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Monday, June 16, 2008

Raf Housing

Jil Sander heads downtown, and Haidee Findlay-Levin was there...

Before long you'll be hearing the names Jil and Howard thrown together like some sordid tabloid tale. Of course I'm referring to Jil of Jil Sander, whose slick downtown outpost launched last week on Howard Street. A block from Opening Ceremony and a stone's throw from the New Museum, this corner (at Crosby) is my favorite part of Manhattan. Every morning I walk to yoga along these streets, safely away from Canal Street mayhem and the overcrowded sidewalks of Soho, aka Slowho.

Entering the store for the launch, however, I felt completely removed from its location and context. The white-marbled space is split between a kind of exhibit area on street level—with a row of Grecian-like mannequins dressed in equally sculptural dresses—and the floor above, with more familiar racks and dressing rooms. The bilevel set-up allows customers to first absorb themselves in the world of Jil Sander, to ponder construction and contemplate design. In the back of the store, a wall of oversized, mirrored vertical blinds was opening and closing, alternating between reflections of the store's white walls and the fashion crowd's dark palette. Occasionally it would catch a bright color, like publicist Sylvie Picquet-Damesme from PR Consulting, who was wearing one of this season's Jil dresses in a fantastic shock-pink.

The art references don’t stop at the first floor. You then ascend a marble staircase to the second floor, complete with marble banister, where Jil Sander's creative director Raf Simons has collaborated with artist Germaine Kruip to create unusual fitting rooms with sides that close to form a four-sided, mirrored experience. That’s a lot of personal information to take in a state of undress. Personally, I'm quite happy being oblivious to my back side!

Julie Gilhart & Raf Simons, Germaine Kruip & Sylvie-Plicquet-Damesme, Ingrid Sischy & Sandy Brandt

Now, we've long known Jil Sander stands for impeccable quality and refinement, and we collectively exhaled a sigh of relief when Raf Simons took the helm (let's just pretend it was a short blip between Jil's departure and Raf's appearance), so I was very happy to see and speak to Raf himself, who I have known for years. We originally met in Paris when I was sourcing young designers for an Italian leatherwear project, Ruffo Research, for which I was creative director. In a smoky bistro, we talked art and fashion with his then girlfriend and budding designer Véronique Branquinho. Neither had worked outside of Antwerp until I proposed they collaborate with Ruffo (Raf on men's and Véronique on women's), which resulted in two definitive collections. It was the only collaboration they ever did together, and it preceded the idea of pairing designers with bigger brands—in this case, two in one.

Raf is a lot more on his plate these days, of course, but he told me he's figured out a way to focus on Jil while staying committed to his signature line (soon to have its own stores in Tokyo and Osaka). He does so by alternating weeks: one week in Milan, followed by a week in Antwerp and so on—with weekends spent in Antwerp. He said it's an easy commute, though it reminded me of a traveling man with a lover at each stop. Naturally I asked him if this was the case. "Absolutely not!" he replied, adamant that his schedule left no time for a relationship—besides those he already has with his two lines.

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