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Women's Fashion

Ackermann of the moment

Haider Ackermann is little known outside fashion circles, yet from within is heralded as an heir to the fashion establishment. Vanessa Friedman meets a designer on the edge of greatness.

March 18 2012
Vanessa Friedman

Not that long ago, before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, when the world was a different place, if you said the name Haider Ackermann to a fashion insider, you were liable to get one of two possible responses: a blank look and then a “who?”; or something along the lines of, “Isn’t he one of those conceptual Belgian designers with a lot of stringy bits on his clothes?”

But that was before credit dried up and consumers went quiet, and any logo-screaming garment became a badge of excess; before “integrity” became as much a byword as “brand”. It was before Haider Ackermann, who is actually a 40-year-old Colombian-born, African-raised, Belgian-schooled French citizen, showed a collection that merged his signature gothic leathers and elongated silhouettes with an opulence of colour and texture that, set against the painfully romantic strains of Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep, had jaded audience members crying and rising to their feet with joy.

It was, in other words, before Haider Ackermann was crowned the first post-recession designer; one whose work makes sense and beauty out of the confusion of the present, as opposed to some shadowy semblance of the go-go past. “I felt that my woman never knew where she was coming from or going to,” he says, and the ability to take this opacity and render it extraordinary has made him a reference point for the fashion industry’s future.

Karl Lagerfeld, for example, told Numéro magazine in late 2010 that, as far as he was concerned, the person to succeed him at Chanel was Haider Ackermann. This followed the revelation that the reclusive Martin Margiela, a notably different sort of designer from Lagerfeld, had already asked Ackermann to take over when he retired from his brand in 2009 (an offer Ackermann turned down). Then Jean-Jacques Picard, an LVMH advisor and key identifier of new talent, was spotted at Ackermann’s show last year, which gave rise to rumours that he was to take over at Dior. Shortly after, revered fashion critic Suzy Menkes called Ackermann “one of the best fashion colourists since Yves Saint Laurent”.

This culminated in Ackermann being invited to be the “guest designer” at Italian fashion fair Pitti W in June of 2010 (an honour previously granted to Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg and Rodarte), and receiving the ultimate stamp of approval from the fashion establishment: an American Vogue cover featuring Lady Gaga in an Ackermann dress.

So though many people outside the fashion world may still not know Ackermann’s name, at some point soon they probably will, because no matter what happens with his own eponymous brand (he has 173 points of sale in 41 countries), chances are he will become the man at the head of a very big house. All of which surprises Ackermann more than anyone – except maybe his parents. “They can’t believe it,” he laughs.

Partly, this is because Ackermann was never one of those hot young designers of myth; not one whose art-school graduate collection was snapped up by famous boutiques or championed by well-connected muses. And partly it’s because of Ackermann himself, who, while photogenic – he’s in good shape, with curly hair, a scruffy beard, and an enviable ability to drape scarves round his neck – is also palpably shy and radiates an otherworldly sweetness that can read as naivety. In a world where some designers have corporatised themselves into chief creative officers, he seems like an outsider. Anne Chapelle, the Belgian investor who has backed Ackermann financially since 2005 (and also backs Ann Demeulemeester), calls him a “beautiful dreamer”.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director of Asian luxury retailer Lane Crawford, says, “Haider’s draping, sublime sense of colour and overall aesthetic set him apart; there is no reference point to anyone else, so you can never say anything he does is even slightly derivative.” Like his clothes, his story doesn’t track like anything else. It doesn’t obey any of the normal narrative clichés or familiar fairy tales of fashion.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Ackermann was adopted at birth by peripatetic French parents; his father was a cartographer whose work took him and his family all over Africa. Haider and his sister (adopted from Vietnam) and brother (adopted from Korea) spent their childhood in Ethiopia, Algeria and Chad, before his parents settled in Holland when he was 12.

“It was a violent transition,” says Ackermann. “After the gold and colours of my childhood, it was so grey. And then, when I was 17, I moved to Amsterdam and saw everything, all this craziness, but I was very reserved.”

Wanting to flee, he settled on studying fashion, mostly, he says, because, “I grew up among women; as a small child in Africa, I was always going to parties that were women-only, so I would see them walking like ghosts in their chuddars in the medina, and then they would take them off and be wearing these amazing clothes underneath.” He ended up choosing between Central Saint Martins and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, home of the Antwerp Six (an avant-garde group that included Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck), and chose Antwerp. “I was in love, and it was closer,” he explains.

Just as the move to the Netherlands from the warmth and shades of the south had been difficult, so was the move to Belgium. “I always felt you could touch the sky, it was so low, pressing down,” Ackermann says. All the craziness he had absorbed in Amsterdam he expressed in Antwerp, and the situation was exacerbated by his need to work as a bartender, at nightclub Café d’Anvers, to pay for his schooling. He didn’t want to show his designs until he considered them finished, which didn’t always coincide with his teachers’ deadlines, and after three years, the Academy asked him to leave.

“I understand it,” he says now, and adds, “I learnt a lot there; I think it helped to give me some reality. They teach you to respect women, to think a lot about how women wear clothes.” After leaving the Academy, however, he paused. He calls this time his “tormented years. I would wander the streets and design the most fantastic collections in my head,” all while continuing to work at the nightclub. “And then my mother said, ‘Why don’t you do a show? You have nothing to lose.’” He had saved enough to finance his own collection and decided to take her advice. Some friends helped out and he made a sample collection in his apartment, took it to Paris, and showed it at the Petit Palais. He didn’t invite any stores. “I was so stupid,” he laughs now.

