Just hours after landing in New York on Sunday, Haider Ackermann has something to get off his chest: He is not, contrary to popular reporting, Belgian. Born in Colombia, he was adopted by French parents who then traveled throughout Algeria, Ethiopia and Chad for his cartographer-father’s career. “I’m absolutely French, even though I don’t belong anywhere, because even in France I’m a stranger,” said Ackermann, on this day sitting in a corner chair inside the Mercer Hotel lobby. The mistake stems from his schooling; he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, which counts Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester as alumni. (Demeulemeester and Ackermann share the same Belgian investor, Anne Chapelle.)
In town for tonight’s party in his honor at Saks Fifth Avenue, following a similar bash in Los Angeles, Ackermann has been on a major roll. His darkly romantic fall collection drew near-unanimous raves — both Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld sent him postshow flowers — and now he’s rumored to have a role in the potential Dior-Givenchy reshuffles. Here, the soft-spoken Ackermann — who’s prone to the occasional giggle and blushing — talks insecurities, celebrity culture, contracts and karaoking with Tilda Swinton.
WWD: How was your first trip to Los Angeles? Haider Ackermann: I had this evening where [Saks Fifth Avenue] invited all these kinds of eccentric ladies — it’s a type of eccentricity we might not have in Europe anymore. They were ladies of a certain age, who were still very young — not lifted or whatever — but young like a rock. I was very attracted to one who had a gold jacket, curly blonde hair and red eyeliner, very eclectic and eccentric. When I got out of the plane this morning, I called a friend and said we should go to Los Angeles for the summer and spend two weeks there. I have to get to know it. I always had the fantasy of going there because in the Eighties, I read this book — I forget the name — but it was about all the gangs and subcultures. I had this fantasy of going for those reasons, not for all the rest. I want to go among the gangs, sit on the street, have a beer and just observe them.
WWD: And now you’re hitting up New York. H.A.: I’m fully booked. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to go the McQueen exhibit. Obviously, I have to see it. Everybody interpreted his work in their own way. I always find that interesting. So I like to absorb myself between the people and just listen to what they have to say. I just went to see this exhibition of Anish Kapoor [in Paris’ Grand Palais] and some people found they entered a holy place, others thought they were in the womb of a woman. For me, it was something very peaceful, but at the same time, very violent because [the installation] was red, I was surrounded by those veins of red, so it was an intimate violence.
WWD: Are you squeezing in any shopping while here? H.A.: I’m not a shopper. Just let me wander the streets all by myself. Let me get lost in the city and then I’m happy. I remember the first time I went to the office of American Vogue a few years ago, I came out and put Bach on my iPod to calm down. Then I just walked. I didn’t even know where I was going. At a certain point, I was like, “Where the hell am I?” I do this wherever I am — Paris or Rajasthan, India. You learn so much about a country by observing it. You make your interpretation and you tell yourself your own stories and your stories might reflect slowly in your work. It’s sometimes very nice to do one step back and to just absorb. I think that time is our new luxury nowadays.
WWD: Saks is throwing you another party tonight. As a self-described introvert, are you comfortable doing these public appearances? H.A.: For me, it’s doing myself violence because I’m a quite shy person. I like to be more in the corner and observing. When you’re in the middle of things and there’s tension and you feel observed, it makes me feel insecure. But at the same time, it’s nice to meet the people.
WWD: Do those insecurities creep up during your runway shows? H.A.: Yes, even [at the fall 2011] show, I had many doubts. I admire other designers who just have this ease and confidence to make a collection. I wish I was one of them, to be less complicated, to be less insecure. But this insecurity is what drives you.
WWD: Your recent fall collection was spectacular. H.A.: I have the feeling I’m getting egocentric because this collection is more about me than anything. I’m in a more profound moment in my life where I feel much more loved and much more desired. That’s why I used the song “A Thousand Kisses Deep” by Leonard Cohen. It’s like, OK, let’s go deeper into the story. You want the colors to be more profound, to be more noble. It reflects my private life.
WWD: You’re blushing. H.A.: To feel desired is the most fantastic feeling, that’s what we all want at whatever level.
WWD: Since launching in 2003, how has your woman evolved? H.A.: I understand her more. In the past, she used to be much more a stranger, more unreachable. She was coming from nowhere and was more tormented and complicated. Now, you know when you have a good moment in your life, you want things to be more laid back? That’s why the fabrics are more fainting on the floor, why there is a kind of negligée feel about it.
WWD: Where did that early torment come from? H.A.: I threw myself naïvely into this business — naïvely in the sense that I knew I wanted to do it, but I was so badly organized. I just didn’t know where to go. You’re trying to find this signature and you’re doing all kinds of steps and mistakes. But at the same time, that’s good because without any mistakes, you don’t go anywhere. It’s a shame that nowadays people don’t allow people to make mistakes.
WWD: What do you mean? H.A.: You are judged every season, one after the other. People are “in” and “out.” It keeps the whole business alive and exciting, but we’re just passengers — or passing persons. Passengers are sitting on a train so I think it’s more like passing persons.
WWD: People have said your clothes aren’t easy. Do you agree? H.A.: People are surprised when they come into the showroom because the pieces aren’t complicated at all. But when you’re doing a runway, you want to show your aesthetic. Why should I show this plain jacket you can find anywhere else? Let me twist it a different way and give it a moment. I’m full of admiration for the women in saris, or Tibetan monks, who, with just six meters of fabric, do the most fantastic, elegant piece of clothing.
