Three and a half years ago, minimalist designer Jil Sander stormed out of her fashion house after taking umbrage at the dictatorial ways of Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli, who bought her company in 1999. In May, four months after her noncompete clause expired, Sander returned to the fashion house she founded when she was just 24. With sales at Jil Sander flat in 2002, it was good news for Bertelli. TIME's Lauren Goldstein caught up with Sander at the Milan men's shows, where she was unveiling her first collection since coming home.
Q: Three years without working? Lucky you! What did you do with all that time off?
A: I still had 25% of the voting shares, so I was naturally involved with the company. Bertelli and I talked constantly while I was away. But I also tried to be distanced. I was trying to find a way not to be a dork. I went sailing for five weeks. I traveled through Russia, to St. Petersburg, looking at churches. I did some gardening. I also started to learn about the business side.
Q: How so?
A: I read analysts' reports and the financial papers. I know when I pick fabrics that I can pick the right one, but each analyst said something different.
Q: So you were trading stocks?
A: I have been reading a lot about the stock market, but when I started, I didn't know how to work a computer--or even a mobile phone. I also knew the economy was falling down. It was a very interesting experience. I'm not a gambler. The market is like a language, and you have to be able to understand what they're saying.
Q: Did that help you come to an agreement with Bertelli?
A: It's very natural for me to come back to Jil Sander and help the company with financial things. I think it will grow very fast. You know we [Jil Sander] went public in 1989. So I was used to the planning, used to putting out an annual report. The market gave us discipline as well as capital to grow. When I did the partnership with Prada, I thought I knew all I needed to know. But we had misunderstandings about how to move forward.
Q: What do you see as areas of growth for the company?
A: My first priority is the product. Then I want to work on our distribution. Then there is so much: lifestyle, interiors.
Q: The company made some big moves while you were away--new stores, a new perfume. Do you approve of them all?
A: The new fragrance is a revival of one of my original ones--Woman Pure. This one, Jil Sander Pure, was presented to me four weeks before it was presented to the press. They brought it out on a silver dish and said, "We thought about you the whole time." It was very emotional because they remembered what I had taught them. As for the stores, I was with the company when we found the London space. It's a very special house. It's like a beautiful toy.
Q: Which of those rumors about your toying with companies like Banana Republic and Hermes were true?
A: I spoke to many people, but I could not do anything. Thank God for that noncompete clause!
Q: What was the first thing you did when you got back?
A: I said, "Get me 15 white shirts, quick!" It [the hiatus] was the first time in a long time I shopped for myself. No one does nice plain white shirts anymore except Yohji [Yamamoto].