Haider Ackermann is an escapist. Not in the sense of magic tricks and illusions, though his clothes do swathe and expose the body like a faultlessly executed disappearing act. From his worldly travels to his captivating shows, this definition comes from a more romantic language framed by experience and imagination.
It’s the day before our interview and Ackermann doesn't know which country he’ll be speaking from tomorrow. Where this transitory state would unsettle most, it’s comfortable for the Colombian designer, who was adopted by French parents and spent much of his childhood travelling the world. His father’s work as a cartographer took the family across Algeria, Chad, Ethiopia and Iran, before settling in the Netherlands where Ackermann attended high school. In his mid-twenties, he went to Belgium to study fashion at Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and upon finishing founded his eponymous womenswear line in 2002, quickly attracting an international, dedicated following of women obsessed with his clothes. The kind that equally protect as they provoke – intelligent, practical, and quietly powerful, like those who wear them.
As is often the case with creators who don’t work for the spotlight, Ackermann flew under the radar for several years, but a marker of his growing demand was set in 2010 when he delved into menswear at Pitti Uomo in Florence. There he presented a small collection of pieces met with raucous acclaim – and incredulous uproar, when he announced he wouldn’t be showing another menswear collection until he felt absolutely ready. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise: a free thinker, Ackermann has never bowed to standardised expectations of how he should design (always driven by mood and experience, never commercial whims) or communicate (until very recently, no Instagram), and so it wasn’t until three years later that, upon wanting a pair of trousers in one of the women’s fabrics, he officially debuted his menswear line at Paris Men’s Fashion Week.
Ackermann has since sketched the languid outline of the younger man behind his more mature woman (it must be noted that while he ignites her, she definitively doesn’t need him). One of Ackermann’s most defining features is his love of fabrics; his collections look best in movement on the runway, when they exist in a state of action and fluidity. His electrifying latest collection was inspired by the youthful energy of the Japanese and Korean boys he’s come across in his travels, who much prefer to dance than sleep. As if Ackermann had put in an order, the rain that had been doggedly dousing fashion week ceased as the open air show began, the strobe lights ricocheting off the wet ground. In the body-jarring flashes the clothes were like a revelry-uniform – all silk shirts with the colour seemingly sweated out of them, clomping boots and metallic leather trousers. Like the 6am headspace, consumed by the beat in your skull and your ribcage, Ackermann gave his audience ten minutes of pure escape. In the week before print, Italian luxury menswear house Berluti announced Ackermann as its newly appointed creative director. Welcome news to his growing male fan-base, and a curveball to those who thought his first such role would be in womenswear. But consider it for a moment and it’s not so surprising; Ackermann doesn’t do things by the book.
Tempe Nakiska: Where are you right now?
Haider Ackermann: I am in Deià, in Majorca. I just left my rock where I was sitting reading to take this phone call. You are totally abandoned to nature here, it's quite excellent.
Tempe: And I saw you were recently in Bhutan, how was that?
Haider: Well I love places, like Deià, where you just have the feeling that time is standing still. So when you're in Bhutan you come into a civilisation which is hardly touched by all the damage that we can do, and it is beautiful because you have the luxury to take time for things, which is one of the rare luxuries we have nowadays – our biggest luxury. That's what Bhutan is about, you're just high in the clouds, surrounded by monks in these deep red colours at the monastery, I just wanted to sit there and read my books while they are walking around me, it calms you down and gives you lots of energy at once.
Tempe: You walked to the Tiger’s Nest [also popularly known as Paro Taktsang], which is a Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and monastery, why were you drawn to go there?
Haider: I was raised as a Catholic so I've never questioned anything about my religion, but my father, who was a very strong Catholic person, always told me that I would be attracted to Buddhism. So I went to visit the monks there to meditate and try to understand because I'm quite an impatient person who's all the time on the run and on the road, it was very interesting to see that you can just calm everything down and take time and meditate. Buddhism is a religion which gives you lots of freedom, even when you meditate you are free to do so for just two minutes, you don't concentrate anymore, you just let yourself go, so of course there was not this force of the Catholic church which is quite loaded and heavy and full of dust with all the rules that you have to follow. There’s a kind of sense of freedom in [Buddhism] which gives you opportunity to develop as a person, which I think is quite beautiful.
Tempe: It sounds like you got some real headspace.
