From The Issue: Anders Christian Madsen Talks To Haider Ackermann
Whenever you go backstage after one of Haider Ackermann’s shows – men’s or women’s – you can be sure of one thing: he will give you an elusive declaration on the state of the world, the material one or possibly his own.
I suspect he likes the interpretation game or maybe his distinct aesthetics simply move so slowly and confidently the motives often remain the same. He’s an old soul with old-fashioned principles, and this social media-fuelled fashion landscape isn’t the easiest territory for a designer like him to navigate. “The only obligation you have is trying to make beautiful clothes. It’s the only thing you’ve got to say,” he once told me on the subject.
In his world, old-school virtues of craftsmanship and artisanal values easily trump fast fashion and the promotion circus it brings. “We need explosions of shiny things. We need this kind of freedom,” he said at his gilded AW16 men’s show. “It’s a tough world outside. I wanted to have this kind of gracefulness and brightness and peace to show the other side of what we are confronted with every day,” he echoed at his women’s show that same season.
Like the soulmate to the womenswear he first launched 14 years ago, his menswear – introduced in 2013 – is a culturally eclectic, glam-rock take on rakish salon dressing. It’s a template of louche loungewear, if you will, for the wistful modern dandy, to which Ackermann applies his mood du jour.
His SS17 men’s show marked his most shocking interpretation of it to date. A rainy staging in the neoclassicist courtyard of Palais Galliera in Paris glistening from techno lights, this was a louder Ackermann – a social commentator more to the point.
“It was an orgy of colours,” he told me. “You know, when you’re clubbing and sweating? It was about a whole night out and making it a little more poetic. I have this gang of young kids around me and they’re so full of energy and, you know, I’m getting older and when you see what’s happening in the world you sometimes get a little bit… ” He paused solemnly.
This was the summer of nonstop terror attacks in France and Germany, of Brexit, and Trump looming on horizon. “They’re just kids who want to party and want to be happy,” he continued. “They’re this generation who want to be happy. They don’t have the worries that we might have. They’re full-on, and I wanted to capture that energy.”
Following a trip to Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom whose religious dress has often found its way into his collections, Ackermann had cut off his trademark Beethoven bob in favour of a shorter style. “I wanted to be very light,” he mused. “It’s the most beautiful country in the world. It’s so quiet and you’re high in the clouds because you’re up in the mountains and everything is peaceful.” This kind of whimsical poetry comes easy to Ackermann, who wouldn’t have felt out of place in the eras of Lord Byron or Charles Baudelaire, even if the latter was too gloomy for his optimistic liking.
The 45-year-old designer came to be this way not by proxy, but by aspiration. “I think I’m very bourgeois at the end of the day,” he once told me, admitting he had longed for that kind of life while growing up. Adopted from the ghetto of Bogota, Columbia, in 1971 by a French cartographer and his wife, Ackermann had a peripatetic upbringing between Chad, Ethiopia and Nigeria, before the family settled in Holland when he was 12.
His parents now live in the south of France, and Ackermann is French. Not Dutch and not Belgian, as some presume, although his studio is based in Antwerp, where he also studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts before he was kicked out after three years. “He couldn’t finish his studies,” fellow student Raf Simons once noted, and you don’t have to read far into Ackermann’s escapism to understand why.
On a trip to Berlin a few years ago, he confessed to me he had never got his driver’s licence. Why, I enquired. “When I was young my parents gave me money to get my driver’s licence. My best friend, my parents and his parents [had previously] travelled together around all the countries. So [my best friend and I] took the money and went on a holiday. It was a really fantastic trip and our parents got tremendously mad. They were really upset with us,” he recalled, wide-eyed. “My friend died and even though not being able to drive is a handicap today, I did the best thing I could have done, going with him on that holiday. So there’s a beautiful story related to the fact that I don’t drive and I’m proud of it.”
A year on, at his SS16 men’s show in Paris, he inadvertently took me back to that story, likening the collection to a road trip. “All road trips,” he said, dreamily. “I didn’t want to think about anything. I just wanted to be on the road. I really wanted to be on this road trip and fantasise.”
It’s the kind of escapism that might seem like a contrast to Ackermann’s acute sense of the social and political moods that surround him, but which is a natural reaction to the doom and gloom of current affairs. A childhood on the move turned Ackermann into the eternal dreamer, transporting himself far away to the beautiful life – the urban existence surrounded by culture and art and beauty that he now lives.
In the success of his menswear that is now set to take him to new heights, Ackermann has reached the zenith of that dolce vita: sumptuously understated luxury tailoring with an attention to detail so high it will give you the munchies. He swiftly and resolutely conquered the men’s market with his perfectly timed knack for “athleisure”, the industry term for luxury sports and leisurewear. So much so that his friend Kanye West would take it to new levels at Yeezy after practically wearing nothing but Ackermann’s deluxe sweats for some two years. Even Kim Kardashian joined in the fandom, draping herself with his signature sweeping robes. Since Ackermann first entered the fashion scene in 2002, he has been a celebrity magnet, a reality that hasn’t always been easy for a man of strict principles.
“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,” he told Women’s Wear Daily’s Bridget Foley in 2011. “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?”
With that point of departure, Ackermann’s celebrity magnetism only increased. Rather than just wearing his clothes, stars became his friends, from his unofficial poster girl, Tilda Swinton, who rarely leaves his side at public events, to PJ Harvey and Ciara – as well as the unicorn that is Janet Jackson. The two met years ago, he told her his favourite song was Let’s Wait Awhile and the rest is history.
Jackson made a rare appearance at Ackermann’s AW16 women’s show, a continued sign of approval that spoke volumes about his appeal to that breed of fiercely private superstars, and the sense of belonging that a lot of his followers – both women and men – feel in relation to his esoteric visual universe. “Tilda always says, ‘When I’m on a red carpet and I’m wearing you, I feel myself and I feel protected.’ And I think that’s one of the most beautiful compliments you can get,” he has told me.
Take all the components of the world surrounding Ackermann – the devoted following, the dreamy escapism and the beautiful life – and you can see why his star is still on the rise. In a fashion world that is obsessed with fame and exposure, here is a designer, who has, for the most part, remained true to his old-world values – even if he can’t resist the odd Instagram post on the official account he eventually gave in to creating, which is simply called @h.a.
He’s the quiet star, the serious designer, and in that, the perfect character for an industry that increasingly values the discreet luxury he stands for. I once asked him if he minds it when people approach him in the street. “No, I don’t have any problem with it. There are moments when you’re busy with your life and you’re insecure and you’re troubled and you’ve got all your problems, and you walk down the street and someone’s like, ‘Listen, I really like what you’re doing.’ And it’s not about me,” he smiled. “It’s because they like what I’m doing.”
Text by Anders Christian Madsen
Photographer: Quentin de Briey
Fashion Editor: Hector Castro
Clothes: Haider Ackermann
Models: Paul, Erwan, Diacaria, Xander, Jude, Ziggy, Remi, Sami, Hussein and Benoît
Hair: Alexander Soltermann
Make-up: Houda Remita
Photographer’s assistants: Paul Jedwab and Simon Nagel
Fashion assistants: Elena Psalti, Sid Yahao Sun and Vincent Thibault
Casting: Simone Bart Rocchietti
Street casting: Martin Franck and Christopher Landais
Producer: Anne-Sophie Krissi
On-set producer: Carlos Esteves
See the full shoot in Issue 45 of 10 Men, FLUID UNIQUE BRAVE, on newsstands now…