Jil Sander @ Peter Lindbergh
Designer Jil Sander, a contributor to Milan Fashion Week since the 1980s who has achieved international success for her forward-thinking designs. Eleven years after her +J collection was released in collaboration with UNIQLO, +J is returning to UNIQLO this fall.
What made her choose the path of fashion design? What were her inspirations for the latest +J line?
We asked Jil twenty-one questions, ranging from her philosophy to her daily routines, the favorite things she always keeps close at hand, and her life work.
Q1. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Do you have any routines that you stick to daily?
My routines are simple. I open all windows for my meditation and yoga exercise. In the morning, I like to drink hot coffee, made in a french press.
Q2. Tell us about an essential item that you couldn’t live without.
I cherish a collection of Haikus by Kobayashi Issa in a two-language edition procured by Lewis Mackenzie. I often take it with me when I travel.
Q3. How has the natural landscape of Northern Germany made a mark on you (or your designs)?
I grew up in Hamburg when the city was devastated from the war. So my first experiences were not of nature. But Hamburg is connected to the Baltic sea by shipping routes and I was surrounded by water. As a port city Hamburg has more channels and rivers than Venice. My first impressions of nature were the changing colors of the sky and its reflections in water. Later, we had a house in the countryside, not far from Hamburg. There, you have sweeping views of farmland, woods and meadows. I always loved the explosion of green in the spring. Since Northern Germany is quite windy, snowflake clouds sail above and change the tonality abruptly. The light here is famous for its purity and brilliancy. Its clarity is so strong, it almost x-rays everything. This light has always influenced my fabric decisions, not only the choice of color, but also of textile qualities. You cannot cheat in this light. Every detail of the weave is highlighted. Only the best quality stands the test.
Q4. You spent two years studying at UCLA. How did that influence your future?
I was only eighteen when I went to the US. Coming from a country which suffered from post-war depression, California to me was a place of optimism. I experienced America at the beginning of the sixties with its zeitgeist of youth rebellion. The overall euphoria in everyday life made a great impression. Life was much more relaxed and no one checked my punctuality, as my father had done in Hamburg. I enjoyed the vicinity of the movie industry and the creative buzz, which expanded from Hollywood. Spaces were large, you could drive for hours. I loved the climate, the beach life and the hedonism of Sunset Boulevard.
Q5. Fashion has been called a mirror for the zeitgeist. Have the essential designs changed since the 1960s, when you got your start designing ready-to-wear women's fashion? Have there been changes in what's seen as essential designs?
All periods have their essentials, the late nineteenth century had the corset, the hippies of the sixties had blue jeans. Today it’s almost impossible to speak of essentials, since we wear nothing but these. The mood is casual and the main requirement is comfort . Thus, packable down jackets have become one of today’s essentials. They are very light, keep us warm when necessary, and they don’t obstruct our movement.
Q6. Have you ever been told something memorable by a customer about your clothes?
I am always touched when customers let me know that they appreciate the timelessness of my designs. The kindest thing for me is to hear is that they gave strength to the wearer.
Q7. When you were studying at the Krefeld School of Textiles, how did the philosophy of Bauhaus change your perspective?
Many teachers and students from the original Bauhaus later found teaching positions at the Krefeld School, while others designed industrial buildings as well as patterns for the Krefeld textile industry. Mies van der Rohe worked repeatedly for the local silk industry, designing several stunning buildings. At the school, the Bauhaus approach was still strong when I joined. And naturally, the Bauhaus architecture had an influence, too. I felt justified in my instincts to reduce and concentrate on well-executed, pure forms.
Q8. Tell us about the moment you decided to make fashion your career.
I started my career as fashion editor for a German fashion magazine. In this function, I organized and supervised fashion shootings. More often than not, I had trouble in achieving the look I had in mind. To improve the design pieces we had to photograph, I contacted the producers with my suggestions and proposed certain changes to their designs. Since I kept doing that, the biggest producer of high-tech fabrics got back to me and proposed that I design for him myself. In the end, it was more satisfying to actually create the clothes rather than shoot existing fashion which didn’t always respond to my esthetics.
Q9. If you had to pick a favorite clothing item, what would it be?
That would be a white T-shirt with a perfect fit. I wear them under everything and stuff my wardrobe with a large selection. It has to be made from thin Egyptian cotton. Since the beginning of my career, I have designed this kind of T-shirt and can’t live without it.
