Haider Ackermann: the man bringing cool to Berluti

The Berluti creative director is bringing an edgy, devil-may-care elegance to the storied Parisian fashion house – and attracting a cool new crowd. Simon Chilvers reports. Portrait by Philip Sinden

Berluti creative director Haider Ackermann (right) at Berluti’s Paris headquarters, with model Thibaud Charon wearing items from the Berluti spring/summer 2018 collection. Silk/cotton zip-up jacket, £1,310, and wool/silk trousers, £620
Berluti creative director Haider Ackermann (right) at Berluti’s Paris headquarters, with model Thibaud Charon wearing items from the Berluti spring/summer 2018 collection. Silk/cotton zip-up jacket, £1,310, and wool/silk trousers, £620 | Image: Philip Sinden

Haider Ackermann arrives at the Berluti headquarters in the 8th arrondissement of Paris looking immaculate – he will change twice for the photoshoot and joke that he may need retouching because he has only slept for two hours, thanks to LA jetlag. He has just been at the Golden Globes, where he designed a Berluti suit for rising star Timothée Chalamet, lead actor in Call Me By Your Name, the much-lauded coming-of-age film that strikes a chord, according to Ackermann, as “we all want to taste the forbidden fruit. We all want to know what sexuality is about.” It feels a fitting choice for a designer whose signature is a certain sensuality. Today, despite the lack of rest, Ackermann is focused; when he switches outfits to pose with the model, he arranges his sweater just so at the back – slightly untucked. It’s a very Haider touch: elegant but with something slightly, and artfully, undone.

It is this approach – of taking something luxuriously stylish and slightly unpicking it, letting it breathe a little so that it all feels incredibly easy, and in the process adding a nonchalant dash of sensuality – that is winning the designer acclaim for his vision for Berluti, the storied Parisian house established in 1895. Ackermann was appointed creative director of the singular menswear-only brand in luxury group LVMH’s portfolio in 2016, and has so far produced three runway collections. The fact that on the day we meet he has just returned from a trip also seems apt, as it speaks to another important aspect of who Ackermann feels the Berluti man is: a global traveller. “He is always on the road, and therefore all he needs is an essential and basic wardrobe that he can wear easily.”

From left: wool trousers, £620, and leather boots, £1,480. Leather jacket, £4,800, and cotton shirt, £450. Wool coat, £2,780, silk knit top, £750, wool trousers, £1,060, and leather sandals, £660. Cotton coat, £2,280, cotton jacket, £2,100, and leather sandals, £660
From left: wool trousers, £620, and leather boots, £1,480. Leather jacket, £4,800, and cotton shirt, £450. Wool coat, £2,780, silk knit top, £750, wool trousers, £1,060, and leather sandals, £660. Cotton coat, £2,280, cotton jacket, £2,100, and leather sandals, £660

The choice of the word “basic” to describe the extreme luxury of the workmanship and richness of the fabrics that Ackermann is pursuing at Berluti seems almost amusing. But it becomes clear as we speak that a certain simplicity is a key factor in the future of the brand. “If I, and my team, can succeed in making a beautiful, simple wardrobe, then that would be wonderful,” he says, his eyes smiling behind trademark wire-framed opticals. That, and broadening the appeal of the brand: “We want Haider to express his creativity and his point of view on fashion and menswear – to keep our loyal customers and to please them, while also speaking to a younger, edgy audience,” says Antoine Arnault, Berluti’s CEO.

It’s a strategy that seems to be working. At the January presentation of the autumn/winter 2018 collection, sitting at the show alongside 22-year-old Chalamet were sexy bastions of French style Louis Garrel and Isabelle Huppert. “Haider Ackermann has strategically moved the brand’s ready-to-wear towards a more modern aesthetic – playing with relaxed silhouettes and interpreting them in bolder colours and luxury fabrications. This new direction has broadened its appeal, without alienating Berluti’s established customer base,” says Sam Kershaw, buying manager at Mr Porter, which carries Berluti pieces.

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Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matchesfashion.com, believes Ackermann was an interesting choice to lead the next chapter in the brand’s narrative – one that’s paid off. “When people think of luxury heritage menswear, it can often feel a little stuffy and conservative, but Haider has used best-in-class fabrication and craftsmanship to create ready-to-wear that feels relevant for a broad spectrum of men without slavishly nodding to trends.”

And it is not just store buyers that are excited by this new era at Berluti. Ben Cobb, editor-in-chief of biannual fashion magazine Another Man, adds: “Haider makes luxurious, seductive clothes, but they aren’t stiff and uptight; they feel free and effortless. His designs are aspirational but not rarefied – they still feel connected to the real world.”

Calfskin biker jacket, £6,200
Calfskin biker jacket, £6,200

Ackermann was born in 1971 in Colombia. After years of travelling – to Ethiopia, Algeria, Iran and Bhutan with his adoptive parents, one of whom was a cartographer – the family moved to the Netherlands when the designer was 12. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp for three years, though he was eventually thrown out for behaviour he himself has previously described as “untamed”. In 2004, he set up his own womenswear label, which is worn by the likes of Tilda Swinton, then showed a small menswear offering at the men’s trade fair Pitti Uomo in Florence in 2010, before officially launching menswear for spring/summer 2014.

