the high road
interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by OLA RINDAL
style by RÚBEN MOREIRA
Since creating his own line in 2001, Haider Ackermann has developed a long, romantic silhouette, far from convention, ideal for modern women who like to get away, softly hiding them in warm, deep colors and voluptuously draped fabrics. Recognized for an exquisite sense of androgyny, his collections recall the dignity, mystery, andnobility of forgotten worlds, yet without nostalgia.
For two decades Ackermann has remained an independent, with no marketing agenda, expanding his label, guarding his vision, protecting his private life, and creating around him an intimate circle of artists, intellectuals, and friends in Paris.
Last season, while continuing his own brand, he was asked to join Berluti, to design men’s clothes. Working with a luxury Paris house presents endless possibilities for Ackermann and opens a new period in his life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in the world today.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — All that turmoil is difficult to deal with, but it also leads us to question ourselves. Everything that’s happening in the world — and, Lord knows, there are some terrible things happening — strikes a chord in us and compels us to reconsider what we do in the fashion world. But what’s happening in France at least, with the new government, is very interesting. There’s a new energy. New doors are going to open. Things are very much looking up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a designer, you’ve always been open to the world, open to other territories. You were born in Colombia and traveled in Africa with your parents.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes. My parents and I lived and traveled in Chad, Ethiopia, Algeria, Lebanon, the Netherlands, and, later, Belgium. If, in fact, you want to tell stories or design collections, you have to absorb everything that’s around you. I’m not sure anymore if the borders are fading or if the world is splitting apart and fragmenting. I don’t know if it’s opening up or closing in on itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true. We might speak of a great migration, of great general mobility. The planet is setting forth, with exiles dying at sea, and people who are always on the move.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — And people suffering, but also people who have dug in for battle. There’s something very combative going on. People increasingly want to assert themselves. In politics, it goes from one extreme to the other. There’s a fearsome combativeness in both camps.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And extremists as well.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes. It’s a disaster. What I’m about to say is very serious, but all this violence might actually be helping us in some way. Maybe it will wake us up and force us into an awareness of the present dangers, force us to do some necessary thinking. We’re seeing a lot more thinking about humanity. We had set all that aside. We’d abandoned it, out of individualism, out of our obsession with success, money, and so forth. Today things are changing. Because of the violence, people are coming together and asking questions. The violence is, of course, atrocious, unjustifiable, but it’s making us think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you feel this in your work?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — It certainly plays a role in my collections. I couldn’t say how, exactly. For the latest Haider Ackermann women’s collection — not Berluti — I wanted there to be something very peaceful, very serene and calm, to contrast with all the external violence. Other designers will react differently, with violent collections high in color. Me, I tend toward the opposite, toward calming things down, because we need some of that serenity, some of that austerity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your designs have a touch of ceremony to them, a touch of the sacred.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — It’s not so much that they’re sacred. [Laughs] I’d just like to be able to carry people away for a spell, just for the few minutes of my fashion show. I’d like them to forget their troubles and their problems, to forget life outside those four walls where the models strut for my collections. The point isn’t to forget about life altogether and escape into a nonviolent and ideal world. It’s to revitalize ourselves, replenish our strength. Fashion is not a lie. It’s not just an escape. Things are violent and hard outside. For me, this is the meaning of a collection. A fashion show is a gift I give. It’s a chance to be carried away, but also a source of strength and of protection.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Transporting people outside their identity, because clothing is perhaps a means of transporting oneself, like a vehicle, a way to dissociate oneself a bit or to effect a light transformation of the self.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Or protect oneself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Shore oneself up?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes, that, too. But for me, it’s above all a form of protection. This might be due to my past in Africa, where the bolts of cloth are there to protect you from the sun, the wind, and the eyes of others.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, of course. Because in Africa you roll bolts of cloth around yourself?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes. In Africa, in India, in Bhutan. They’re bolts of cloth that you drape yourself in, to protect yourself from the elements.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still find the time to travel?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes, I travel a lot, but I steer clear of hotels. This year I’ve gone to India and Bhutan. Next year, it’ll be Ethiopia. But I keep far from luxury. I lodge with locals. Sometimes when you travel very far, you get closer to yourself. In Bhutan, you’re truly lost in the clouds. I need moments like that. I couldn’t go on without them. Far from the Internet, far from my cell phone, far from everything, and as close as can be to myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It won’t last. Soon the Internet will be everywhere. People in Africa lack for everything except cell phones. They’re able to repair old Nokias with no trouble at all. We throw out our phones, and they can repair anything for you.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — It’s a lovely thing in those countries, that can-do attitude. Me, I’m drawn to those countries because that’s where you can find yourself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Also, you can perhaps take stock of fashion’s artificiality.