Haider: Yes, it was an amazing experience. I'm dreaming to escape to those kind of countries, I would like to go to Ethiopia, I would like to go to Mongolia, to visit those places where you can just observe, look, and take time to think. [In Bhutan] you're high in the clouds, literally, the monasteries are so high, waking up at dawn to the sunrise there is just so romantic… in a non-romantic way.
Tempe: When you were young you travelled a lot, what did home mean to you?
Haider: I never knew what home was, when you're a traveller or have an upbringing like me you have the feeling that you belong nowhere, and you belong everywhere at the same time. Sometimes it can be exciting because it gives you a sense of freedom and sometimes makes you anxious because you don't belong anywhere, you might be French but as you grew up in so many countries you don't feel you belong in France. Nowadays I feel very lucky because I have this beautiful person who is very important to me in my life and my home is going to be where we put our flag down together.
Tempe: I wanted to talk about this idea of escapism that runs through your work, much of what you do is centred, it seems, around this idea of escaping, whether that's from a certain reality or a geography or a mood or headspace.
Haider: We as people always talk about escaping and discovering and going far away and the distance you create when you're travelling, from your own home to the end of the world. Actually it's a very bizarre phenomenon because at the same time as the distance is so vast, sometimes you can be at the other side of the world, in a volcano somewhere, in a desert, anywhere, but a thought might cross your mind relating to your own city or home, and that thought might bring you even closer to your own reality than if you were in the reality, do you know what I mean? Because we are taking so much time thinking about our issues and problems and things that we're doing that sometimes you just need to forget about your life and being on the other side of the world you're suddenly reminded about a certain moment, or a special occasion, a special smell, everything, and by taking that distance you are brought so much closer to your own sensibility and your own person and life.
Tempe: I think it's very true, and it's often why people feel so good getting away. It makes me think of an essay by Tolkien, I think it’s called On Fairy Stories, have you read it?
Haider: I have heard of it but haven’t read it, what’s it about? Tempe: Well Tolkien is talking about fairy stories and making a case for their existence, he says they allow the reader to view their own world from a different perspective. From that, he argues that fantasy stories are a healthy and beautiful form of escapism, which I think is a lovely idea.
Haider: Yes exactly, because as much as you do it to escape you are more aware of your reality because you have the time to think about your things, it's escaping but at the same time there's a kind of reflecting in coming back to yourself. I think it's very healthy.
Tempe: Because we often talk about 'escapism' in a negative sense, confusing it with 'avoidance' or running away from your problems.
Haider: I don't think escaping is running away from something, or avoiding things, at all. That's not why I like to go far away, or get away from civilisation, it's not to run away from something.
Tempe: From a fashion view, designers of our generation have often created collections and shows that have been pure escapism, real theatrics, like in the 90s with shows by John Galliano. But recently it does feel like that kind of dreaming has thinned out to a more minimalist state.
Haider: I used to love to go to John Galliano, it was totally world-opening for me, it's just fantastic. Or those beautiful Yamamoto shows – it’s about the fact that those people allow you to dream. When putting on a show I always think, “If I could, for ten or fifteen minutes, make this person sitting in the first or second or third row forget about themselves and forget about their problems and what's outside this room, then I can be at peace with myself.” When I was younger and I would go to shows and there were particular designers who would make me forget about everything – these days, that’s a great luxury that we can give each other. There was something so magical about those shows in the past, and I think it's a shame that we are reducing everything to reality, everything is not reality. I believe in dreams and think that they can help us to move forward and to motivate us, that's the beauty of a dream. Those shows in the past motivated me as a young student to be a designer. But now everything is so down to reality, how does that reality make dreams for the next generation?
There is this beautiful sentence by Yoko Ono that goes, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality,” which I find quite extraordinary, because it’s true: whether you're in a relationship and you're both dreaming of the same thing and from that you can make the relationship absolutely amazing; or whether you're with your team dreaming of a collection – as a designer you're nothing without your team – you can all dream together and try to realise a beautiful show; or whether it’s a designer and his audience, to all dream together is moving things forward. As for those who still make you dream, there are not many left, I'm afraid. I sound very pessimistic, I'm really not though [laughs]. But do you know what I mean? I can't stand the word 'reality' anymore. I mean we live in reality, so why do we have to be confronted with it all the time? It has nothing to do with the idea that fashion shouldn't be business, I'm absolutely aware that we have to sell dresses and trousers and tuxedos. But it’s what surrounds us that can make us dream.
