Haider Ackermann cuts an uncommon swath through the world of French fashion. He has the dark, whiskered, romantically dramatic look of a nineteenth-century gaucho, though he is—by birth—from Colombia, half a continent north of the pampas. By upbringing, he is nearly unclassifiable. He was adopted by a French cartographer and his wife and raised in Africa and the Netherlands; later, he was educated in Belgium and trained in France, between which he now splits his time. In the middle of August, when all of Paris is having its holiday in the South of Italy or the South of France, he is not hard to pick out at a table at the Café Marly, overlooking the Louvre, in his crushed fedora and shawl. But it is still easier to mistake him than to place him. “When I was young, I used to go to bars in New York, and when people would ask me what I was doing, I would say I was cleaning dishes in a bar,” he said, with half a chuckle, not long after we’d met. “And due to my skin color, they believed me.” This of a designer who instructs the members of his small studio in at least four languages: English, French, German, and Dutch.
The fact is, the past few years have made it much harder for him to hide. Once the perennial periphery man, he has come very near to the center of the fashion whirl, a move confirmed by the placing of fashion’s most potent of laurels: envy. Everyone seems to want Ackermann, and there is hardly a major fashion label whose helm fate, or the rumor mill, has not inclined him toward. His name was bandied about for positions at Margiela (which he acknowledges) and Dior and Givenchy (which he does not); and a few years ago, Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director for life of Chanel, named him the only designer working who would be fit to replace him someday.
This story first appeared in the October 1, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Ackermann forged his reputation on the strength of his women’s collections. They are made of elaborately draped, wrapped, and ribbon-tied acres of silk and jacquard, seeming to draw on every global tradition of dress, from the Indian sari to the Japanese kimono to the Middle Eastern chador. The least debt, in fact, is to the best-known, Western tradition. Although he freely acknowledges the influence of the mid-century couturiers Madame Grès and Yves Saint Laurent, fabric seems to matter more to him than fashion. “It was not fashion I was touched by,” he explained of his earliest interest. “It was the movement of the fabrics. I lived in countries where they used six or eight meters of fabric. My mother can tell you: When I was a child on the beach, I would always hang my towel to see the wind blowing through it.”
Even today, he lives not in the cosmopolitan center of Paris, but farther afield, in the twentieth arrondissement. “Saturday morning, I wake up at nine o’clock and read the newspapers,” he said. “Africans walk around, Asian, Jewish, all different nationalities. They have the weirdest combination of clothes. You have all those people talking to each other. It’s nothing pretentious. There’s so much fashion on the street, but not fashion, which for me is very inspiring. It brings me back to when I was younger, living in Africa.”
Because draping is central to the way he designs for women—and, as he once put it, “You can’t drape a man”—Haider Ackermann never designed menswear and never much thought about it. Until, in 2010, the Florentine trade fair Pitti Immagine invited him to present a women’s collection and underwrote the cost of doing so. They gave him, Ackermann recalled with some relish, carte blanche. He decided on the Palazzo Corsini for his location and began to envision the woman he’d dress there. “I always make up stories to myself—that’s how I always work,” he said. “She’s wandering through the corridors to her room, and of course she’s lonely. Of course she’s waiting for the man. He’s going to come home, but she doesn’t know when. I saw her walking, I saw the whole thing. But who’s the man that she’s waiting for, actually? What does he look like?”
The show opened with Scott Barnhill—once a waifish star of nineties male modeling, now appealingly weather-beaten—in a sash, smoking slippers, and a jacket so finely embroidered, he looked like the famous Phillips portrait of Lord Byron. And suddenly Haider Ackermann was a menswear designer.
The reactions to Ackermann’s first foray into men’s were good. Though his hosts reacted initially with some trepidation—“We were surprised, and even a bit worried at first, about it overlapping with the men’s guest,” Pitti CEO Raffaello Napoleone said recently—they agreed to the coed presentation, despite having invited Raf Simons to show his menswear collection for Jil Sander, because the project was “really a special, creative experiment.” Ackermann himself saw it this way. The collection was not intended for production or sale. “It was just an exercise for me,” he said, “and a very liberating one, because I felt totally free. We didn’t need to sell. It was such fun.”
