Sandernistas on parade

Jil Sander has stayed ahead of the game by standing apart from the ebb and flow of fashion. Her clothes marry up-to-the-minute fabric technology with lean, softly sculpted designs. No wonder Nineties women love her

When it come to clothes, Hamburg doesn't have quite the same ring as Paris, New York, London, Milan. Yet it has produced a designer whose clothes women swoon over: women as diverse as Uma Thurman, Madonna, Winona Ryder, Charlotte Rampling, Prue Leith, Emma Thompson, Sharon Stone, Joan Burstein of Browns and Rita Britton, the down-to-earth owner of Pollyanna in Barnsley. The women pictured here, Terri Lund, Jayne Brierly and Diane Groom, also worship at the altar of Jil Sander: each season they make a pilgrimage to Pollyanna, where they need only look at the luxurious fabrics and simple cuts of the lean, softly sculpted clothing to be enraptured. They will touch the cloth and find it impossibly light. Then they will slip an arm into a sleeve; before they know it, they are wearing the jacket. And there is no turning back. pounds 1,000? A suit that feels like this has got to be worth every penny, they tell themselves. Next thing they know, they have spent their clothing budget for the rest of the year and are vowing to live off baked beans until pay-day.

Since 1968, Jil Sander has been building up her label, never wavering from quality of cloth and workmanship, and purity of line. After almost 30 years in business, the 53-year-old can now boast annual sales of over $175 million. She has recently bought a 19th-century house near the Alter Ouster Lake in Hamburg - it once belonged to Aristotle Onassis - to add to her country house north of Hamburg, flat in Paris and chalet in Gstaad. Her single-mindedness has paid off.

By staying aloof from the ever-changing trends of fashion, Sander has always been ahead of the game. Instead of looking to the past, she is driven by the technicalities of fabric and cut. If she makes a bootleg trouser shape, it will not be because it looked great on Jackie Kennedy, but because it is perfectly proportioned: "I like to push the cutting and technical side of fabrics. I have experience of manufacturing over 20 years but there are so many more technological possibilities."

In the Seventies, when women were dousing themselves in the heady scent of Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, Jil Sander quietly launched two fragrances, called simply Woman Pure and Man Pure. The minimalism of designers like Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang seems like old news when compared with the pared-down lines that Mrs Sander, as she is respectfully referred to by her employees, has been cultivating for over three decades. Now fashion has come to Jil Sander and she can sit back and smile knowingly. The luxurious simplicity of her clothes sums up the style and shape of the mid-Nineties.

She is the personification of her clothes: a wealthy woman who exudes confidence, but whose clothing makes no overt statements about her status. There is a fine art to understatement, and Jil Sander has mastered it. She loves fabrics but doesn't like them to look too rich. She loves luxury next to her skin but does not want to shout about it. She makes a coat from very thick Chinese cashmere but it feels light as a feather. She uses a blend of cashmere and wool and treats it so that it looks like felt. "It looks like nothing," she boasts, where other designers would say, "It looks like a million dollars."

"Every person has a feminine side and a masculine side," she says. "Women can have strong energy. It really depends on the individual. Clothes can give women a lift." So her clothes are both soft and strong - a jacket can be formally tailored but made out of the softest cashmere. Her clothes are both masculine and feminine.

The women who wear them are usually women who know where they are going in life, who, as Sander herself would say, have trained their brains. To the outside world they look as though everything is effortless. At least, that is how the models on the Jil Sander catwalk look. They wear no-make-up make-up; hair is roughly pinned up. The models may be young, but they have character.

Sander developed her own cosmetics range in 1979. "You can use make-up but you don't necessarily want to see it," she says. And she practises what she preaches. At the age of 53, Sander is a better role model for women of all ages than Kate Moss or Amber Valletta. She has a face that is lined and changed by age, yet her confidence and energy give her the freshness of a 20-year-old.

"'Jil Sander' is a very personal concept," she says. And that is why her label has such a strong identity. Everything, from the milky white glass bottle that holds the Jil Sander fragrance to the blond wood in the shops, is as personal to her as the contents of her own bathroom cabinet. The whole business radiates from her. Her personality seems to rub off on the team who work with her and have been called "Sandernistas".

"I always try to express the same mood," she says. "You can feel it when you wear Jil Sander." Of course, to be able to afford a little of that spirit and invest in a Jil Sander wardrobe, you have to follow the advice of the designer herself: "Buy the best, but buy less." Terri Lund: mother of children aged 16,13 and 7. Lives in Ilkley. Age 38. Camel cashmere coat and matching slim trousers. Both from the Autumn/Winter '96 Jil Sander collection

TERRI LUND (above) White stretch shirt in viscose/silk/elastane mix, pounds 295, ivory stretch pique skirt, pounds 385

DIANE GROOM (left) Advertising and marketing manager in central Leeds. Age 37.

White rayon knit banded top, pounds 250; wide black pleated trousers in viscose/silk/elastane mix, pounds 585

JAYNE BRIERLY (right) Assistant producer, Richard and Judy Show, Granada TV, Manchester. Age 31.

Dark navy stretch gabardine dress from the Jil Sander Autumn/Winter '96 collection

All clothes available from Pollyanna, 16 Market Hill, Barnsley; Browns, 23-27 South Molton Street, London W1; Harrods, Brompton Road, London SW1; Wardrobe, 42 Conduit Street, London W1

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