Polite Applause

Jil Sander’s Quiet Return

Designer Jil Sander Returns to the Runway with a Ripple Not A Splash. Robin Givhan reports from Milan.

Chris Moore / Catwalking via Getty Images

After a decade away, Jil Sander returned to the label that bears her name with a 2013 spring collection that was tasteful, understated, beautifully proportioned but ultimately unremarkable. The collection was neither stunning nor disappointing, which is to say, it did not make an audacious attempt to soar.

One could not admire it for tenacity or applaud it for daring—although one must surely give Sander herself credit for having the nerve to come back to a brand that had carried on successfully without her. Instead, the collection only reminded the audience of the past, when the designer boldly gave women a clear-eyed minimalism—a style of dress that exuded stripped-down femininity and sure-footed power. Sander perfected the white dress shirt, crafting it with a perfectly cut collar and a slim-fitting sleekness. She cut it from silky cotton—or some other woven magic—such that it felt luxurious rather than utilitarian. She made one marvel at how something as simple as a white shirt could be so enticing.

Sander taught women about the beauty of restraint with her precise cuts and her devotion to the most magnificent and technically intriguing fabrics. She gave women an alternative to frills without making them look genderless.

She stayed true to that aesthetic in her Saturday afternoon show. But she did not reveal to her audience how that sensibility works now, how it plays in this moment when a woman can buy a well-cut white blouse and dresses with inverted seams and collarless coats from a host of retailers who don’t charge anywhere near designer prices. Sander taught women how to dress in this streamlined manner and she spawned a culture of retailers, including Uniqlo—with whom she collaborated—to sell this philosophy at a welcoming price.

There was a cold, starkness to her spring collection, in shades of navy, white, charcoal, and merlot (with an occasional burst of orange), which was not helped along by the wide white platform on which her models paraded. And here, one cannot help but mention her immediate predecessor, Raf Simons, who made the brand into his own while retaining the fundamental essence of what Sander started. Where Sander was distant and unemotional, Simons brought a warmth and emotion to the brand.

Sander’s return, of course, was precipitated by Simons’s departure, which was, within the fashion industry, both shocking and fraught. Just before presenting his fall 2012 collection, the brand announced his departure and in short order, her return was formally announced. His final collection was a winning one and he was sent off with a standing ovation. (He is now ensconced at Christian Dior, where he has already debuted his couture collection.)

Sander explained her return by simply noting that she felt she had something relevant left to say. But she did not make any pronouncements with her spring collection other than that she is proud of her established aesthetic and believes that it still has resonance with a certain kind of savvy and sophisticated woman.

But instead of creating a restrained collection that was above—or beyond—the fray of fashion’s trends and frippery, she created a collection that was dull and mechanical. Fashion has found a way to inject emotion into minimalism. And leading the industry in that accomplishment was Simons, who took what Sanders had built and pushed it forward so that it could speak to a consumer who needs fashion to be both respite and adventure. He also made the brand seem more vibrant by moving away from a homogenous group of models, which Sander relentlessly favored, so that his runway shows did not look like a march of the cyborgs. With a nod to diversity, Simons made the brand feel more alive and less rigid, even as he was concerned with the precise millimeter cut of a shirt collar.

Sander, for her highly anticipated return to the runway, did what she most always has done and booked no brown-skinned models or Asian ones—a decision that, after the industry’s recent soul-searching on the subject of diversity—seemed especially out of touch.

One hopes that in seasons to come she will move beyond her stoic past and toward a future that is right for her but that also reaches out to the wide range of emotions, moods, and customers that now are within fashion’s grasp.