By James J. Spina
Exclusive photos provided to 20/20 by Jil Sander

One supposes it would be appropriate to start this close look at the essence of the Jil Sander brand with a fervent look and analysis of the new eyewear and sunwear collection, making its debut in the U.S. at the 2009 occasion of Vision Expo East in New York.

But all I keep thinking about is 12 small cobbler nails. This dozen-detail of craftsmanship is on the front sole of a Jil Sander shoe for men. The upper leather of this particular shoe is a single piece of cordovan leather. But it is the sight of the nails that hammers me.

I know I should be delivering you full and fantastic details on the exquisite Jil Sander eyewear and sunwear collection. (But wouldn’t you rather have those precious facts as expertly delivered by senior editor Gloria Nicola in her inimitable What’s New presentation on page 123) And yes... YES we should be jumping into enticing interview axioms and aura provided by Jil Sander creative director Raf Simons. (Don’t worry he will put the whole essence of the brand and the optical collection together for you in a way that hones you expert as well.) But... I’ve seen those cobbler nails details once before.

It’s an old now-sepia toned picture of my dad as a ragamuffin Boy Scout posing with a pack of his buddies about to hike over the George Washington bridge to Alpine Scout Camp in New Jersey. He’s about nine years old and the bottom of his foot is rakishly poised up at the camera. The little nails are clearly visible on the sole tip. Everything else he’s wearing looks hand-me-down and well-worn pre-1930. But the shoes glow with a craftsmanship that definitely speaks custom-made-to-measure. Maybe they were shoes specifically made for his first Holy Communion. Or perhaps they were crafted specifically to his measurement for some celebratory function as, perhaps, a ring-bearer in a family wedding. In any case his shoes are regal; undoubtedly crafted by a tradition-bound cobbler intent on giving the perfect fit and forever function to one very special rough-and-tumble little boy.


Once an aspiring fashion journalist, Jil Sander opens her own fashion retailing boutique in Hamburg in 1968. Coincidentally, Jil Sander creative director Raf Simons, appointed to this prestigious leadership position in 2005, was born in... 1968.

Possessing a strong and self-concerted design sensibility and wishing to sidestep the constantly recurring fashionista drive toward retro-trending, Sander launches her own women’s collection in 1973. Then as now, the style maxim is purity marked by perfection.

The march toward auxiliary perfection begins with cosmetics in 1979, leather goods and accessories in 1984 as well as global fronts in Paris (1993), Italy (Italia SPA 1994) and the USA (1995).

If ever there was a designer and a category literally and purely “made- to-measure” for each other: Jil Sander debuts its first men’s collection in Milan in the first month of 1997.

The Prada Group buys into a majority of Jil Sander AG in 1999. Jil Sander resigns a year later as chairwoman and designer. She returns in May 2003 but resigns again in November 2004. Raf Simons is appointed creative director in July 2005.

Over the next four years the company shifts ownership and eventual delistment from the German stock exchange. It is then acquired by Group Onward Holdings; the key empowering strategy is a creative honing of the power of the brand’s design and style ethic as empowered by Simons and a potent rash of store openings and franchises delivering the unique Jil Sander message globally. Its newest flagship store in New York’s Soho district is the first such stronghold completely developed and designed by Simons.

The Jil Sander brand reasserts its quest for ultra purity and extraordinary luxury with revamped and commanding positions in both its apparel and accessories businesses marked by a continual fusion of high technology coupled with old world ideals and traditions. In that perfect and balanced climate, the Jil Sander Group announces a strategic licensing alliance with Marchon Eyewear in 2008. Both sunwear and ophthalmic collections debuting in the U.S. at Vision Expo East in 2009 bear the distinct mark of an intense collaborative effort by Raf Simons and the Marchon design team.

—James J. Spina

Timeline photos provided by Jil Sander from runway fashion shows.
And the Jil Sander shoe I’m staring at in the Jil Sander boutique on Via Verri in Milan richly speaks to that same impeccable tradition. It goes to the point that with certain products it’s all in the details but with exceptional products like those in the Jil Sander lexicon it IS the details.

