the gentlewoman

The Calling

How do you possibly condense the stellar 50-year career of one of fashion’s most influential forces? A new exhibition at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst braves this monumental proposition with Jil Sander. Präsens, a retrospective that explores the extraordinary breadth of the designer’s work across fashion, product design, architecture and garden art. On the occasion of its opening, Jil Sander answers The Calling, our new survey for creative visionaries.

Jil Sander

Richard: What are you working on?

Jil Sander: My new exhibition, Jil Sander. Präsens, at Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt. The curator, Matthias Wagner K, and I have been working on it for the past 18 months. We redesigned the whole museum space, all 3,000m2 of it. It’s been a very enjoyable experience. It may be a retrospective, but for me it feels like a beginning.

R: Which aspects of your work has it made you want to continue?

J: The garden and landscape design, for sure. But the design of intelligent products is another field I’m interested in.

R: And which aspects of the past are you happy to let go of?

J: I must say the stress. But good things only happen if you go to the limit.

R: If you were to draw me a pie chart of your average day, what activities take up the biggest share?

J: At the moment, work is a 60 per cent share. Sleep 30 per cent. Recreation 10 per cent.

R: What were your ambitions as a schoolgirl?

J: I’ve always had a clear sense of how things should be and look. Even as a child, I had my own ideas and tried to convey them to others — I remember proposing outfits to my mother and brother!

R: What was your first job in fashion?

J: In my early 20s, after I returned from a study trip to California, I took up a job as a fashion editor for a German fashion magazine, Constanze. It was my first encounter with fashion and I had difficulties with the job, because I couldn’t see how the clothes I was working with could be made to look desirable — they were terrible. So I contacted the garment producers and suggested changes.

R: Is it that ability to spot how something can be improved upon that makes you a good manager?

J: I never tire of sharing my enthusiasm — it must be some sort of missionary zeal. I want to convince people, especially those I work with. It makes a huge difference if everyone’s on the same page, with the same vision.

R: What would you say has been your biggest achievement?

J: There have been many fulfilling moments, but the design of my first flagship shop in 1993 at 50 avenue Montaigne in Paris stands out. The way I applied my aesthetics to the architecture, lighting, floor plan, its generous definition of space — this was something new for a fashion store. It made me realise that my ideas were not limited to fashion. They were a new view on everything. But I must say that I’m most proud of establishing a global fashion brand with my hometown Hamburg as its headquarters — though I couldn’t have done it without my brother and his wife who were intimately involved in building my company.

R: Your influence on fashion is still far-reaching. How do you feel when you see your work copied?

J: It’s very difficult to copy my designs because of the considerable amount of unseen work and time that went into them. Copyists are only interested in fast reproduction. The extensive research and development that went into my textile design, you can’t buy that off the rack.

R: In hindsight is there anything you would have done differently?

J: I don’t think in those terms. I’ve learnt not to regret. Things happen at the right time and if something goes wrong, you learn from it. You do things as best you can in the given moment.

November 2017. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Giovanni Giannoni, courtesy of Museum Angewandte Kunst. Jil Sander. Präsens runs until 6 May 2018.