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Sander and Bertelli Split Again

Jil Sander’s on-again, off-again role at the company that bears her name is off again. The designer has departed the Prada-owned firm.

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Photo By WWD Staff

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Photo By WWD Staff

MILAN — It’s déjà vu all over again at Jil Sander: Prada Group surprised the fashion world Tuesday by revealing that Sander has once again left the company that bears her name.

Disclosure of Sander’s departure came in the form of a brief technical filing through the German stock exchange, where shares of the Jil Sander company are still listed. “Jil Sander AG, the Hamburg fashion company, and designer Jil Sander announced that they have amicably agreed to terminate their cooperation,” the statement said.

The collection will be designed by an in-house design team “for right now,” a Prada Group spokesman said.

It marks the second time in four years that Sander has left, and once again it appears to result from insurmountable clashes between her and Prada chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli.

The first time Sander departed the company she founded more than 30 years ago was in 2000, just months after selling it to Prada. Bertelli famously quipped in response: “A brand that’s as strong as Jil Sander doesn’t need to rely on the name of a designer. It’s not the name that counts, but the quality of the product.” A few months later, he brought in Milan Vukmirovic as creative director and immediately after the brand’s image began to disintegrate amid hostile reviews.

Given the fashion community’s lukewarm reception of Vukmirovic, Bertelli’s choice to revisit a Jil Sander without Sander and a team approach appears even bolder.

“Unless he has some rabbit in his brilliant hat, Bertelli has learned that filling [the shoes] of Jil Sander is a gargantuan task,” said one source.

The Prada spokesman explained late Tuesday that Sander’s contract was not renewed. When Sander returned last year, she inked a six-year deal with Prada. That agreement called for early contract renegotiations that have since failed, according to the spokesman.

“This [nonrenewal] was a result of differing opinions on the future financial strategic plans and operational management of the Jil Sander group,” he said. “It had nothing to do with creativity.” The spokesman was unable to clarify whether Sander has a noncompete clause as part of her exit package.
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He said that Bertelli and Sander shared “reciprocal admiration” for one another, but that Prada is focusing on getting Jil Sander “back into profitability” by boosting operating efficiencies.

Sander could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The announcement stunned fashion executives and Sander insiders alike. As they were struggling to make sense of the news, a few small details emerged as to what might have triggered the most recent breakup. Some said it was an inevitable conclusion, given the hardheadedness of both Sander and Bertelli.

“Once a plate is cracked, the fissure is always there,” said Janet Brown, owner of a store in Port Washington, N.Y., who had been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to reach Sander on the designer’s cell phone. Brown said her inability to contact Sander was “very odd.”

Yet others openly admitted that they were caught off guard and thought the partnership was moving forward.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta, said, “This is quite devastating news. I absolutely didn’t see it coming and it saddens me greatly.”

Sander canceled a trip to New York a few weeks ago. At the time, some observers chalked it up to typical last-minute schedule changes. Now, though, those same people speculate whether that marked the beginning of the end.

Despite recurring speculation that there could be frictions once again between the pair, Sander exuded a relaxed and calm aura during the women’s spring-summer 2005 shows in Milan last month. In a WWD interview at that time, she spoke of ambitious plans to grow the accessories business, launch a new fragrance and open stores.

“Maybe when I made the joint venture with Prada, I didn’t take the time to understand whom I was marrying. The more we work together, the more we realize that we are similar. We are both entrepreneurs. We understand how to respect one another,” Sander said of Bertelli.

Bertelli was equally upbeat. “I’m delighted that Jil has made this important decision,” Bertelli said in a statement at the time. “I am sure that she will find in the company the motivation and the resources necessary to enable her to express her ideas and creativity.”
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The designer and the Prada ceo seemed at ease with one another at a joint interview in May of last year to tout Sander’s homecoming. “Now that Jil Sander has returned, we are very happy and we are sure we’ll find not only energy and the right strategy to increase sales, but also, above all else, give Jil Sander that same kind of impulse Jil Sander provided with her very first show,” said Bertelli, who, during the interview, laughed at Sander’s jokes, clowned around and downplayed the comments he’d made in the past.

And his wish appeared to be coming true. The collections that Sander crafted since her return garnered praise from retailers and critics alike, culminating with her most recent effort. The spring-summer 2005 collection, featuring delicately pleated shirts and structured but soft coats, was considered one of her strongest.

One source said that Bertelli had even learned to keep his distance by rarely traveling to Hamburg and giving Sander creative freedom.

It doesn’t look like that was enough for Sander, who built up her namesake label herself and was used to working as a one-woman show for decades. “She could not answer to a higher force,” said a source close to the designer. “That’s just not her style.”

Another source close to Prada said that Sander had a hard time reconciling her creativity with the need to contain costs — the issue that caused the split between the pair the first time. “She didn’t necessarily watch the price tag,” he said.

The pressure for Sander to watch expenses was vital for Bertelli this time around, both because Jil Sander AG continues to operate in the red and Prada is moving to pay down its debt in order to prepare for an initial public offering no later than next June. The most recent financial results from Jil Sander came in August. The numbers for the first six months of 2004 include sales of the spring-summer collection, her first design effort since her return.

They show an improvement, but there’s still a way to go before the brand is back in the black. Sales for the six months ended June 30 rose 4 percent to 65.4 million euros, or $84.7 million, and the company expects a further increase in the second part of the year. Cost-cutting helped Jil Sander narrow its losses before extraordinary operations to 17 million euros, or $22 million, from 20 million euros, or $25.9 million, the year before.
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Sander’s second exit from the Prada Group is sure to renew debate on whether a corporate mentality and creative autonomy can coexist. Pinault-Printemps-Redoute’s determination to control Gucci ultimately pushed its two stars, ceo Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, out the door. Ford also was replaced by a team, one that received lukewarm reviews this fall for its initial efforts at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

Sander’s departure comes as Prada attempts to reduce the debt it built up in the mergers-and-acquisitions frenzy of years past, purchasing labels such as Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, Car Shoe and Azzedine Alaïa. Prada has said it wants eventually to go public and list shares on the stock exchange by June 2005, when 700 million euros, or $906.3 million at current exchange rates, of its convertible bonds expire.

Prada’s net financial debt stood at 675 million euros, or $873.9 million, at the end of last year, and the company’s goal is to cut the debt to 300 million euros, or $388.4 million, by the end of this year.

— With contributions from Alessandra Ilari and Courtney Colavita, Milan, and Melissa Drier, Berlin
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