Q10. What does the clothing color black mean to you?
I mentioned the brilliant light of Northern Germany. Many so called black fabrics don’t live up to it. That’s why I call the black dyes I look for “double black”. They don’t fade in connection to white and create a strong graphic contrast.
Q11. Your designs pay close attention to a whole range of variables like pattern and fit. Do you have a personal rule of design?
I don’t draw, I design on the body and do many fittings. Thus, I am always conscious of all angles and the three-dimensional form. The fitting process leads to new forms and proportions. My eye is my strongest tool, I can see what is wrong or dated, but also, where the energy comes in and when a design starts to look fresh. I also keep the customers and their diverse needs in mind. Figures, heights and complexions vary, so I try to interpret the collection with a regard to different combinations and a maximum of variability in mind.
Q12. For the +J collection, how did you combine your creative vision with the manufacturing capabilities of UNIQLO?
UNIQLO has a lot of experience and great knowledge of manufacturing. The production possibilities are endless and inspiring. This includes the well-oiled logistics, the infusion with Japanese culture and true mastership of detail.
Q13. Tell us about the new +J collection. What images were behind the designs?
I do not work with visions or muses, neither with a mood board only. My creativity relies on the fitting and experimenting with fabrics. I exclude and at the same time push in certain directions. As I said, my eyes are fine-tuned to the emerging shape.
Q14. Since the first +J collection in 2009, have there been any changes in your state of mind?
Everything seems to have changed, even in fashion. We are tired of certain forms which we associate with a past that now seems long ago. The material and production techniques develop as well. New fabrics ask for new solutions, for different cuts and patterns. Without necessarily being able to explain the zeitgeist, I can sense the need for contemporary sophistication. I feel today’s magnetisms, tensions and harmonies.
Q15. Gardening is a lifelong passion for you. How has designing spaces, rather than just clothing, informed your perspective on the world?
In a certain sense, there is no difference, since I always think architectonically. I strive for energetic possibilities in three-dimensional space. Over many years, I developed an English Garden in the countryside. But I am also a fan of the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, a contemporary of the Arts & Crafts Movement, whose more intimate designs stand in productive tension with the classical English Garden. My garden offers both large vistas and secluded quarters, hedged rose and kitchen gardens, and meditative emptiness. “A garden is a great teacher,” Gertrude Jekyll wrote. “It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”
Q16. Tell us about someone you admire.
I deeply admire Lorenzo “Renzo” Mongiardino, the Italian architect and stage designer, who sadly passed away in 1998. I entrusted the interior design of my Hamburg home to him and learned a lot in the process. Against the tide of the Modernist Movement and with a thorough knowledge of artisan techniques, he created an original historicist style and was much in demand for a perspective that was independent of the zeitgeist. Renzo convinced me to step away from my own ideas and to embrace a Renaissance fantasy. As a true master, he had a truly creative way of developing the interior step by step and by inspiration. He started with the carved wood panels of a seventeenth century Renaissance theater from Venice and its fairy tale theme. Then, he built everything around it. I learned to respect and cherish the warmth Renzo achieved, his amazing historic knowledge and daring. He taught me that every historical period offers its own truth, as long as you look at its highest achievements and true meaning. And that essence has no time index.
Q17. Have any books left a deep impression on you?
I feel closest to Russian literature, to Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol and Akhmatova.
Q18. Are you following the work of any Japanese designers?
Of course, the Japanese designers who emerged with me have had an impact, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons. Their proposals were revolutionary in the eighties and brought a highly needed breath of fresh air. I feel close to their experimental reduction, the emotion in everything they do.
Q19. How has fashion changed with advances in technology and the arrival of social media? What are the pluses and the minuses?
Today, we have e-commerce, bloggers, Instagram and much more. Social media is a great motor for the fashion industry. Fashion experienced a resurrection online, albeit with different rules. Yet, I feel that we need more critical discourse online to differentiate between flashy looks and designs that actually improve the looks of real human beings.
Q20. What kind of materials do you hope will exist in the future?
Natural materials, and hybrids which are good for nature and our precious planet.
Q21. What role do you think clothing should play in creating a better tomorrow?
They should be long-lasting and endearing. They should serve the wearer and give her or him the energy and self-assurance which is so much needed in our global reality.