That indelible apex of quality and attentiveness is the most visible incident of the Jil Sander experience. You sense it in the pride of Milano Jil Sander store manager, Fabio Vaccarella as he tours a customer through the handstitching of an inner seam and the fabric draping to a memory deemed by a seamstress in an Italian nunnery working collar folds to flare with asymmetric authority yet conforming to the sensual curve of a woman’s neck. You feel it in the flutter instigated by the hand of Jil Sander head of communications, Andreas Bergbaur as he tussles through a striking gown’s long fabric fringes inspired in part by the rhythms and substance of African wood pearls.

And indisputably the most au courant words capturing the essence of the brand come from its creative director/designer, Raf Simons. “The complexly and forever modern style has always attracted me about Jil Sander, long before I took over the position as creative director. I try to take the material quality—the ultimate statement of luxury—and bring it to the future, because I think it is the most romantic thing in the world.”

Appointed as the brand’s creative director in July 2005, perhaps it is this revelatory sensitivity to the romance of the brand that imparts Simons with the secret ingredient needed to appreciate what takes the brand’s aura into the statusphere of ULTRA. Belgium born, Simons grew up in countrified surroundings that kept him relatively unexposed to the highly charged world of design and global culture. The layer of creative hunger and qualified experience was stimulated at the Design School of Genk, initially diving into a career as a furniture and interior designer. Healthy experience as he is now redesigning the worldwide reach of Jil Sander stores (initiated in the New York Soho store) and a design kinship collaboration with Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo for her flagship London store.

But it is the quest for apex-style in fashion that occupies Simons creative synapses. “As far as I can remember from the moment I became interested in fashion, rather late at the age of 19 or 20, I started to follow certain designers and Jil Sander was one of them.” And even as he started his own collection of apparel in 1996 he imagined being a part of the Sander mystique. “I knew it as a brand I would love to do. And when asked my heart immediately said yes. There wasn’t a single doubt even though I had never done women’s fashion before!”

Noting the heritage of the brand Simons’ analysis is that “the brand has a specific northern European heritage routed in Hamburg, a harbor city.” He adds that accounts for “its hansiatic, bourgeois pureness. Mrs. Sander had an obsession with perfection… in materials… in fits… and shapes… and workmanship [those cobbler nails] and it is that combination which makes the brand unique and successful.”

Simons is quick to point out that building on heritage should not be misinterpreted as any sort of retro direction. “Heritage for me is a mental state of mind but I hardy use it as a literal inspiration. I’m more interested in creating products that give no historical reference. The product has to look new, be something for tomorrow. Modernity must be the driving force.”

And the eyewear in magnificent partnership with Marchon hits that “spot” EXACTLY.

Kept you waiting didn’t we? Yes, we saved the 20/20 treat-see on the eyewear along with Simons’ comments on this powerful new addition to the Jil Sander lifestyle so you have a fuller dose of understanding the virtue of the brand and a knowledgeable grasp of its sometimes elusive but ever-rewarding attributes.

Here’s Simons: “Jil Sander is for me the perfect brand to offer a complete look. It offers a total look, a whole lifestyle world, so clear in its aesthetic language. It breathes a specific culture of design. Therefore eyewear was a very logical next step.” As 20/20 says
it ALL the time, so too does Simons. “Eyewear is the kind of accessory that can create a wider buzz for your brand. It is a product that communicates with your face and your facial expressions. It is the closest product that interacts with your personal expressions of speaking and looking. That fascinates me.”

THAT equally fascinates and drives 20/20. And THAT drives the eyewear side of the optical arena.

Confronting the actual product at hand Simons is eager to detail. “The styles were developed with very specific treatments of the surface, such as the overall brushing or the three-dimensional geometric shaped temples or the deep-pigment coloring of materials and matte metal finishes.” Allow us to add favorite modern twists that present deep navy blue as the ultimate step beyond black (a trick used by the best tuxedo designers) and origami-like folds in both the zyl and metal temples, making for a most interesting use of light and reflections.

As Simons concludes, “Though perhaps understated and in a certain way discreet, every detail has to make sense and add value.”
And it has to do that with exquisite taste and an intense regard for every production step and product detail. It’s the cobbler precisely driving that nail into a sole with his soul. It is a frame maker attentive to the exact burnish of that deep blue frame, building vision… from vision.