A Clean Slate

Rodolfo Paglialunga makes a fresh start at Jil Sander.

Rodolfo Paglialunga, Jil Sander

Since 1968, when Jil Sander foundedher label, clothes bearing her name have been about simplicity and strength, and worn byelegant women who wield their power without fuss. Behind the scenes, however, there’s been plenty of drama: Sander came and went three times—as many times as the company itself changed corporate hands. After she left for good a little more than a year ago, one of the most beleaguered human resources departments in the business set out to replace her once again.

If the idea was to keep the design studio as smart and serene as the runway, the company—now owned by the Japanese fashion group Onward—chose wisely when it selected the Italian designer Rodolfo Paglialunga. He was not a gamble, having shown steely enough resolve to revive Vionnet, the house originally helmed by every fashion geek’s hero, Madeleine Vionnet. There, Paglialunga developed relationships with picky stars like Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Carey Mulligan, and Diane Kruger; before that, he spent 14 years with Miuccia Prada, 10 of them directing her women’s wear collection.

Paglialunga, 47, keeps a low profile: He liveswith his boyfriend and two Jack Russells in Milan, and practices rebirthing, a breathing technique, for stress reduction. Though he admits he gave man skirts a try in the ’80s, today his uniform consists of vintage cotton work pants, penny loafers, and crewneck sweaters. He struggles with his English and is soft-spoken; a boyish smile reveals a set of braces that are coming off any day now.

Unlike many of his peers, Paglialunga is not given to bombastic pronouncements on luxury, femininity, or what’s modern. But, clearly, he thinks about all those things, as his Jil Sander debut attested. It was a focused study in androgynous day wear—with split skirts, apron dresses, obi belts, schoolgirl button-downs, and a recurring geometric motif that brought to mind redacted documents. Although this is just the beginning for Paglialunga, die-hard Jil Sander fans can be sure that the brand will remain true to its exacting spirit. “A lot of people told me that the collection was too Jil Sander,” he confides, referring to the pressure designers face to make their mark on heritage brands. “But to me that’s a compliment!”

Styled by Sissy Vian; hair by Massimo Gamba at Atomo Management; makeup by Giorgia Pambianchi at Atomo Management. Models: Vita Baric and Victoria Tuaz at Elite Milan, Phillipa Hemphrey at New York Model Management, Saadi at Next Management Milan, Smith Vanders at IMG Paris.