WWD: You have a very specific sensibility. Is it a challenge to innovate while staying the same course? H.A.: Not to compare myself with them, but Helmut Lang or Rick Owens, they’re designers who have one story to tell and they go deeper into their story. It’s a continuation. I’m in that category. Sometimes I wish I could be more like other designers and do something totally different. I would do, I don’t know, just fluorescent colors, all with miniskirts, something which would really surprise, challenge and disturb me.
WWD: That’s one of the criticisms lobbed at you this season, that your design range is too narrow. H.A.: You know, when you have to show 30 silhouettes, you just want to go in one direction. You want to send a clear message [rather] than having it mixed with all kinds of things.
WWD: Some designers begin a collection with the fabric, others with a story. Where do you start? H.A.: Me, it’s the music. I just spend nights on the street trying to absorb where I want to go, what mood I am in and try to listen to the music. From there, everything goes.
WWD: What’s on your iPod? H.A.: Oh, my iPod, I don’t have funky music on my iPod. It’s like Bonnie Prince Billy, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, PJ Harvey. Schubert, Bach and Chopin. I would love to have a happy song in the show. It might come one day. My défilé — I want people to escape for 10 minutes of their life. The collection is a part of it, but so is the music, the light, the hair, the makeup. The show must have something cinematographic, that you just get one hint of an image which is passing and leaving again. That’s why I like short défilés as well.
WWD: Do you have a favorite collection? H.A.: No.
WWD: Really? What about your least favorite? H.A.: Many. I do have a lot of affection for the first one just because it was my first. The rest, do not ask me to look back at them. It’s more than embarrassing when people reflect on them or when magazines want to do a [retrospective] shoot.
WWD: You sound like your own worst critic. H.A.: Aren’t we all? I think for any designer, to move forward is to criticize yourself as well.
WWD: Let’s talk about your background. You were born in Bogotá, Colombia. H.A.: My parents traveled immediately, from when I was six months old. I was adopted. I didn’t grow up in Colombia. I haven’t gone back, but I won’t speak about it in interviews because for the simple reason that my birth story is.…The fact that I am adopted and things like this are, for me, a beautiful story. My family and friendships are very sacred for me. So just to read two words about a family affair, which is so beautiful, I find it kind of insulting toward my parents who did this beautiful gesture.
WWD: Do you speak Spanish? H.A.: No, but I’m going to learn now.
WWD: And your dad was a cartographer — that must have been an exotic childhood. H.A.: No, he’s more a mathematics, square person — totally the opposite of myself. I am more of this kind of free bird. They’re two totally different approaches. More than 10 years ago, he retired and now he’s involved with Amnesty International, not to keep himself occupied, but because he’s very interested in humans. Now, my parents are based in the South of France.
WWD: Does that nomadic upbringing play into your designs? H.A.: Of course there is an influence. You draw on only who you are, so of course it’s a part of you. Yes, it’s been a part of me. But perhaps now I’m less interested in it. I don’t neglect it and I highly respect it, but perhaps now I’m much more looking to a future than the melancholy and nostalgia that I have toward my childhood. I’m looking for more new adventures. Before, I was very concentrated on my past adventures.
WWD: Does your family come to see your shows? H.A.: Yes. My brother, from Korea, comes too. He’s working real estate in Paris. I also have a sister from Vietnam; she’s in Holland now.
WWD: Where do you consider home? H.A.: I have no home. I only have a home the moment I settle down with the person I love. That’s going to be my new home. For the moment, I’m wandering.
WWD: When you were younger, growing up in Africa, when did you know you wanted to pursue fashion? H.A.: There’s not one moment. You’re attracted by those fabrics when you’re a child, you’re trying to capture this mystery about women — those veiled women — that you don’t understand. It’s a very romantic point of view of trying to find something which you will never find out at the end of the day.
WWD: But when did you begin to think of fashion as a career? H.A.: It’s only now that I think of it as a career. In the past, I was naïve. You know, my first show, I didn’t invite any shops. But now that things are getting serious, I see it much more as a career than I have before.
WWD: People read a lot of Yves Saint Laurent and Gianfranco Ferré in your last collection. Are they your designer influences? H.A.: I think journalists are always trying to put names on top of everything. I could understand Saint Laurent because of the colors, although how can you associate the name Haider Ackermann with Saint Laurent? Honestly? We’re talking about genius and we’re talking about me. Gianfranco Ferré, I didn’t understand why. I have to figure that out.
WWD: So who most influenced you? H.A.: Madame Grès, for me, has this perfectionism and this architectural modernity. She’s got it for me.
WWD: You spent three years at the Royal Academy and left before graduating. Where did you go from there? H.A.: Despair. I traveled a lot. I clubbed a lot. I lost myself in the night. Everywhere where night was to be found, I might have been there.
WWD: And the story that you once cleaned toilets? H.A.: That was in Antwerp. My press agent hates it when I talk about this. But it’s my reality, you know?
WWD: As was interning at John Galliano. H.A.: It was the best study ever. You know, at the time, I had no money, nowhere to stay, so I was sleeping on the street and going every day to work. I put my luggage in a locker at a youth hostel and went there to take a shower.
WWD: What do you remember about your time at Galliano? H.A.: I remember a sense of humor…I cannot talk about it though, because it was so sarcastic and it’s bad to talk about this now. Due to all the respect I have for Mr. Galliano, I prefer not to mention his name. It’s not healthy to talk about a company who suffers and a designer who suffers.
"I was driving back on Saturday afternoon from the beach, and I just saw this sign saying 'Skydiving for $95.' And I was like, I can't not sky dive for $95," says Tom Bateman about a moment in Hawaii while shooting "Snatched." #wwdeye (📷: @vsteves; Interview by @ktauer; Styled by @thealexbadia)