HAIDER ACKERMANN —I’ve never felt fashion to be artificial. I’ve never considered my trade to be a form of artifice or futile. On the contrary! I think fashion is useful. And I don’t put my private life on display. The idea is to try to make beautiful clothes. That’s the only thing that counts for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t like Instagram?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — I’m fairly voyeuristic. I like Instagram. In fact, I was compelled to use Instagram because there are three fake Instagram accounts with my name. The only way to stop that was to open an account of my own. That said, I have no interest in seeing the face of someone who turns in at five in the morning.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your life in design began in Antwerp, and there’s something very discreet about Antwerp. It’s anti-celebrity, anti-star-making.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Discretion is a form of elegance. Not wanting to reveal everything. Who’d be interested in that? Nobody.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That strikes me as an outlook from the Martin Margiela school, rather than from the school of Galliano, where you did an internship.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes. You don’t need to reveal everything. Let’s leave room for mystery. Right now, it’s as if everyone wants to reveal everything about himself. It makes me want to recoil even more. It’s too violent, this explosion of self-exhibition and self-exposition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you have your circle of friends, like the actress Tilda Swinton; Saint Laurent’s muse, Betty Catroux; and Balthus’s wife, Setsuko Klossowska de Rola.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Those are all delicious, elegant, and ballsy women. [Laughs] Women with balls. I’m very lucky because I’d never have dared to approach women like them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve taken over for Saint Laurent in your close friendship with Betty Catroux.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — The day I met Betty, we took to each other instantly, and we’ve never parted company since.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is it that you like in those three women, who aren’t little girls anymore and have lived through a lot?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Precisely that. They’re living incredible lives. Their inner richness. You should interview them. They’re all women who have something to say. They’ll sit in front of you and talk. They don’t depend on Instagram to exist. They’ll tell you things you’ve never heard in your life. They’ve lived through so much that I’d love to have lived myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not on the hunt for young, 20-year-old brand ambassadors? [Laughs]
HAIDER ACKERMANN — I’m less intrigued by the new generations. Nothing against them, but I have no particular fascination with this or that young actress or musician. Whereas I adore spending time with Charlotte Rampling, for instance. My boyfriend is always telling me: “Think you could wean yourself off all those ladies?”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does the same go for men as well?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Same thing! Serge Lutens, for instance, was my greatest encounter. That man swept me off to new worlds. I was invited to his house in Marrakesh. We spoke for a half hour, and then he picked up one of his favorite books and read me whole passages for an hour. I had suddenly forgotten everything. I’d been carried away by his words and his reading and his voice. He’s really the world’s loveliest man. Or Nick Cave. It’s the style and the sex and the voice! He’s not necessarily the world’s handsomest man in pictures, but onstage no one is more beautiful. His hands, his gestures, his voice…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps what you look for in these male and female characters is the transmission of something lost — not just their style, or their number of followers. [Laughs]
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Maybe. You know, when you live in Asia or in an African country, there’s always an ancient to tell you stories, and it’s true that that carries me away. I still spend whole days at the Grand Chalet in Switzerland, where Balthus spent his final days and where Setsuko talks to me of Visconti and Giacometti. They’re like moments stolen from the history of art. The unofficial history, in fact, because those people are genuine eccentrics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s how a sensibility and a culture are transmitted. Oral culture is important. Nowadays we search everywhere for visual references, on the Internet or in books, but we forget to read and listen.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Yes, and in places like that you’re told things that you then make your own.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The oral transmission of culture.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — It’s what nomads do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Odyssey and the Bible started out as oral tales.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — I like to just sit and listen, like a little kid. There’s also something terribly decadent about talking with Betty or Setsuko. There’s an eccentricity and decadence that otherwise no longer exist, and that for me are the stuff of dreams. You make it your own, and you tap into it when you’re imagining your collections.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Since it’s Purple’s 25th anniversary, could you talk about the 1990s? Are you nostalgic for them? What sticks in your memory? You worked with Bernhard Willhelm…
