JIL SANDER | POLIMODA 2021
Enjoyment of the Rigor
An interview with Lucie and Luke Meier by Filep Motwary for POLIMODA DUETS
In 2001, Lucie and Luke Meier, Joint Creative Directors at Jil Sander, met while studying at Polimoda in Florence. Lucie was taking a fashion marketing course and Luke was an exchange student from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Twenty years after their study experience in Italy, Vogue Greece Editor-at-large, fashion curator, and Polimoda visiting lecturer Filep Motwary talks to the designers about their approach to fashion.
Filep Motwary: Good morning Lucie and Luke. How are you?
Luke: Good, how are you?
Filep: I’m fine, thanks. I have some questions about Covid-19 and how it has compelled the fashion industry for a restart. Hope you don’t mind if we jump in immediately. So, I’m wondering how you and your company have reacted to this emergency and what is the lesson you have learned so far?
Luke: Well, we’ve pretty much been in Italy except for a little bit of travel in the summer, but we stayed quite close. Since the beginning, we’ve taken it very seriously so we’ve been quite good about taking all the mandated precautions and all of the methodical things required. I think we were able to be quite resilient in getting things done and our people have been extraordinary about the energy and the effort that they have put in. After the first lockdown, we opened the studios back up in May and our team was quite happy to work on things and create things again and…
Lucie: …see people again.
Luke: …see people again and have a bit of time again outside of their living space. Of course, we test frequently now and things are a little bit different than before—there is a different setup. Luckily in the studios, we have a lot of space so we’re able to spread everybody out in a good way and keep a good distance and technically be able to execute what feels like a safe environment. But I think there’s a big mental toll as well. Everybody tries to remain optimistic and energetic, but this pandemic wears on people and I think, as positive as we can be, we have to be very realistic that it’s not over by any stretch and we have to stay resilient and have the right approach.
Lucie: But I think, in terms of collection, we definitely think twice about all the things we want to do, what is truly needed and not needed. Since the Covid-19 emergency, there has been a refocusing on how we do things and it seems it was truly necessary to slow things down. To make everything interconnected again and to give things a true reason to exist … this is important!
Luke: Yeah, I think we’ve always had quite a strong focus on quality and on garments that aren’t disposable; things that are qualitative and made at a high level…
Lucie: And most importantly, made to last.
Luke: …and made to last. As designers, you have to catch a bit of what’s in the air. I think that has changed a bit as well.
Filep: I’m wondering about certain things that perhaps have already been lost like the joy of a fashion show as a communal experience. People, since ancient times, have always gathered to celebrate beauty! How do you value the possibility of returning and experiencing a collection or a fashion show and using our full senses again? What is your verdict of a fashion show after what we have just been through and are still going through?
Luke: I think you can’t replicate an in-person event or an experience like that, as it’s something very special. We are more than happy to go back to shows in the right moment. The situation we’re in has made us think about how we can engage with people who aren’t able to come to our shows, and that’s a very positive thing.
Even if you have a very large audience at a show, 1,000 or 2,000 people, it’s still a much smaller number than the people that would be interested to see it live or that would want to be part of it somehow. This moment has given us a bit more time to think and to try to identify the ways that we can include people that won’t be there in person when we do our shows again.
But no matter how well you plan them, there’s still that sort of…
Luke: …yeah, that energy. You can try to control all details, the casting, the collection, the venue, the music, the lighting, the scenography … but there’s always an unforeseen element that live shows inject. For us, a live fashion show is a performance in a way, because you’re creating an environment. Sometimes, even if all planning is perfect but for whatever reason the energy isn’t right, it’s not great. Sometimes, the opposite happens where it’s a bit chaotic or you put things together at the last minute, but the energy is special, it can just turn into something incredible. It’s that sort of uncontrolled quality that gives live shows a unique characteristic!
Replicating that through other media is a challenge, but I think it’s something that we’re working on and trying to figure out.
Filep: So, in a sense, are you saying that fashion shows can be reinvented without losing their impact?
Luke: I don’t think they can be reinvented, but I think they can be enhanced.
Lucie: It could be a bit different …
Luke: Yeah, but I think there is a blurring between the digital experience and real life, you know? We’re getting a bit better with streaming but it’s still not the same as experiencing a fashion show in person. I think we’re still far from that.
Filep: Because it requires a lot of emotion to build a show, it’s the bridge between the audience and the collection somehow! Having said this, why is our world more and more afraid of receiving or expressing emotion?
Lucie: Because it’s uncontrollable.
Luke: Emotion is something that can’t be curated. It just happens. Maybe people lean towards perfection of what they project as their own image, whereas we prefer when there are no filters and it’s pure emotion being expressed.
