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Haider Ackermann: Free Spirit

Haider Ackermann does things his own way—and at his own pace.

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WWD Collections issue 04/12/2010

Twitter is a dirty word for designer Haider Ackermann, who is of the philosophy that “being totally open doesn’t bring anything.” So, he has neither a live Web site nor a Facebook page.

 

The Antwerp, Belgium–based designer has never been one for bending to hype or trends, but it hasn’t worked against him. Eight years after establishing his signature label, Ackermann, until recently regarded as one of fashion’s under-the-radar gems, is steadily edging out into the open. He’s been tapped to headline the Pitti W trade show in Florence in June, where he will present a special collection conceived for the event. Another recent rumor certainly upped visibility for the designer: speculation of a courtship by Diesel bigwigs for one of the industry’s harder-to-cast designer jobs, Martin Margiela, in the wake of the founder’s exit. “You can’t replace a soul,” demurs Ackermann, though he does dream of one day—when the elements and timing are right—designing for an established house.

 

His sensual clothes are characterized by elongated and nomadic silhouettes, urbanized by zippers snaking around the body or suggestive lines and drapes. For Ackermann, clothes should add to a woman’s personality, not impose one. The designer’s palette mixes melancholic dark and mineral shades with intense jewel tone accents.

 

From his latest collection for fall, which included contoured leather and suede jackets with undulating collars, long cocoon coats, satin pantsuits and sinuous, floor-sweeping frocks, retailers have bought into the boots with industrial zippers running up the back of the leg. The balance of force and fragility formed one of the main themes of the collection, perhaps best embodied in one long laser-cut leather dress that looked as if it were made from lace. Says Ackermann: “Leather is a very strong animal material. To [make it look like] lace, with this feeling that it might break, suddenly makes it seem rather fragile. That’s how life can be sometimes.” Ackermann’s short leather jackets remain the bestseller, though, fitted this season with optional peplums and collars.

 

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See the Haider Ackermann fall 2010 review and run of show here >>
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“Sometimes you don’t understand why suddenly [things take off]. Perhaps it’s better not to understand it, just to accept it,” says the designer, who first dressed Swinton for Cannes six years ago. A recent issue of hip French music and culture weekly Les Inrockuptibles features the pair on its cover, with Ackermann affectionately resting his head on her shoulder.

 

The actress, who is nearing 50, fits with the designer’s love of laughter-lined, worldly women. “It’s so sad that we’re just looking to what’s new,” he says, recalling a party he attended where the crowd fluttered around some young starlet. Loulou de la Falaise, who was by his side, was among the onlookers. “For me, it was the world upside down, because [de la Falaise] brought us so much. There’s this emptiness toward things, which is kind of disturbing for me.”

 

It’s been a slow, measured rise for the designer, but he prefers it this way. A free spirit, Ackermann’s approach to his fashion course at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which he never completed, remains the same to this day. As his fellow students scrambled to complete full collections, he would focus on perfecting a handful of looks.

 

Ackermann feels the sobriety of the Belgian city added a lot to his work, being in stark contrast to the colorful cities in which he grew up. Born in Sante Fe de Bogota, Colombia, and adopted by French parents, Ackermann enjoyed a peripatetic childhood, living in cities across Europe and Africa. Carrying a nomadic vibe, Ackermann’s collections, which he sees as an ongoing narrative, reflect this dichotomy. “It was quite shocking to come out of the sunshine, where everything was bright, to come to this discreet sobriety. It was very intriguing,” he recalls of his arrival in Antwerp.

 

Exposed to a variety of traditional dress during his childhood, he recalls being entranced by the jangle of jewelry from under a chador in Africa, or by meters of fabric blowing in the wind. Today he designs in Paris, where he lives, in a tiny, crumbling studio he describes as “very Visconti, very lost beauty,” and once a week travels to Antwerp to his production site, which is based in a cold, Le Corbusier–style building. Ackermann notes his creative starting point is always music. This season, he was listening to Tchaikovsky.

 

Ackermann controls every element of his collections, spanning clothes, shoes and belts, which he develops with the close support of his “backbone,” Anne Chapelle, chief executive officer and owner of Bvba 32, which owns the Haider Ackermann brand.

 

Under Chapelle’s guidance, the brand’s strategy, he says, is to grow with its existing distributors. He is sold in around 60 stores, including Maria Luisa in Paris, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Dover Street Market in London. “Time is everything, and overgrowing is not right for Haider’s hand, which is beautiful,” says Chapelle.

 

As demand grows, Ackermann is aware he needs to loosen the reins. To wit: The designer is looking to embark on his first collaboration, for a jewelry line, likely for next season.

 

He describes the first years of mounting his label as challenging, but the labors are finally starting to pay off. “To get that kind of support from press and sales is a huge encouragement— it gives you energy,” says the designer. “It’s like being in love and wanting to show the other person how desirable you can be. You just want to blossom.”

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