I made the right decision. Today streetwear is a given for many people, there is a tendency to dress down, to hide in simple outfits. My vision of fashion has more to do with pride, I want people to discover how beautiful they can feel and look in a pure piece of clothing.'
The collaboration was the idea of Uniqlo's creative director Yukihiro Katsuta, the senior vice-president of gloabl research and design, who joined the company four years ago from a background in luxury retailing at stores such as Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Isetan. He has an in-depth knowledge of the brands he has sold over the years - Polo Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Armani. And, of course, Jil Sander, a label he admired both personally and professionally. 'When Miss Sander left Prada five years ago, I was vice-president of Bergdorf, and at the time I never thought she would come back to fashion,' he says.
I pinned down Katsuta in his hectic schedule travelling between Tokyo and his other design team in New York which leaves him, he said, jet-lagged 365 days a year. He explained how he personally bought that last Jil Sander collection like it was going out of fashion - turtleneck sweaters, jackets and coats - because he didn't think he would ever have the opportunity again.
When Katsuta joined Uniqlo, he discussed with Yanai how they could improve and update their core business of basics to keep them exciting season after season. He knew that what sells over and over again is basics, be that a white Dolce & Gabbana shirt or a navy Armani suit. 'I also knew it was a most difficult challenge. The last four years was spent trying to challenge how we can update or improve these basic concepts or products, and then in my mind Miss Sander was one of the rare designers in the world who made this concept… and who had the experience and skills.'
Katsuta flew to Hamburg to meet Sander in May 2008. He had to explain to her what Uniqlo was because it was not a brand she was aware of. The following October she flew to Tokyo and was given a grand tour of five of the stores in Tokyo (there are more than 700 in Japan, compared with Gap's total of 118). 'I showed all the clothes to Miss Sander and obviously she hated some of our items but she also liked some.' Katsuta was impressed by Sander's honesty. 'What did she hate? I don't remember, but she said we had too many similar items.'
Sander bought the book How to Behave in Japan to gen up on local etiquette, and agreed to start work. After a visit to the company's HQ she put in a few small requests. To start with, there was the floor of her new studio. She specified the type and shade of wood. Then there was the lighting. It had to be a particular type of light bulb to give a particular type of light. It didn't take long to recreate a version of the German designer's own Hamburg studio. Details are important to Sander.
'I always had the intention to return to the fashion business,' she told me. 'There were many proposals, but in the end, Uniqlo was the most challenging and the most attractive since it gives me the possibility of a completely new start.
'I am involved from the beginning, from the selection of materials to the final prototypes,' she said. 'I am a perfectionist when it comes to cutting. I like to work in 3D and on the body. A form can be flat and do nothing for the human shape. But if it is truly modern, it moves with the body and needs no decorations. Finding form and proportion in clothing is like working on a sculpture. You have to define the points from where the material falls, from where it can move freely. You need to find the right material. Sometimes I send textiles back to the factory for different weaving or to have components changed.'
Her visits to Tokyo every other month are keeping Katsuta and his team of pattern-cutters on their toes. 'Of course she is never ever satisfied,' Katsuta said, laughing. 'She always challenges me. She always challenges herself. If I have to tell you honestly, she is never satisfied.'
But if anyone can reinvent basic items of clothing season after season, and make them in such a way that will keep you going back for more, it is Jil Sander. She understands the subtleties of design like no other designer. 'Many people have more than a dozen blue jeans in their closet and still fall for another pair, if it fits them well and they look good in it,' she said. 'One may think jeans are jeans, yet there are so many aspects, from the dye to the cut and fit, which evolve all the time and make older jeans look outdated. So-called classic pieces vary from season to season and absorb the zeitgeist. In, say, five years, you may be able to see the vintage flair of a coat I designed, but it will still be utterly wearable and adapt to other pieces. I like a certain kind of understatement.'
She talked about 'doing justice to a piece of clothing' and there is no doubting her dedication to the project. For Sander, and for Uniqlo, this is not a one-off novelty collection, designed to maximise press coverage and generate mass hysteria the morning the clothes go on sale. This is, they hope, an ongoing collaboration. The prototypes for spring/summer 2010 are ready to be fitted, and word is that while the autumn/winter collection is firmly monochrome, the new samples are imbued with a soft colour palette. What is remarkable is that with her experience and desire to make clothing in its purest, most perfect form, it seems that we, the consumer, will be able to share in a unique opportunity to buy into the luxury that is Jil Sander's clothing. It is not that she has turned her back on the ivory towers of that world. 'Let us not pretend that luxury doesn't exist,' she said. 'But I am truly surprised how much could be done in the +J dimensions. I hope my former customers will be curious enough to look for themselves; I want to convince them through the collection. It will never be vulgar to spend a lot of money for something one desires dearly, but it can be nice to find such an item at a more democratic price.'
Source : http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG6197136/Jil-Sanders-new-range-for-Uniqlo.html