The fashion world is not what it used to be. It’s all about the glamour, the parties, the instagram followers – what happened to designers whose sole purpose was to make us dream through their clothes?
I am glad to say that a few of them still exist and Haider Ackermann is one of them. I first interviewed him in 2007 when he was still a relatively unknown designer searching for a new type of elegance. What struck me most about his collections was how personal they were. They took you to a different place, one that was almost otherworldly while still being modern and desirable. At the same time his woman was so mysterious that you wanted to know more and get under her skin.
Seven years later his journey has taken him to new heights, both professionally and personally as he has become one of the most talked about designers in fashion.
I caught up with him in Paris recently to talk about how his brand has grown, his newfound fame and why he will always be an egocentric. Enjoy the interview!
IT’S THE middle of Paris Fashion Week and the Haider Ackermann showroom is packed. Buyers are busy filling orders, while models navigate the tiny aisles dressed in floor sweeping coats and tailored separates. In the corner, far from the maddening crowd, sits a pensive, solitary figure, quietly observing the scene around him. He looks out of place among the glamazons with his dark unruly hair, rounded spectacles and yards of fabric draped around his neck. It’s only when people greet him excitedly that you realise that he is the man behind the elegant creations that line the racks.
“I love my work but I am not one of those designers that need to be noticed,” he says frankly.
“Now that [my] show is over I just want to escape. Being a designer is so different now. I don’t think it’s necessary to show yourself everywhere, or be a part of everything. This is not something that intrigues me. I don’t understand things like Instagram. Why do you need to keep the audience updated about your life? I don’t see the point. Who would be interested in [my life] the first place?”
Many would disagree, especially in his case. In the past few years Ackermann has gone from being a fledging designer to a fashion star. Not only does his name headline every major magazine, but he’s always top of the list whenever there’s an opening at a big fashion house. In 2010 Karl Lagerfeld added fuel to the fire when he famously told Numero magazine that Ackermann would be ideal successor for his job at Chanel. Things came to a head when Galliano was ousted from Dior. The press insisted that Ackermann had the job until it was announced that Raf Simons took the role.
“My name was placed with so many houses – it felt like I had many lovers. At a certain point it was annoying as it was disrespectful to other people. I found it hard, because everyone had something to say,” he says.
“It was so sad when Mr Galliano left Dior. I would love him to come back because he is the person that made me dream. Not many people can do that. If people carry us away and make us travel with our minds it’s such a luxury these days. We are not able to do that anymore,” he says wistfully.
Travelling has been a big theme in Ackermann’s life – both personally and in his collections. Colombian by birth, he was adopted by French parents whose work took him to exotic places such as Africa, where he was raised until the age of 12. It was his memories of women in countries such as Ethiopia, Algeria and Chad that sparked his fascination with fabrics and draping.
“I was always in those countries where fabric played such a huge role. Women were always wrapped up in metres of fabric or covered and hidden behind so it was also very mysterious. It was more the curiosity and the movements of fabrics that I was interested in. It was the mystery that lured me in,” he says.
At 17 he moved to Amsterdam, before ending up at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp to study fashion (he said he chose the city because he was in love). Unfortunately the school’s regimented schedule didn’t suit him, and he left early even though his tutors, including Raf Simons, recognised his unique talent.
“I never decided to go to school and neither did I finish it. People ask me all the time when fashion came into my life, but things just come to me and I don’t question it. It’s difficult to do interviews, because I am the most boring person,” he jokes.
In 2002 he decided to launch his own collection in Paris with a small show. He forgot to invite buyers but that didn’t stop industry insiders like Lane Crawford fashion director Sarah Rutson from attending and snapping up the collection.
From the outset, there was something beguiling in Ackermann’s languid draped silhouettes which featured an elegant yet edgy mix of sculpted leather jackets, trailing blouses and androgynous tailoring. You could sense wanderlust in his exotic shapes that brought to mind Japanese kimonos or robes worn by women in North Africa. Then there was his amazing sensitivity to colour with a palette that ranged from rich desert hues to vibrant jewel tones.
His collections are made all the more evocative thanks to his emotionally charged presentations. Ackermann composes his shows like a musician, often starting with a slow tempo before reaching the perfect crescendo.
“The emotional connection in the show is the music, the lighting, the hair, the makeup. When I actually start a collection it is part of a whole fantasy. I fantasise about her life – clothes are just part of the process. Some designers concentrate on the clothes and you can see it, like with Rei Kawakubo. But for me perhaps it’s more about a global atmosphere and feeling,” he says.