But retailers, their appetites duly whetted, wanted it in stores, and so it was ushered into production. In a major show of support, Barneys New York picked it up. “Haider Ackermann uses fabric the way that most people use color,” said Barneys’ Tom Kalenderian. “I think there’s no question that it’s a very personal and unique presentation of men’s.”
Personal is a word that comes up often when Ackermann is concerned. Further than that, journalists writing about his collections tend to stumble and fall back on calling them, simply, “very Haider Ackermann,” which becomes a kind of shorthand for draping, exotica, and rich color. He works closely with a small team and refuses to employ a stylist, working instead with Michèle Montagne, a legend in Paris fashion who collaborated with Helmut Lang during his glory days and shepherded the careers of Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester. Technically, Montagne is Ackermann’s press agent. “That’s almost the least she does in my life,” he said. “I could do without her press, but I could not do without her in my collection. Michèle, she knows what I’m going through. She knows that my collection is so built on my emotion, whether I’m sad or I’m in love. All of this translates somehow. When we’re working on the looks, she can take more out of me than I dare to do. A stylist would never come so personally, because he wouldn’t know my life. He’d just come in and change the things.”
Ackermann has long nurtured relationships with muses who become avatars of his vision—most famously, the actress Tilda Swinton, but also the high-fashion models who return, like family, to his runways season after season—but where menswear is concerned, Ackermann’s best representative might be himself. He has an aristocratic bearing and a dab hand with a cashmere wrap. (Over the course of lunch at Café Marly, he readjusted his blanket-size square of fabric several times: now as an oversize ascot, now tucked under the arm like a toga.) “You can see his work, and you can see what he wears, and you can see the ties, you can see the bridge,” said his close friend, the jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia. “You can see that story being told. You don’t even need to read between the lines.” Ackermann conceded that connection; his friends, he said, point out the Ackermann spirit in his menswear in particular. “They recognize me in it, but I don’t know—I don’t have that much distance yet to be able to analyze that,” he admitted. “Perhaps I don’t even want to. Perhaps I just want to let it go. That’s more the freedom I have with the man—I don’t think that much. With the woman, I am more thinking, rethinking, overthinking.”
But there is an umbilical tie between the collections for men and the collections for women, one not lost on any of the Ackermann faithful. “Truly, it feels like part of the same story,” Swinton said. “The delicacy of color palette, the clarity of line, the fluidity of some silhouettes and the sharpness of others…. Personally, I find it occasionally hard to remember which collection something came from.”
As abruptly as Ackermann’s menswear appeared, it disappeared again. Despite the sales orders, the season at Pitti was followed by several seasons of silence on the menswear front. “Shops were requesting more, but I’m not a person who responds to ‘You have to do it, you have to do it,’” he said. “Pffffft. When I feel ready, when I feel it’s the moment.”
“I think this collection was missed as he exited men’s,” Kalenderian said. “People were asking for what’s next. The anticipation was always there, that it would come back. It was just a question of when. So I think, unfortunately, none of us knew except him, so it was a hard question to answer.”
The moment turned out, as Ackermann moments often do, to be a personal one. “I chose some fabrics for the women, and I thought, Oh, that fabric. I would love to have for myself,” he laughed.
“So let’s do men’s now.”
In June, a hundred people were invited to Ackermann’s rapprochement with menswear. It was a late addition to the Paris calendar that brought out every major editor and retailer. What they arrived at was not a baroque runway show of Pitti-esque proportions but a nearly silent presentation. In a raw space in the Marais, sixteen models, tattooed up to the neck and down to the knuckle, sipped champagne and chatted among themselves. They wore silk jacquard waistcoats and iridescent bomber jackets, long scarves and shimmering overcoats, all in saturated jewel tones: garnet and aubergine, lilac and midnight blue. If they posed, it was mostly incidentally. They were more like guests of honor at a cocktail party the underdressed rest of us had crashed. Ackermann was delighted. He’d won over the harder audience. For a designer whose native mode is self-doubt—Ackermann is famously sensitive—menswear seemed to provide a way to release the pressure valve. “I said something to my press agent which she had never heard from me before,” he said. “She said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘Actually, I’m good. I loved the reaction from the boys, because they loved it. If the press doesn’t like it….’ ”
The press, for the record, did. Several key editors raced back to place personal orders, Ackermann reported, by way of sales prognostication, and retailers followed. (Barneys has picked up the collection again for spring, Kalenderian confirmed.) And now the collection will continue without interruption. The ongoing menswear line will be part of Ackermann’s new, independent company. Less than a month before the show, the Belgian angel investor Anne Chapelle, who, under the aegis of her company BVBA 32, had supported Ackermann for years, announced that in order to facilitate further growth, the label was splitting off into its own separate entity. (Ann Demeulemeester, whose label was also under the BVBA 32 umbrella, became an independent firm at the same time. Chapelle continues to hold a controlling interest in both brands.)
