Jil Sander’s greatest achievement, as Vogue once said—apropos of describing a smart gray suit—was “rekindling the relationship between professionalism and chic.” Creating a work uniform that was cosmopolitan and cool instead of secretarial-pool dowdy was what enabled her to elevate her company from its modest beginnings in the fashion hinterland of Hamburg into a $200 million company favored by some of the world’s most powerful women.
As an unwavering champion of minimalism—most particularly, the stripped-down suit—Sander was a key force behind the sea change in women’s fashion in the eighties and nineties, as excess went out and restrained finesse came in. Her trademarks were neutral colors, unusual textures (quality fabrics were her hobbyhorse), and an open-minded attitude toward technological innovation.
In 1999, as minimalism fell to a low ebb and maximalism was all the rage, Sander sold a majority stake of her company to the Prada Group. Six months after selling, she resigned as chief designer, only to return, briefly, three years later, then resign again. She was brought back a second time in 2012, as the industry rode a new wave of less-is-more, but then abruptly bowed out in 2013.
The founder, who saw the light of day in Wesselburen, Germany in 1943, had been running a successful consultancy business when, in 2012, the suits of Jil Sander SpA made the astonishing (and, to some, upsetting) announcement that she was making a return to the house.
And yet a mere 20 months later, once again, Sander was waving adieu—this time for “personal reasons” that were not, at least immediately, disclosed. But despite all the ups and downs and drama, one thing is for certain: Sander’s “less and luxe” design mission was groundbreaking in the eighties—and it remains potent decades later.