It makes sense then, that Ackermann starts each collection with a story, preferring to write words in a notebook rather than sketching. This approach has resulted in a woman what is strongly connected to him and his personal life.
“I think she has become more mature, and is now closer to me than she’s ever been before. Before you are in search of yourself and so is the woman, but now I feel I understand her more. It’s become less complicated to dress her. She’s more in my family now. At the same time I don’t know who I am, so how can I describe her?
“The egocentric in me means my work relates to my private life, so sometimes you will see lots of colour and other times it’s different. I know I am searching for elegance but to define that woman is not interesting. It’s more interesting to explore her,” he says.
This exploration came to a head in his recent autumn/winter 14 collection, which is more austere than past collections. Free of his usual drapes and twists, Ackermann stripped everything down by including more masculine tailoring in the form of wide legged trousers and floor sweeping coats. The palette was subdued with shades of grey and taupe while he also introduced knitwear and easy pieces like the funnel neck grey jumpsuit made from a men’s wear fabric.
“This one started with colour then it changed. I wanted simplicity, soberness, purity. I wanted her, in her masculine attitude, to find some graciousness. I was searching for the word grace – masculine is always heavy with strength and force. I really wanted to have this heavy feeling and in between there’s this lightness. It’s easy and feels comfortable. Sometimes I am scared she will be too bourgeois,” he says laughing.
Interestingly, Ackermann says that his woman changed most when he re-launched his men’s wear line. His first foray into men’s wear came in 2010 at the Pitti Immagine trade fair in Florence, but the line disappeared soon after. Last June he decided to make a comeback with a collection that featured silk jacquard bomber jackets and waistcoats, in his signature jewel tones. While there are connections between both lines in terms of aesthetic, Ackermann says he prefers the men’s wear.
“When you are working with men it’s more an exercise of style because you are focused on the clothes. I tried to choose fabrics that were too heavy for me, that I wouldn’t wear, to make it different and challenging. Men’s is nice – it’s newer and everything is much smoother. Even at the presentations the crowd is different and more relaxed. For me I feel I can breathe,” he says.
This breathing space has done wonders for Ackermann as his collections have grown from being a cult favourite with editors to a commercial success. He boasts a mile long list of stockists around the world including Joyce in Hong Kong. The obvious next step would be more lines or even a store.
“I want to know more about the business, why one piece sells more than another. My favourites always sell less,” he jokes.
“Suddenly this season, I am also thinking about opening stores. I know exactly how it would look like. Another thing I would love to explore is Haute Couture. I’d know where I’d do it, the music, how it would look like. I don’t forget these things – they haunt me every night. Sometimes I feel I have a pile of ideas that I am just keeping aside, because I can’t use it [for ready-to-wear],” he says.
With the future holding so many possibilities, one wonders what sort of legacy the Ackermann is looking to leave behind with his work.
“I won’t be remembered. We have amazing designers like Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Madame Gres, those are people to remember. I am living in the moment, doing what I like to do, searching for something and clothes are the way I do it.
“I don’t know what else to do if I wasn’t a designer. I would have loved to be a classic ballet dancer. I like any kind of job which anyone can escape. I do this job to escape from reality. To escape a certain part of myself,” he says.
A version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 11 April 2014
And the bits that didn’t make it into the original story:
On his “complicated” designs:
“Life is less complicated so I have taken a few layers off. My look has softened because I just want to simplify life. People always comment about my clothes being complicated but its all about styling in the show. For me, it’s playtime. In the showroom it looks normal and beautiful. It’s a projection I want to give on the catwalk.”
On his inspirations:
“I start with a story not inspiration – I have always done it this way. If I went for a theme like some designers it wouldn’t work. For me continuity is important. As I don’t work with themes, my work is so personal, it’s a continuation of what my life is about, it’s very egocentric.”
On who has influenced his career the most:
“My press agent [Michele Montagne] has been a big influence on me. She made me think, question myself, push myself further. She was never easy on me. It’s what I needed. She knows what’s lurking inside me and pushes it until it comes out. She’s a very big influence on my work and way of thinking.”
On explaining his work:
“When I see a painting, I love the idea that it takes me away in my mind. It makes me travel in my own mind and explore different ideas. That’s why I find it difficult to explain my own work. People take it as they want to. That’s the point.”