Tempe: It does feel like now we're starting to see a slight shift away from 'reality', maybe we are wanting to wear clothes or experience shows that make us dream again. It's quite apt for now, when we are in such a state of global uncertainty, that dreaming can bring us together.
Haider: You say exactly the right thing, those ideas are very moving and it's a shame that this society is so attracted to the idea of reality, but maybe things can change.
Tempe: I think that notion of togetherness is also in line with the youthful energy you were channeling in your SS17 menswear show, what kind of things were you thinking about?
Haider: Thank you for the word ‘togetherness’, I love that word, it says so much about what I wanted to express with this collection. It's a very tough world right now, everything is getting quite insane with the violence that is so free, violence and war has always been here but it is apparent in a very different way today. But I have these kids around me who have this kind of naïvety and innocence and they want to dance the stars away until dawn. They are very carefree and want to be happy, it's not escaping life, they want to enjoy life, they have all this brightness. That's what I wanted to express, the energy and innocence of those daydreamers. I thought that was beautiful – to have this energy that pushes through to the next day – I wanted to be surrounded by it and to take their electricity and tension, and try to translate it in the show. There's a sense of freedom in it all.
Tempe: Was it based on your personal experiences or more on a general feeling you have of youth today?
Haider: I've travelled a few times to Asian countries like Japan and Korea and the daring side of all those boys – the way they dress, the freedom they have about dressing up and their energy – is what I was attracted to. And how they combine colours, it's absolutely amazing.
Tempe: There's a real sense of irreverence in the way young people dress in Tokyo, that individualism comes through on the street. And their nightlife is so underground and hidden, I’m sure that has an impact on style too.
Haider: Exactly, and there's a kind of security in that which liberates people. They have this curiosity about life and exploring and it makes me think about the freedom of rockstars, the kind of people who had the freedom to dress however they liked.
Tempe: I want to talk about the evolution of the Haider Ackermann man, you showed menswear at Pitti in 2010 as part of the carte blanche they gave you. But when you didn’t announce a dedicated men’s show the following season, people seemed to think you had given them a men’s collection and then taken it away. But I don’t get the feeling that you were ready, and it was never theirs to have in the first place.
Haider: Yes! [laughs] That was totally it, it was just an accident at Pitti Uomo, you have this beautiful honour there and a carte blanche to do what you like, so for me it was a play garden moment and I took it as an opportunity to understand who the man is behind this woman that I'm thinking about all the time. It was a curiosity for me, and also what I call exercise défilé. I was trying to define and understand him, but that didn't mean that I was launching a collection at all, it was just a present that Pitti gave me. There was no commercial thing behind it, I just wanted to explore who this man was, and I wasn't ready at the time [to launch a menswear line], I need to do things when I am ready. It was like a scene in a movie when a man is walking along a street and then he disappears, a lover that is just passing through.
Tempe: I don't get the feeling that you're the kind of person to do things by halves.
Haider: Absolutely, I have to be dedicated to him, I do things when I think I should do them.
Tempe: So how did you get to the point of feeling ready to debut your men's collection?
Haider: It was so bizarre, and quite funny. I had these quite beautiful fabrics in the women's collection and I remember thinking,"I would like to have trousers in this" [laughs], it was as uncalculated as that. You know sometimes when you have done something for a while you need to do something different that breathes new life into your work, so it was also a way of bringing new energy into the women's collection. I just needed that kind of explosion of doing something else, which would wake me up and put me on the road again. And I think it helped, because working on the men's collection, you don't try and make a man beautiful, there's no purpose in doing this. The only thing you want to give him is attitude. You also want the man make their woman more handsome – my women, I’ve always tried to make them more handsome rather than beautiful. And the fact that with a men's collection you can just work on a few garments, and it's all about the detail, about making a sleeve longer by a few centimetres, and that kind of focus on pieces themselves made me think a lot about the women's collection, and so the woman has matured in the process.
Tempe: You were talking about the difference between designing for a man and a woman, it made me think of the way your collections are described on the website: 'Women's collection' and 'Men's Wardrobe'. Does that reflect your approach to each?