For us and the way we approach things, an emotional connection or emotional response is critical, otherwise, I don’t think we’d enjoy doing this work. I think we’re very attached to our clothes, we put a lot of love and energy into them. We are emotionally attached to what we create.
Filep: Yeah, it’s very obvious in your work, it’s very vivid, one can recognize it.
Filep: Allow me to go back. Lucie, you are from Switzerland and Luke comes from Canada and you met as Polimoda students?
Luke: Yeah, that’s correct.
Filep: Could you kindly describe for me that time in your lives? From your dream of becoming fashion designers to the moment you actually entered the school and departed for the journey that would turn you into two of the leading voices of the fashion industry today. I know it’s a long journey … (laughs)
Luke: Can we give you the short version? (laughs)
Filep: Yes, please.
Luke: I was living in New York at the time, I’d actually studied business and finance and I moved to New York simply because I wanted to be there. Growing up in Vancouver, I was very influenced by New York and Los Angeles and London and I always wanted to be living in one of those centers where things were constantly moving forward. I was already working a little bit with James Jebbia and the guys at Supreme and I was going to school because I needed a more precise degree to continue in that work but I also needed…
Lucie: …to get a visa.
Luke: …yeah. And then the opportunity came through FIT to go to Polimoda which honestly was something that I grabbed immediately. I had always wanted to come to Europe to learn and immerse myself in the understanding of making quality garments and quality materials.
So, I came to Italy and that was my first experience spending real-time here and I really loved it. I loved being in Florence. It was a bit of a particular time because it was right after the September 11th attacks in the US so nobody was traveling anywhere at all. Florence was very, very empty compared to what it is like now. I also traveled around a lot. I loved being in Europe and thought “at some point, I have to come back.” So yeah, I learned a lot about tailoring and handwork and that was very important for me.
Then I went back to New York and finally started working with Supreme full time.
Filep: And for Lucie?
Lucie: I was in Switzerland. I grew up there and I became interested in studying fashion, possibly a little bit because of my mother’s influence. Where I come from is not exactly a fashion capital (laughs). It was quite abstract in my head, but I was attracted to fashion in general yet I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do because I didn’t know anybody who worked in fashion. I couldn’t ask questions or have someone guide me in the steps I had to take.
Through a friend of a friend, I heard about Polimoda and it seemed to be a good place to start, where I could gain an understanding of the fashion industry. I took the Fashion Marketing course and then after meeting Luke and graduating, I actually went to New York for a while. I did various jobs: I worked for a few magazines and helped young designers. That’s when I decided that I wanted to design. I continued my design studies in Paris and right out of school I started working at Louis Vuitton. I was basically thrown into it being part of Marc Jacobs’s design team. It was a really great, rich, intense, and magical time. I learned so much.
Filep: So, it was at Polimoda where you guys met, correct?
Luke: Yeah, we were actually…
Lucie: Kind of roommates.
Luke: …we were kind of flatmates because we both had a room in a family’s house. They rented to students every year so we shared a small floor in their house.
Filep: Why is school so important to begin with, and what was the outcome of the experience you had in Florence as a whole and at Polimoda?
Luke: A good school is important. When it’s an applied art, like fashion design, it’s great to be able to be in a classroom or studio to understand what the work and craft really is. To learn what it takes and what you have to get good at. Polimoda is a nurturing and free environment where you’re able to express your own creativity in ways that you may never get to when you’re working. But at the same time, it’s good that you get a bit of a reality-check there as well.
We also had the chance to teach last year, and it was enriching to be on the other side: we were speaking with enthusiastic students that didn’t know what it’s like to be in the business, working in the day-to-day activity of creating collections and running a company. It was quite refreshing to speak to them to understand where their questions come from and why they’re interested in design.
School years are a critical time in somebody’s development and I think if you’re fortunate enough to get into a good one and have talented professors, it can really have a huge impact.
Filep: Throughout your careers, you’ve experienced working for different and opposite brands. Lucie focused entirely on womenswear and was at Louis Vuitton then went to Balenciaga and Dior. On the other hand, Luke was in charge of Supreme and co-founded OAMC. Now, you’re both at Jil Sander. How has your perspective of fashion changed over time? Since you started designing, the meaning of being a young creative person has also radically changed.
Luke: It’s funny because a lot of the time people will look at the experiences that Lucie and I have had and say that they’re opposite. However, if you know these brands more intimately, you would understand that our experiences have been very similar as far as the approach taken and the processes involved. There’s a creative process on one side, but then the rigor to get to a final result is the same no matter where you are. If you want something good, the work has to go in and the attention to detail and energy to problem-solve or to create something different and exciting always follows the same steps.
Filep: Let’s focus a bit more on the changes one goes through throughout the years.