Nevertheless, stores heard. Rutson, who has bought Ackermann for Lane Crawford since that debut, remembers, “He was doing skinny leather leggings when no one else was, with a beautifully cut wide-shoulder jacket that wrapped around the body worn with a long draping chiffon blouse trailing underneath. On its own, each was a very strong item, and together they were sublime. All of us were desperate to wear them, so we knew our customers would feel the same.”

Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, who also started following Ackermann after his first show, adds, “The clothes had an edge to them but they were also beautiful, and as a designer, he was impossible to pigeonhole.” It wasn’t until Ackermann went to see Anne Chapelle, “the fairy godmother of Antwerp”, however, that his business really took off.

“Our first meeting was in my kitchen,” Chapelle remembers. “We talked about many things, though not about business, just to try to get to know each other. It was more, ‘Who are you, and what are your dreams, and what can we do together?’ Haider has many facets, but no business sense. The investment decision, for me, was ultimately a matter of love for the hand and soul of the designer.”

Chapelle created an infrastructure and freed Ackermann from some of his logistical responsibilities (he had been packing and sending out the clothes himself). According to Ackermann, “She made me think I could take this thing seriously; she was a companion who would walk a while with me.” Friendship and emotion are important to him. His greatest celebrity supporter, for example, is Tilda Swinton, whom he met nine years ago, and who has raised Ackermann’s profile by wearing his clothes to the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes in January, as a nominee for We Need to Talk About Kevin, and consequently appearing on many best-dressed lists. Still, that exposure is less important to Ackermann than the fact that he and Swinton are “real friends” – to the extent that they vacationed together after his show earlier this month.

Ackermann is similarly close to Daphne Guinness, whom he met two years ago at a Council of Fashion Designers of America event, where she came up to him and cried, “I have bought so many of your collections!” (Guinness and Swinton accompanied Ackermann and his parents to Madrid not long ago, when he received the Marie Claire Prix de la Mode award). “He’s good with customers,” says Sherin, who has organised Saks trunk shows for the designer. “He has a real ability to relate to the consumer, whether she is in her 20s or her 60s, which to me is key to a designer’s longevity.”

Interestingly, however, and unlike many designers, Ackermann does not start his collections with a specific woman in mind. He says he begins with music, which leads to a mood, colours and feelings. This is what he wants his clothes to convey. The way he puts it is, “Some designers have items; I have emotions.” At the beginning of his career, the feelings were, even he acknowledges, much darker and more tormented than they are today, which, when combined with his Antwerp background, led the fashion world to try to shove him into the “dark Belgian designer” box.

But that began to change around the time of the recession, and since then Ackermann’s work has only grown richer; the current spring/summer collection is an Aladdin’s cave of jewel-toned silk worked into masculine, slouchy silhouettes, where opulence and ease, oriental myth and western cool, coexist in such a natural state that it’s hard to believe they were traditionally perceived in opposition.

“I became happier in my life, and that expressed itself in my clothes,” says Ackermann. “Sometimes people say they look like armour, but to me that is really about making you feel like you are in a safe place inside.”

“Haider has a strong sense of sensuality without ever being vulgar,” says Rutson. “His clothes resonate with strong, confident women who also have a softer feminine side, and they don’t overwhelm. He has a full swing of the pendulum as a customer base. We have women every season lining up to buy the jackets and suede, leather, satin and soft cashmeres. I’m one of them.”

“It’s one of the fastest-growing brands, especially in the US,” says Federico Marchetti, founder and CEO of Yoox group and The Corner, which has been the exclusive internet stockist of Ackermann’s work since 2009. “He is particularly popular for individual garments such as shirts and skirts, which are smart investment pieces due to the beautiful fabrics and strong block colours.”

“People want to put you in a box, but I love the feeling of not being able to place things,” says Ackermann. “I know it scares many people, but it intrigues me.” After all, he knows the liberation of not belonging to a group; he has known it ever since he was a child. Though he lives in Paris, he works in Antwerp, where he has a studio with “one assistant, two interns, three pattern-cutters and two production assistants”; and the separation of work and inspiration is important.

“Paris is my bubble; Antwerp where it gets translated into reality,” he says. “Living in Paris made my collection more elegant, and less dark. Antwerp is a very closed city, and I have always felt very foreign.” In some ways, his disenfranchisement is part of the romance of his work. It feels contemporary and resonant at a time when many consumers feel disenfranchised, or like strangers in the worlds they thought they knew. The irony is that this success may take him into the establishment – but he doesn’t mind at all.

“There are two houses I would be interested in,” he says. “Two where I feel there is a shared sensibility, where I could bring something else of myself to the house, which isn’t expressed in my own line.” He refuses to say which, though he admits that his dream is “couture”, which could be read as a clue. Still, when the Dior rumours started flying, Cathy Horyn of The New York Times wrote, “This suggestion completely flies in the face of the realities of big brands, and instead of dealing with the issue of pressures within these companies, it serves to throw another unprepared designer into that situation.”

Ackermann begs to differ: “Yes, there are commercial pressures, but that’s a challenge, not a problem,” he shrugs. “I prefer to look at it like that.”

Chapelle says, “It is difficult to find the right balance after so much attention. Haider is still searching for a stable offer between the dream and reality of every day.”

“Look, let’s be honest,” says Ackermann. “You can’t just blame the system. We are all responsible for our own lives. I find it difficult when people complain about the pressure. This is fashion, it’s not surgery. It’s a job; a job with a lot of dreams woven in” – not to mention a lot of unknowns. For Ackermann, though, that mystery is not just reality. It’s exactly the point.

See also

Haider Ackermann