Haider: There are particular men, like Monsieur Balthus [Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, the Polish-French artist known as Balthus], who are always in my mind. In thinking about the wardrobe, you're not interested in a man having ten thousand pieces of clothing like a women's closet, that would be so unattractive, like a man who spends too much time in front of the mirror, that's totally unattractive. I just like the accident, the moment when a man is taking whatever out of his wardrobe and putting it together, it's a clash, a life of a man is sauvage enough just to take things and sometimes it's an elegant accident. That's the beauty of it, and it intrigues me. My collections for men are less calculated, less thoughtful than for the woman, for me it's also less complicated because I'm attracted to a man who has the elegance to just be aware that they can provoke beautiful accidents. I like it when men are not thinking about what they are wearing, I find it absolutely attractive. At the same time, I also love men who are perfectly immaculate, and when they wear a tuxedo every centimetre is so perfect.
Tempe: I think that tension has always been very apparent in your work, across both your men's and women's collections, the draping and fabric and fluidity is key and in the clothes themselves – but the way they are put together is all about the styling and composure, it encompasses that feeling of duality.
Haider: You have the feeling sometimes with those men that as much as they don't care, they actually do care, but unconsciously. That play off is quite interesting. But also, it reminds me of when we were talking about escaping to other countries and specifically the way the women were dressed in Bhutan. In French we use the word ‘cacophony’, you have this mix of different fabrics and cuts, a jacket with a belt, and everything comes together and it's amazing. It goes back to this idea of people who can put anything together and it just works.
Tempe: I’m interested that scarves are something that are so key to your own personal style, and that you have carried them over to your men’s collections quite consistently.
Haider: I know I try to protect myself and hide myself with clothes. If you go to the Sahara or to Ethiopia, to Bhutan, or to India there's always that mix of fabrics worn as a form of protection, and that's why I love scarves because you can always hide yourself from the elements behind them. Fabric can be a very elegant form of protection.
Tempe: There’s this idea of exposing and covering things up, it was always apparent in your women’s collections and in your menswear it’s carried over but in different ways that cater to particular parts of a man’s body.
Haider: It always has to do with revealing, without revealing, you know? It's about the falling of the fabric, whether you expose the back, or the neck – which is one of the most sensual parts of a woman – or whether the men's shirt is too open and wide and too négligé about it, the way the fabric is falling can give off a lot of sensuality. But there always should be a sense of wanting to touch something that's untouchable, because I think desire is something that is very rare nowadays, we are so used to having everything, what we want that second and minute. You used to have to wait six months after seeing an item of clothing before being able to have it, now you can have it straight after the show. So I like to create that sense of desire in clothes, the way the fabric falls suggests it might come away to reveal a part of the body.
Tempe: What you say about there being less desire nowadays is true, especially today in society where we expose ourselves through social media, or through reality TV, there's this culture of baring all. So this sense of mystery in your clothes really throws it all into sharp relief.
Haider: In the past a model would get a job not by the number of followers she has on Instagram [laughs]. I mean, the world is getting insane now, everything is so open and we judge people by their Instagram accounts. Where is the desire in this? Where's the beauty in this? Those women of the past – whether it was Greta Garbo or Catherine Hepburn, especially Catherine Hepburn – felt to be almost unreachable, and those women make you dream with that mystery and longing.
Tempe: There's a huge amount of elegance in the discreet and the unattainable.
Haider: The unreachable is attractive; it's desire. And longing for something, for that lover, it's one of the most special feelings. The people who I admire, I don't want to know every aspect of their life, that's not why I admire them.
Tempe: Who do you admire?
Haider: I look up to everybody who is trying to follow their dreams, I look up to all the people who have the strength to try and find their way, whatever that might be. I'm looking to everybody who will take a challenge, and those people who make a huge difference out there. Sometimes in the fashion industry we make such a fuss about what we do. At the end of the day I'm not saving lives, I'm just working with fabrics.
Tempe: Your name has been attached to so many houses throughout the years, but – until this point right now – you have never come on board as designer for an established house. Why is that?
Haider: As a designer, you have a kind of language, and I want my language to fit with the codes of the house I am working for. I just want to do something when I'm really clear it's right, it’s like a relationship, it's like an engagement [laughs]. When I do something like that it will be a challenge, and something people might not expect. I’m looking forward to my future.
Photography YOSHIYUKI MATSAMURA
Published in HERO MAGAZINE, WINTER/SPRING 16/17