A nostalgic dreamer in an industry obsessed with the new, Haider Ackermann makes fashion more magical with every step he takes.
Haider Ackermann likes handsome women and elegant men, but don’t call his work androgynous. “It’s not in my dictionary,” he says. When he revived his menswear for spring/summer 14, the heavily tattooed models, dressed up like dandyesque aristocrats, bore a certain resemblance to his own look: a kind of intellectual Latino rock ‘n’ roll nomad with a penchant for plush loungewear. (This evening he’s casually chic in a luxe grey jumper.) Ackermann’s darkly sexy spring/summer 14 women’s collection didn’t just cement his status as fashion’s best colourist, but also celebrated his tenth year on the Paris show schedule, a decade that’s seen the French designer tipped for pretty much every creative director job worth taking, from Margiela to Chanel.
If you can tell a man by the hotels he frequents, this evening’s drinks at Claridge’s speak volumes of Ackermann’s character. He always stays here when he’s in town, just like he rarely ventures off-piste when it comes to his regular haunts in Paris and Antwerp where he divides his time. “I’ve been travelling so much that I like to have an anchor somewhere. Here the people are nice and friendly and,“ he interrupts himself. “It sounds very boring, no?” If you didn’t know better, perhaps, but you couldn’t accuse Ackermann of living a humdrum life. Born in the ghetto of Bogotá, Columbia in 1971, he was adopted as an infant by a French cartographer and his wife, who took him from Chad to Ethiopia and Nigeria before finally settling in Holland when Ackermann was twelve.
Nowadays he visits them at their home in the south of France along with his siblings, a sister adopted from Vietnam and a brother adopted from Korea – and for Christmas, too, which he admits isn’t the easiest holiday for the child of a peripatetic family. “Our Christmas was always surrounded by foreigners and strangers. Not just friends of my parents, but homeless people as well. My father would let everyone in, so I don’t have this cosy family idea of it. It was always a house full of strangers speaking different languages.” A product of his unusual childhood, Ackermann has an effortless bohemian calm about him, merged with something very gentlemanly and an admitted longing for the traditional. “I think I’m very bourgeois at the end of the day,” he professes, and orders a glass of Chablis.
In an ever-growing fashion industry obsessed with fast pace, Ackermann’s nature has made him a kind of old-world dreamer, who proudly hallows the virtues of the classic fashion era. He says the word ‘internet’ with the kind of unconvinced voice sceptics of the digital age use when describing newfangled playthings – as if it doesn’t really exist – and he’s got some pretty astute views on social media, too. “If you communicate about your work it’s fine, but not when it’s personal. I find it very dangerous; very depressive. One day I was with Olivier Theyskens and he instagrammed a picture of us, and I could see how dangerous it would be for me, because after half an hour I was like, ‘Olivier, how many likes do we have now?’” Haider laughs. “I could easily feel very insecure about it, because what if you don’t have as many likes as other people?”
Recently at a dinner, he says, a young designer wanted to instagram a picture of the two of them together. When Ackermann declined, his dinner partner argued that he had to do it for his fans. “I thought, ‘The only obligation you have is trying to make beautiful clothes!’ It’s the only thing you’ve got to say,” he insists. “So I said, ‘No, I don’t want to. I’m sorry, we’re having a moment.’ I don’t like to share… I guess I’m a very selfish person,” he smirks. If his disdain for this brave new world of self-promotion sounds démodé for a relatively young designer, Ackermann’s self-irony and cheeky self-awareness easily make up for it. For as he admits, “I love to read gossip magazines. I saw this picture of Justin Bieber where this prostitute had taken a picture of him and put it online - how insane is that? You can’t even sleep without someone taking a picture of you that goes worldwide.”
Ackermann will happily admit to reading his reviews, but he struggles with the unconstructive criticism generated by the show-goers of the digital age. “With the internet, everyone’s got an opinion about everything and everybody’s free to say whatever they want. I’m sorry—no.” In the current climate of fashion where houses vie for the attention of the blogger set, flying them out for events and dressing them for shows, Ackermann’s words are as controversial as they are brave. And while he acknowledges a certain fascination with the immediacy of the blogosphere, “I just don’t go on the internet and read their things,” he says. “Some people have studied and have knowledge of what they’re talking about, but when people just put their comments out there, I find it difficult. What do you want to express if you just say, ‘I didn’t like this show’? It’s not that easy to judge things.”
