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Haider Ackermann: Fashion Pure and Simple

During a Q&A with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley, the Colombian-born designer discussed his artistic approach to fashion.

Haider Ackermann isn’t gunning for a big red-carpet moment to rocket his career. In fact, when he had his first one with Tilda Swinton, he went on vacation as planned.

This story first appeared in the November 16, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Unswerving as that may have been, the Colombian-born designer is not about to compromise his individualism or cash in on the celebrity quota. During a Q&A with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley, Ackermann discussed his artistic approach to fashion. While the Antwerp Fashion Academy of Fine Arts grad has not ruled out developing a secondary label, and does like the idea of designing jewelry, he explained why he remains focused on developing his signature style, and how time is the greatest luxury.

Bridget Foley: You said just a few hours ago, “China, growth, Twitter, expansion — we are talking also about fashion.” Where’s the mystery? Where’s the romanticism? Where’s the dream? How much stress do you find between the creative process and the demands of business in an increasing global and all-access world?
Haider Ackermann:
It’s very difficult, because you have to question yourself, how much you preserve of yourself and how much you give to the outside world. I’m going through a very delicious time at the moment. People are getting so demanding, but you have to protect yourself. Listening to Tory Burch this morning was very interesting because it is very opposite of what I’m about — all this Twitter, Internet, Facebook, I don’t have any of that. Maybe I will change my way of thinking, but for the moment I prefer to focus on the message I will send there.

B.F.: How do you channel that one message when you are not involved with social media, and unlike many of your peers, have not embraced the role of a quote-unquote celebrity designer? You shy away from that.
H.A.:
Sometimes it’s very difficult in this business, because as a designer you have the feeling you have to be a celebrity. It’s almost as though it is you coming before your work. Now all the rules are changing. It scares me a lot, actually.

B.F.: You are one of the most sought-after designers. How do you describe your aesthetic and why do you think it has caught on? You are making the transition from almost an insider cult fashion favorite to much more mainstream, with a following.
H.A.:
I’ve been very lucky to be protected by big persons like Mr. Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour, and suddenly everything took different proportions. And I think maturity and having the right kind of signature. People are just paying attention.

B.F.: How do you describe your aesthetic?
H.A.:
In this world we are in now, it is very difficult to talk about beauty, because we talk about so many things. And there is so much violence out there. For me, I am just trying to search for a kind of beauty or elegance that I might believe in. How to describe it, I don’t know. I am trying to figure that out as well.

B.F.: Your early work wasn’t as colorful as it is now, and you have been likened to some of the greatest colorists since Yves Saint Laurent. Where does the color come from? What speaks to you about that right now?
H.A.:
I’m just happy more. It’s stupid but it’s true, so that might help. When you’re a designer — it sounds rather foolish and romantic — you just design who you are, what you’re going through or what is happening in your life….It translates into your work. Perhaps when you’re in love everything is more generous.

B.F.: In the past there was an intimacy between designer and actress, a faithfulness that is missing right now. Talk a little bit about your take on that level between the celebrity and the fashion designer.
H.A.:
Nowadays everything seems so forced. In the past, you had Mr. Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve or Audrey Hepburn and Mr. Givenchy, everything came across naturally. I think this is the beauty of a relationship that you can build up with an actress. I think the volume that is going on with the red carpet is kind of a prostitution. You just throw the clothes to the people. I like to develop a relationship. Certainly in America it’s very important that lots of actresses are wearing your clothes, and it helps your sales. It doesn’t feel honest to me. If I haven’t met a person before, if I don’t know what she’s about, if I don’t have any connection to her, why should I do it?

B.F.: Why do you think the importance of the red carpet has exploded so much?
H.A.:
It has to do with the media. That’s all that counts at the moment. Everybody is only looking at that.

B.F.: Do you have other specific inspirations, or do you have a muse?
H.A.:
I don’t believe in the word “muse.” I think every magazine is talking about muses. Muse used to be a silent person, where the woman I am attracted to is very verbal. I need that kind of exchange.

B.F.: You do have a special relationship with Tilda Swinton. Would you talk about that for a minute? First of all, what do you think of her style?
H.A.:
What I like about her is that when she’s doing something, she stands behind it without worrying whether people like it or not. Also, it’s very interesting when a lady wears something that is kind of ugly. At least it questions you. It’s not all about having beautiful breasts and red lipstick and a beautiful ass. In the Sixties, we had Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren which were fantastic. Perhaps now the role of the woman should be moving forward, and Tilda is helping that. Eight years ago, after my second show, she contacted me, and we’ve collaborated for eight years now.

B.F.: Initially you wouldn’t change your plans for her, right?
H.A.:
Absolutely not. Eight years ago, she asked me to dress her for Cannes, and I had to make this evening dress, and her agent and everyone called me, saying, “Please, please, be there.” And I said, no, I’m going to India. I have a trip with the person I love. I’m not going to change anything. I’m just going to go. So everyone was kind of shocked, but I think she respected the fact that I didn’t show up. You have to very much listen to yourself. Otherwise, you get absorbed by the whole system.

B.F.: Speaking of the system, the fashion calendar, the number of collections, the increasing interest in speed to market because things are seen so quickly in real time — what is the impact of that on the creative side?
H.A.:
First, I do believe time is the new luxury, because we don’t take the time, especially in fashion. You don’t ask a writer to write 10 books in one year. You don’t ask a filmmaker to make six films a year. It’s going to such extremes — you have a cruise collection, a pre-collection….How much can you squeeze from a person? It’s good to question ourselves. How much do we have to do? How many collections? Are we not losing ourselves by acting like this? Are we not losing ourselves by doing too much? To do something beautiful, you have to spend time on it. When you see Mr. [Azzedine] Alaïa’s work, you can see he is spending time on it. We are rushing, we are running. How can you make a beautiful product if you don’t have the time for it?

B.F.: Do you think the major brands that set the business side of fashion have to almost give up something on the creative side to be so big, so vast and so powerful?
H.A.:
Yes, in the big industry, they all think that every designer is replaceable. That is simply not true. Some designers have a soul.

B.F.: That sounds like a window. Do you have any thoughts on any houses that might have an opening?
H.A.:
No.

B.F.: What’s great about fashion?
H.A.:
I love the idea that fashion can be a beautiful product and that I still believe that fashion can make people dream. I like to think it’s my role to make people dream.