As ‘Jil Sander: Present Tense’ opens at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, Nick Vinson speaks to the legendary German designer about the impetus behind her first solo museum exhibition. The 3,000 sq m show, curated by Matthias Wagner K, takes an immersive and multisensory approach, consisting of large scale tableaux and installations that celebrate Sander’s purist, understated and elegant approach to aesthetics. The exhibition spans genres including product design, garden art, architecture and cosmetics, and concretes the designer's status in the canon of modern design.
Nick Vinson: Why did you choose to put on this exhibition?
Jil Sander: My archive was not very organised, and an exhibition deadline was a great way to make me speed up the archive revision.
How long have you been working on it?
About 18 months.
What would you say are your design principles?
Innovative quality materials, interesting proportions, perfection in details, energising shapes and a truly three-dimensional execution.
What is Jil Sander’s concept of purism?
The desire to capture the essence of the modern moment as it unfolds season after season. Purism to me means leaving behind unnecessary historical baggage, decorations, conventions, while concentrating on truly contemporary shapes and materials. I always wanted my designs to convey a readiness and openness towards the future.
People may be surprised to learn there has always been room in your life for the baroque. How is your personal taste different from the way you express opulence in your work?
As a fashion designer I tried to do justice to individual proportions by diversifying my collections and breaking them down to multiple possible combinations. The same thing happens when I have to choose the interior design for a building. The house I live in in Hamburg was built in the historicist period at the end of the 19th century by Martin Haller. I tried to give it a modern design, but that didn’t work. So I got Renzo Mongiardino to help me. Under his tutelage I learned that all style periods have a purist version of enlightened craftsmanship and choice materials. We chose a Renaissance interior which did justice to the house and created harmony.
When I think of you I think of the perfect white shirt. What is about your shirts that make them so covetable and why are they such an object of obsession?
I have about a hundred white shirts in my wardrobe. On the one hand, the periodical revision of the outlines of the white shirt is a study in shape, workmanship and quality. On the other hand, these revisions are echoes of a changing zeitgeist. You have to refresh a classic like the white shirt all the time.
Whether it’s a white shirt or a double-faced cashmere coat, fabric development has always been an essential element of your work. Why is research and development into yarn and fabric so important?
The shape and overall look of a piece of clothing is, to a great extent, a function of the fabric. I was interested in materials which lend themselves to a sculptural use. It helps if a fabric has character, a surprising lightness or even a distinct weight. If you want to create new shapes, to start with the material is a great way to get inspired.
Everything I own from you has a special label that reads ‘Tailor Made’. Why is construction so integral to a Jil Sander garment?
If you want to avoid clothes that just cling to the body, you need sartorial construction. This includes the development of patterns, innovative inlay and fine-tuning through repeated fitting. The result will be an autonomous shape that moves in dynamic harmony with the body.
You once said you had a marriage of aesthetics with your architect Michael Gabellini. This exhibition celebrates your creative collaboration with him, as well as with photographers like Peter Lindbergh, Irving Penn, David Sims and Craig McDean, sound artist Frédéric Sanchez and designers like Fabien Baron, Ezra Petronio and Peter Schmidt, who worked with you on your logo and perfume bottles. How do you choose them and what is the collaborative process like?
I like to collaborate with people whose creative work I find interesting. The collaboration itself is a process. You need to find a common language.
The last time I saw you we spoke about your garden in the north of Germany; your exhibition covers aesthetics, material and form of fashion and product design, architecture and garden art. Tell me about working with Penelope Hobhouse on that.
I was inspired by the famous Sissinghurst rose gardens. Our garden project encompassed the design of the surrounding landscape. It is an attempt to bridge the concept of the protected Renaissance theme garden and the English idea of a democratic landscape.