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Q&A: Haider Ackermann in Manhattan

In town for a party at Saks Fifth Avenue, the designer sat down with WWD to talk about self-doubt, celebrity culture and those Dior rumors.

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.)

This story first appeared in the June 7, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

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.

WWD: Your name always comes up when someone leaves a house — Martin Margiela, Galliano. Do you feel the added pressure?
H.A.:
Yes, of course there’s pressure, there’s tension. But you should embrace them as gifts because at least people are looking at you. Let’s be honest, next season it’s going to be someone else and fair enough.

WWD: Do you think the fashion system puts too much pressure on designers?
H.A.:
We should not forget we’re designers. We all have the chance and the luck to tell a story, to have a voice, which is a luxury position compared to so many people who don’t have [that opportunity]. So, yes, it might be a tough job, yes, there might be tension, but there’s much more tension and hardness and despair out there. I mean, give me a break. My father now works for Amnesty International, so let’s not talk about that.

WWD: Is it true you’ve turned down nine contracts in the past?
H.A.:
Yes, but you can never mention those things because it will be very un-elegant to the other persons who accepted the jobs.

WWD: Anything you can say about possibly taking over Dior or Givenchy?
H.A.:
Let the rumors talk. But I would, at a certain point, accept a house which might fit me and which I would feel comfortable with — but there are not many. I don’t think one single person knows the house I’m dreaming of.

WWD: Can you elaborate? American, European, Japanese?
H.A.:
I won’t go there. Nobody is going to figure it out because it would be a total surprise.

WWD: I’ve read that you’re not a fan of Twitter or Facebook.
H.A.:
Honestly, I hardly have any time for my friends so how can I be on Twitter and Facebook and all of this? And not everybody has to know what I’m doing every minute of the day. I don’t understand why people have to show pictures wherever they are and things like this. I mean, who gives a damn what I will do every minute of the day? And if that person gives a damn, is he that bored with himself?

WWD: Does that opinion extend to the bloggers?
H.A.:
No, I don’t read them. Perhaps I’m very old fashioned. Not everyone has got the knowledge to criticize each other. When you go to fashion shows and you see all those people outside taking pictures of each other — the street is almost getting more important than what’s happening inside the space. I don’t get it. I like to meet people in the street, but I think it’s taking things to proportions which are absurd.

WWD: What do you think of the circus element of shows, of celebrity culture taking over?
H.A.:
I’m really sorry, I’m going to sound so rude, but some of those girls don’t do anything. Yes, some people are entitled to be a celebrity because they did something, they proved something, they made tremendously good movies. But then all those young girls, they might have done one movie and just because they’re pretty, they’re out there. I believe we’re spoiling those girls’ careers. We throw them out there, in their first role, they get all the hype — but then we’re searching for the next new thing.

WWD: So how do you feel about celebrity designers?
H.A.:
Everybody is a fashion designer nowadays. But then again, sometimes you’re surprised that a celebrity-singer can make quite a fantastic collection. When you look at Ms. Victoria Beckham’s collection — chapeau! Chapeau in French means “wow, fantastic.”

WWD: Which designers do you follow?
H.A.:
You cannot talk about favorite ones because you put people in certain categories and you neglect the other ones. But yes, there are some. When you look at Nicholas Ghesquière from Balenciaga — I’m sorry for the words, but fu–, how does he do it every damn season?

WWD: You’re open about your love of jewelry. Does this mean we’ll see a collection from you soon?
H.A.:
That’s something I would really love to do. Recently, I’ve tried to draw things and define where I would place myself, but I don’t know how to translate it. I need to find the right person to work with. I got attracted to jewelry when I was younger. Living in Africa, you only hear the sounds of jewelry because everything is covered and hidden by veils. But my jewelry wouldn’t make noise. I don’t want my woman to be like a cow walking around.

WWD: What about a Haider Ackermann fragrance?
H.A.:
It has to be something very mysterious and it has to be wood. The bottle would be a very old-fashioned one, pure crystal, kind of heavy.

WWD: Are you seriously looking to build your business into a larger brand?
H.A.:
For the moment, I want to keep it niche, just to grow the clients and shops we have. When you say brand, it makes everything sound so calculated, that you know exactly where you’re going to take it. I’m not that far along. Perhaps I’m tormented to think of it this way.

WWD: You’re good friends with Tilda Swinton and she’s often in your clothes. How did you meet her?
H.A.:
In a Chinese karaoke. I think we were both pissed [drunk]. It was in Paris, in a very lost area in the fourth arrondissement. I don’t even know how we ended up there. She’s has a quite nice voice, which is not my case. I mean, this is quite embarrassing, but I like to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong.” Actually, that was the second time we met. It’s funny, we were in Istanbul the other weekend talking about how we met and I told her perhaps not remembering is the best thing.

WWD: Current obsession?
H.A.:
My obsession? I just want to go back to L.A.

WWD: I have to ask about your glasses — they’ve become your signature look.
H.A.:
They’re very old models, called the Schubert. They’re from the 18th century. I bought them in Amsterdam. I’ve already broken eight pairs. You know, when you have sex you break them very easily. The other ones were very fragile.

WWD: That’s a good place as any to end. Any last thoughts?
H.A.:
It’s enough violence to talk about yourself the whole time. When I’m going through a museum, I love to see a painting without any explanation and just absorb it the way that I feel like absorbing it. I like this freedom. When I give interviews, it also feels like I’m dictating. I just want you to see me the way you want to. I don’t want to be such an open book.