His spring/summer 2018 collection for Berluti was a refreshing moment in a menswear market currently saturated in an Instagrammable catnip of loud prints, logos and cult sneakers. Now available in stores and online, it was designed, says Ackermann, to feel both quiet and effortless, a reaction against all the noise in the world. “I wanted to make easier-to-wear suiting. For everything to be very comfortable and somewhat laidback,” he says. Highlights include languid tracksuit-style trousers (£1,600) with contrast silk drawstring waistband and side stripes in pale blue, beige and black; an oversized grey shirt (£450) in a purposefully airy voile fabric that features narrow-point collars, hand-stitched side vents and Tahitian mother-of-pearl buttons; and an 18-gauge intarsia crewneck sweater in pale grey (£790). When you handle these clothes, there is an almost weightlessness to them, which makes you immediately want to feel them against your skin.

Leather Singulier Attitude ankle boots, £1,810. Silk and cashmere crewneck, £790
Leather Singulier Attitude ankle boots, £1,810. Silk and cashmere crewneck, £790

Naturally for a house synonymous with shoes – indeed, which was founded as a shoemaker and only launched its ready-to-wear arm in 2011 – leather is integral. Ackermann uses leather to make a statement, whether that is via a jacket in citrine yellow (£6,200) or by incorporating it in surprising ways, such as for the lining of a cord coat for next season.

More traditional leather pieces include an unlined black blazer (£4,800) with discreet top-stitching; in the spring/summer show this style appeared in tan and was worn with an unbuttoned grey shirt (£450) – a fine example of presenting classic clothing but with contemporary styling. Meanwhile, nubuck slip-on sliders (from £650) made from a single piece of leather nod to the construction technique of the Alessandro Oxford, the first shoe ever created for the house by its namesake founder Alessandro Berluti. These work with cropped or slightly puddling trousers to give off a devil-may-care attitude, while a pair of boots – the Singulier Attitude ankle boot in leather (£1,810) – offers a sturdier anchor to the likes of cuffed or short silk trousers.

Men’s wool coat, £3,800, wool sweater, £650, and leather sandals, £660
Men’s wool coat, £3,800, wool sweater, £650, and leather sandals, £660

Ackermann’s autumn/winter 2018 collection, shown this January, was both a highlight of the season and a masterclass in minimal luxury, cleverly building on the previous two collections by bringing together glorious colours, relevant shapes and wardrobe staples imbued with a definite dash of Ackermann’s poetic spirit. First out onto the pale-pink runway was a belted tan leather coat with contrast grey lining worn with matching leather trousers and black boots. A short leather zip-up jacket was worn with modern verve over a suit. Duck-egg blue was teamed with the colour of next season: brown. Flyaway sporty silk parkas were trimmed with highlights of green, while a beige mac featured edging in yellow. Crucially, it was easy to see how this collection would break down into individual pieces to appeal to the wide cross section of men Ackermann is keen to dress.

Ackermann’s role at this formative stage in Berluti’s evolution into menswear follows a rich backstory. As a shoemaker, the brand’s more memorable tales are associated with Olga Berluti, great niece of founder Alessandro, who during the 1960s made shoes for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Andy Warhol and Roman Polanski; Warhol, who had worked as a commercial illustrator for shoe brands, ordered his first bespoke pair of loafers from the firm in 1962. Olga is credited with creating the brand’s unique patinas, and during the 1980s came up with shoes in colours that departed from traditional blacks and browns, such as blackcurrant, blues and greens, using particular pigments, dyes and essential oils to do so. Legend has it that the soles were polished with broken glass and that the surface of the moon inspired the brand’s exclusive Venezia leather.

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Under Alessandro Sartori, the designer responsible for launching clothing at the brand (and now artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna Group), the look was initially classic, revolving around neat blazers, classic-cut suiting and slick outerwear. His last two runway shows pushed a more fashionable message, with unusual colour combinations and directional styling, but Ackermann is creating more of a distinct personality for the brand: luxury that is less impeccably polished, that’s rawer around the edges and that brings a certain swagger into the mix.

Ackermann says he familiarised himself with the DNA of the house, but was keen not to look back too much. He did, however, visit Olga. “She’s amazing,” he says. “She inspired me with her words, her stories, the risks she took and that sense of freedom she had. To create the black patina of shoes with caviar… Seriously, how eccentric? But her words make you want to dream and bring back some of these eccentricities.”

And perhaps it is these eccentricities – artfully interpreted – that are key to Ackermann’s loosening up of the brand, while adding edge. Of his own label he says: “My man is more of a daydreamer, a vagabond, while  the Berluti man is standing straight in life. I like that. It’s interesting.” Distinct, perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine that the one doesn’t in some small way influence the other. And however straight the Berluti man may stand, romance and sensuality is at the absolute core of who Ackermann is and what he creates. He talks about clothes “caressing you” or how he wants the clothing not to scream Berluti from the outside, but “when you touch a person, you suddenly want to hold them in your arms. That is luxury.” And when asked if he intends to launch women’s Berluti, as he has so far always included women, such as Stella Tennant, in the runway shows, he says not, but that he likes the idea of women borrowing the clothes: “There is nothing more sensual than smelling the clothes of your lover and carrying that feeling with you all day. That sensuality is something I like to bring.”

Each collection, he says, he sees as a paragraph in a book – a characteristic interpretation of the idea that his clothes are the continuation of a story. Not for him the transience of trends: “There would be nothing sexy about a man who threw away his cashmere jumper after one season,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “You want to live with your clothes, you want to grow with them, build memories with them. Living with your clothes makes them much more interesting. I would not be interested in making Berluti a fashion brand. That’s just not the point.”

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