Jil Sander — content simply to be simple
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Surely part of the appeal for any fashion designer showing in Florence is that you can’t fail to stumble over a masterpiece. Pitti Immagine, the city’s mostly-menswear trade fair established in 1954 and now in its 97th iteration, helps open doors for guest fashion designers to show in palazzi and giardinos where access is never normally granted to the public, let alone a few hundred trade hacks watching several dozen models traipsing through.
This season’s headline guest, Jil Sander, staged its show in the museum complex of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella — which is used to the patter of many feet, although perhaps not in the heavy lug-sole shoes favoured for next winter by Luke and Lucie Meier, the husband-and-wife team that now helms that Hamburg-born, Milanese-based brand.
Jil Sander, the woman who branded the brand, was one of the pioneers of minimalism in late-20th century fashion, when women (and men, for that matter) stripped off the excess and pulled out the stuffing of the 1980s and slicked everything down pat. So Florence doesn’t seem like a natural home — but it’s where Mr and Mrs Meier (Canadian and Swiss, respectively) first met as students at the city’s Polimoda fashion school.
Today Jil Sander, the company, is part of Tokyo-listed Japanese fashion conglomerate Onward Holdings Co. Ltd., where it brought in annual revenues of ¥11.3 billion, or approximately £79 million, for the year ending February 2019 — an increase of 14 per cent from the previous year. That makes it a comparatively small player alongside billion-euro mega-brands like Burberry, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. The Meiers joined in 2017, stabilising Sander after a messy half-decade when, oscillating between different creative directors and teams, the label’s direction had seemed woefully confused.
But back to Florentine masterpieces. Backstage after their Autumn/Winter 2020 show, the Meiers gave interviews in front of a fragment of a Renaissance fresco that just sort of happened to be there. It’s difficult for anyone creative not to be inspired by that, but that said, their version of Florentine excess was minimal: wide trousers in Japanese wool, wide-cut coats, a swagger sleeve silhouette that put in mind of an ecclesiastical chasuble (when in Firenze), and touches of hammered silver in metal embroideries and amulets around the neck. There were even a few shirts seemingly frescoed with misty watercoloured pictures.
Pinned on a door next to the bit of fresco was a poster for an exhibition: La botanica di Leonardo, exploring the Tuscan’s lesser-known botanical studies. In the Jil Sander showspace, great drifting pile-ups of marigolds stacked up almost to the cruciform vaulted ceiling, which made for a spectacular backdrop of pure pigment, throwing the stark Sander clothes into relief.
Relief is a word that comes to mind looking at Jil Sander. Because it’s relieving to find clothes free of gimmickry and over-design, content to simply be simple. The colour palette was muted — lots of black, off-white, slate blue, a Tuscan sunset red — all the better to be seen against those marigolds. A few coats were cut like bathrobes, epaulettes and buttoned belts the only indicators of formality. In cashmere, easily fitted, they were quiet standouts. You wanted to get inside them — which is an urge every fashion designer worth their knicker-elastic should be trying to evoke in their potential customers. These are tough times out there.
Tough in the world, tough in fashion. The knock-on effect of Meier and Meier showing Jil Sander in Florence was that their clothes attracted more attention than, say, in the crowded schedule of Paris where they usually show, and where sometimes their quiet message is lost in a cacophony of louder and brasher brands. This was a particularly strong showing for them — it warranted the notice.
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