The possibilities for growth are many. To the continued, dogging questions of taking over a luxury house, Ackermann will now say only that the fit must be right. “You don’t have a sensitivity that can filter everything,” he shrugged—the implication being that his filter might be of finer stuff than the feed. In any case, while he once flirted openly with the idea of taking over a house with a vocabulary distinct from his own, the feeling now seems to be that it’s Haider’s way or the highway.
He maintains an auteur’s single-minded dedication to his own idiom. “I don’t have this talent that Nicolas [Ghesquière] or Ms. Miuccia Prada has to renew every season,” he said. “I wish I had it, perhaps.” The “ultimate dream,” he went on, would be to have a haute couture line. But in the meantime, maybe a film, maybe a ballet. “I almost worked on a film with Jim Jarmusch,” he tosses out with a casualness that seems genuine, not practiced. “We met, and he knew so much what he wanted that it was almost useless for me to collaborate.” The highway.
It’s not that Ackermann’s focus is rigidly self-reflective or that he designs only for himself. It would be a poor business strategy for a luxury fashion line to do so. But his work comes from somewhere not far beneath his thin skin. A recent trip to his native Colombia, as an invited guest of the Colombiamoda trade fair, seems to have piqued his interest in memoir even more. (It evidently confirmed his Latin roots as well. “It was really nice to see him there amidst his people, on his land,” said Ahluwalia, who was among the delegation that visited Medellín with Ackermann. “We would go out dancing every night, and he’s a great dancer. Look—you think those are French moves? It’s so obvious. You think that’s his French side? That’s Colombia written all over it.”)
“His work is always profoundly personal and explicitly grown out of his experiences,” added Swinton. “Maybe his recent discovery of Colombia has liberated him to put out there all his interests, well-rounded and transparently free of limitation.”
It’s not autobiography, exactly. If it were, Ackermann would be as extensively illustrated as the tattooed models he loves. “It is a challenge I would’ve loved to do,” he said wistfully. “It was Tim Blanks who put it quite right—perhaps I want to be one of them.” Many of his designs, he said, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, personally wear.
But the personal is the professional, and the professional the personal. And as his own story wends its way on, so does his collection, in all its ups and downs. Lunch was over, and Ackermann was headed from the Louvre back to his studio in the Marais, alone. I offered to accompany him, and he politely but firmly demurred. No one was allowed to observe him in the studio. It was too personal. Instead, he offered this crumb. A few seasons ago, he said, he gathered his studio staff and told them the story he wanted to tell for the season.
“‘So you have to imagine it’s five o’clock in the morning, you just stayed in this beautiful hotel with the person you love,’” it began.
“‘But suddenly you need to go. And you walk in the mist. You know that you’re losing the person you love, but you know that you have to do it, because otherwise you’re losing yourself. So you have to go to the mist and see it. Stand straight and face it and deal with it, that you have to go….’ I explain the whole thing. Four of them started crying. Because they knew. I didn’t tell them that I had just separated, but they knew it wasn’t the woman who just left the hotel, it was me leaving the hotel at five o’clock in the morning. And I found myself in the mist, in Paris, not looking back, thinking, I let this person go. I don’t want to, but I have to, because otherwise I lose myself. They gasp. And afterwards, they’re like, ‘Do you want a tea?’ They would never [before] touch me, but they hug me. Then I say, ‘I’m fine. Let’s work now.’”