Luke: I think that, in a certain sense, our approach has kind of stayed the same. Anything we create has to feel right, it has to feel like it’s relevant to the time that we’re in. I don’t know if we directly think about what it’s like to be young. We have to just always be kind of aware of what’s going on and what’s in the air.
What feels right is a bit of an abstract process and how you determine that is not so pragmatic. Again, it’s about emotion or feeling whether something’s right and interesting or it’s not. This is definitely informed by music or art or creative endeavors in general, as well as youth culture. You could say that social media is a creative art form in itself; it’s just another tool and obviously it has a major impact on the way people behave and the way people digest information, but we don’t sit around and think, you know, hey what do people care about today? I think it’s more about…
Lucie: …what do we care about.
Luke: Yeah, what do we care about while also paying attention to the world.
Filep: So, if I ask you to define the characteristics of contemporary fashion design, what would they be and why?
Luke: Well, I think it’s important for us to have a certain quality level as well as something that feels aesthetically right and relevant. It has to feel new and fresh rather than some sort of recreation or something that captures a certain moment from the past. We don’t care too much about that.
Lucie: And I think we also have a very personal approach to our work in everything we do. That’s why we care about creating our own vision; it’s not market research or what everybody needs now. We clearly know what we want and what we don’t want which is very important to what we deliver at the end. And we like to work collaboratively with our teams. We don’t like the idea of hierarchies — it’s not a modern way of working.
I would also say that if young people want to bring something unique to the table, they have to really listen to themselves and respect their feelings about what they think is important and what isn’t. Don’t look outside, look inside.
Luke: It would be truly nice to see fashion trying a bit less to please everybody and be a bit more focused on “this is what we do and if you like it, great, and if you don’t, that’s also okay.”
Filep: What was expected from you when you took over Jil Sander?
Luke: To make it really good (laughs), I mean to make it…
Luke: …yeah, to make it relevant again. We’d been actively following the brand for a very long time and we were quite familiar with a lot of the work and the values of the House in general. I feel in our approach we share a lot of these values with the initial concept of the brand, like the enjoyment of the rigor and the non-compromise approach. We enjoy the idea of progression.
Filep: What would you define as the biggest risk you take when designing a collection and what does freedom mean to you as designers? I’m wondering also whether you are ever in conflict with your own taste because this could also be a possibility.
Luke: Freedom is essential, the freedom to design the things that we like that feel good. I think that’s key, that’s critical.
It’s an interesting question you have about the conflict idea because obviously, we’re two people and not just one mind, so there is a constant dialog. Rather than conflict, I would say that it’s good to have another perspective, another opinion, and somebody who can challenge what you think. Especially if it’s somebody who you respect a lot, it becomes an enjoyable exercise. So, we’re lucky because we have the opportunity to talk to each other and have someone to bounce an idea off of and they give you back a very…
Luke: …honest and unfiltered opinion of what they think. That’s invaluable because a lot of the time you don’t know where somebody’s opinion comes from or why they say certain things. It’s not aggressive, and it’s good that there’s a secondary opinion. It’s not just, yes, everything’s great .. sometimes it’s no, it’s not!
Filep: I’m interested to hear your perspective on savoir-faire welfare in fashion as it is today with all these possibilities that technology offers. Where is a human touch standing in terms of priority in what you guys do for Jil Sander?
Lucie: It’s extremely important to maintain the savoir-faire and not just hand it all over to an industrial approach. I think we’ve already lost a lot of the essence of savoir-faire over the years. There are lace machines that nobody knows how they were built or how they can be repaired. That’s just one example but a lot of technique has already been lost and I think it’s extremely vital to maintain what’s left and to build it back up.
The idea of handmade has always been about the concept of time. Luxury is about time too. When you see something handmade, it’s not only the time it takes to physically make that element that’s on the piece, but it’s also the time it takes somebody to learn how to do it at such a high level. It’s the same thing for tailoring. A tailored jacket requires a certain investment of time until one learns to do it correctly. It is handmade, hand-tailored, it requires more than one fitting, and requires knowledge.
Luke: Yeah, the idea of handwork is also tied quite closely to the idea of luxury and it seems that the term luxury is thrown around a little bit too liberally now.
Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it is necessarily luxurious. So, the appreciation of savoir-faire is fundamental to the concept of luxury. You can’t rush things. The industry is sort of obsessed with speed and doing things faster. Good things sometimes take a long time and that’s okay; that should be welcomed and cherished. You can’t just decide “okay I’m going to make this intricate embroidery in two days” because maybe it takes a month or two, but that’s something very special. Being able to make a properly tailored jacket is not something you can just snap your fingers and make happen like that. It has to be respected. This is fundamental for us.
Lucie: Master the technique. Learn it and then master it.