As the industry gets more digitalised, Ackermann’s species of analogue romantics is becoming increasingly endangered. His shows, which traditionally take place on the Saturday morning of Paris Fashion Week, are not live streamed, never too grand but always packed to the limit. “I don’t go to many shows because it makes me insecure, but when you see other shows, you ask, ‘Who are all these people?’ It’s become something else,” Haider shrugs. He dreams of scaling down his own shows to two hundred people, but then, as he notes, “People might find you arrogant. You have to be very careful not to hurt anyone.” Enthralled by the magic of the intimate presentations he witnessed as a young man, Ackermann turns into something of a poet whenever he talks about the institution of the fashion show. (Ask him about the shows of John Galliano, with whom he interned in his youth, and his words will make you feel like you were there.)
“There’s nothing more beautiful than being present at the défilé and hearing the music properly and feeling the person breathing next to you and seeing the movement of the fabric. Every show is about movement. I think you have to be in the space to understand what the person has to say. It can touch you,” he muses. Moving things – both fabrics and people – play the most significant role in Ackermann’s work. Much like his garments to the skin, his evocative shows shroud you in waves of sensations and envelop you in whatever mindset he was in when he dreamed them up, from the forceful to the fragile. Since his first show in 2003, he has slowly but confidently been telling the same story chapter by chapter, exploring the depths of his sensual power woman, whose masculine tailoring and ghostly dresses sit on her body like armour and second skin all at once.
Don’t mention his decennial last year. Much like his aversion to Christmas, Ackermann abhors anniversaries. Talk about his first collection, however, and it’s a different case. “I don’t like to look back, but there was a rawness and a naivety to it and things done by hand that I’m not doing anymore, which is a shame. I would love to go back to that, but it would be more expensive because everything was hand-sewn.” The holy grail amongst Ackermann fans, the show was independently organised by the designer after he was asked to leave the illustrious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp where he’d been studying for three years, due to the fact that “he couldn’t finish his collections” as his friend and fellow alumni Raf Simons once put it. As it turned out, Ackermann was better suited for the real world. The collection created waves in the industry, and he was suddenly on the horizons of leading stockists – and eventually leading ladies, too.
While his answer to most celebrity requests is no, it’s almost impossible to talk about Haider Ackermann without mentioning the starlets who wear it. (This not necessarily counting a particular occasional wearer… “I had made a dress in gold lame, and I thought, ‘PJ Harvey would look so good in this,’ and I open a magazine and Mariah Carey bought it,” Haider grins. “That’s just a different story.”) From Tilda Swinton to Janet Jackson – both of whom are good friends of Ackermann’s – they have become a kind of ambassadors for his house, embodying the sensual strength and mischievous sexuality of his woman. (His favourite Janet Jackson song is Let’s Wait a While, because it reminds him of a six-year love affair he had with a friend before he came out.) Whether it’s in the suggestive fashion of a dress slithering against the female curves, or the more effective solution of a translucent top worn without a bra, there’s a sexiness to Ackermann’s work which sometimes borders on the pornographic.
Was he ever into porn? “I never watch porn because it doesn’t interest me at all, but one day somebody asked me what I wanted to do next and I said, ‘A porn movie!’ I don’t know where it came from, but I love the exchange between man/woman or man/man, woman/woman.” What would it look like? “It shouldn’t be elegant or refined. It should be quite straightforward, like a Nick Cave concert. It should have the same rawness and feeling you get there.” Does he have any experience with porn? “One of my boyfriends when I was young did porn. I didn’t want to see it, but ten years later I did. It’s bizarre, because when you watch the movie and you see his gestures,” he pauses. “I can’t say too much because if you ever find out who the person is…” Ever the gentleman, Mr Ackermann isn’t one to kiss and tell.
As the old fashion world watches its industry accelerate into the future – live streams, bloggers and social media in tow – Ackermann’s good manners and unapologetic devotion to the finer (and slower) things in life represent a spirit worth protecting. And it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to draw a parallel between said spirit and what he wants people to feel when they wear his clothes. “Tilda always says, ‘When I’m on a red carpet and I’m wearing you, I feel myself and I feel protected.’ And I think that’s one of the most beautiful compliments you can get.” Incidentally, the notion isn’t that different to Ackermann’s philosophy on life. As he says, “You have to stand straight and face it.” haiderackermann.be