Filep: And also, because you work in Italy and Italy’s heritage relies on quality and artisanship, do you think it would be utopic for fashion to restart based entirely on these two values?
Luke: Maybe it would be difficult because those two values are not the only important components. Our approach is to look forward and understand the times we live in now and where we’re going. While quality and artisanship are fundamental, the content of communication and the method of communication are aspects that you can’t really separate from fashion anymore. They are important tools, whether you speak about a website or communication through social media or other digital channels. To bring those in and embrace them and treat them in a way that’s coherent with the traditional artisanal approaches is important. You have to welcome what’s modern and what tools are available today.
Lucie: I think people are looking for more unique things and more special things, especially because we’ve somehow gone away from them. People will come back and invest in pieces that are special. Hopefully, people have started to appreciate things more again, things that are hard to make and hard to get. Perhaps there is true potential in that direction.
Luke: Yeah, and I would also say that doing things in an artisanal way doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re old either.
Lucie: No exactly, they are very modern.
Luke: Sometimes the most modern solution to a design challenge is handwork.
Filep: For a long time, people thought of fashion as a place of exclusivity. In your opinion, should fashion have followership and limitation? How important is fashion to the evolution of society? In the past, fashion was part of a revolution. Can we experience new revolutions through fashion?
Luke: Fashion is important because it is a personal expression and it connects with the way we communicate. It’s the way you can show what your beliefs are, it’s your point of view of aesthetics and your perspective. It can also change your feeling and mood. When you talk about revolution or different moments of fashion empowering people, that’s still there. I think you can still really affect people by how you present yourself with what you wear and how you wear it.
If you think about the past, about real moments of an aesthetic change, a lot of them were driven by societal change, music, and art, and there was a real attitude that had nothing to do with the industry. It’s how people look in real life, not in some campaign image. The most important fashion has always been democratic and has been a reflection of reality, not the industry.
The industry, on the other hand, has for a very long time been closed and not inclusive at all. This is changing now, although not fast enough.
Filep: I have two more questions before we finish. Our bodies are central to the art of fashion and designers approach it in various and different ways. Some start with their creative process by draping on the body and others begin by sketching. Some are more direct and others are more conceptual. Where does the body stand in your process as Luke and Lucie?
Luke: For us, it’s very personal. We try on most of the things ourselves during fittings to feel what the pieces do when you have them on. It’s something that we can’t separate from the work because we don’t look at the person across the room and say “let’s make them look interesting.” Instead, we think about ourselves wearing those pieces.
Lucie: We always picture ourselves and think, “how do we want to wear this?” or “how do we want to go through our day?” We then start asking questions like “what do we need?” and “what brings joy and excitement and what feeling are we after?” So, it’s always about the body and how you feel in the clothes. In the end, nobody wants to feel restricted in their clothes the whole day, it puts you in a bad mood. It’s all about the body because we create these garments and pieces to live with and to go through our day and our activities while doing what we have to accomplish. It’s extremely important.
Filep: Do you think fashion critics matter to designers or are you ever curious to find out how others observe what you create? Do negative reactions affect you?
Lucie: I don’t read any of the critics; I think if you start listening to what everybody has to say, you’re never going to create anything with a free mind anymore so it’s not beneficial. To us, what matters is the reaction of the people who wear our clothes. To create a real fellowship and know that people really appreciate the garments because they feel good in our clothes.
Luke: I think it’s interesting to hear about ideas you never expected. Sometimes people tell us, “I saw that you were interested in this when you were making that collection.” Even if we weren’t at all, sometimes it makes us look at the work in a different way.
Photo of Lucie and Luke Meier by Peter Lindbergh
The conversation between Luke, Lucie Maier and Filep Motwary (2021) is part of POLIMODA’s DUETS project.
Special thanks to JIL SANDER team and Polimoda.
Jil Sander changed hands multiple times following the brand’s eponymous founder’s first departure in 2001 (German-born Sander took up the reins as creative director twice more after her initial departure). In 2017, Luke and Lucie Meier took over as joint creative directors from Rodolfo Paglialunga, who helmed the house for three years.
At the Milan-based house, they both work on womenswear, menswear and accessories. The couple debuted their designs at Jil Sander in the Spring/Summer 2018 shows, and is widely hailed for reinvigorating the brand with a modern and fresh touch, while maintaining the founder’s signature aesthetic. The brand currently has 40 stores and is stocked by the likes of Browns, Net-a-Porter and MatchesFashion.
Luke Meier’s OAMC debuted its first collection in Spring/Summer 2014 during Paris Fashion Week and, in 2018, had expanded at an average annual growth rate of 65 percent. It counts Barneys, Selfridges and IT in Hong Kong among its stockists.