HAIDER ACKERMANN — He was no longer my lover. We were bonkers in the ’90s! People hated us at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Bernhard and I were in the same class. We lived together. He went to Antwerp to be with me. We were all over the place, real dreamers. He less than me, perhaps, because he was more German. We lived our wild youth together. We’d set out for Saint Tropez on a whim. We’d sleep in the car. We’d do our nails before going to a restaurant we couldn’t pay for. We didn’t have anything to eat. We didn’t have anything, or not much, but I can say in hindsight that we were free. In those years, there was an unheard-of liberty that I’m not sure I could relive.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Years of real risk-taking?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — We took a lot of risks. We were very naive, very unaware. I came to Paris without a dime. I had nothing at all. No team, no place to work, no money. Just the desire to make a mark in fashion and the certainty that I had to do it. Bernhard made his mark, and
I made mine. We were very lucky, the two of us. Bernhard is very talented.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve worked with the Belgian designer Patrick van Ommeslaeghe. I don’t know what he’s up to these days. I’ll have to do a tribute to Patrick. He hasn’t achieved the fame that his talent deserves.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — He’s gone back to Belgium. He’s an important person, reserved and cultivated, and has contributed a lot. He’s kept us all fed while asking nothing in return. There are a lot of people like that, people nobody talks about. They’re withdrawn, a bit hidden, but they’re the ones who feed us all. We make sure not to mention them. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So the 1990s were for you a time of liberty and carefree living, a time when you reconfigured fashion around a new aesthetic. How do you describe it? As years of opposition?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — No. I’ve never felt myself to be part of the opposition, or been one for protest or provocation. My character is too synthetical for that. I like it when opposites meet or coexist or clash. I like their chance encounters. That said, it’s true that I was kicked out of the Academy in Antwerp. I was pretty wild.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your new life at Berluti? You’re developing men’s collections for the first time.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — What’s happening to me was totally unexpected. The most surprising thing is that it’s happening at Berluti. They came to me, even though I’d never dressed men. That this fashion house, where everything for men has yet to be invented, should come to me was a stark contrast with everything I’d previously done. It’s got me topsy-turvy and knocked me for a loop, but it’s fascinating. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was intrigued right away.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Men increasingly want to dress up, no?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — There’s something very interesting going on right now in men’s fashion. Men have become more vain, more narcissistic, more eccentric. Men’s desire these days…
OLIVIER ZAHM — A desire for elegance… I’ll have to get my act together.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — No, no. You’ve got your elegance… But we’ve got this male vanity nowadays. I’m fairly sensitive to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s smart for Berluti to call on your talents because there’s something masculine in your women’s collections.
HAIDER ACKERMANN — No doubt. For me, women expose even more of their femininity in men’s clothing. They’re more sensual in it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So designing for men is new to you?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — That’s what’s great about this.It’s like a new apprenticeship. I’m discovering what I want to express in men’s fashion. And I’m also discovering the world of luxury craftsmanship. That’s a world I hardly know, with new codes to learn. As a result, I feel alive again. I’ve gotten younger at Berluti. I’ve got a new spring in my step.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the Berluti style, in your view?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — I’m inventing it right now. Mr. Berluti’s whole style and attitude have yet to be determined. It’s a road to go down, an evolving thing. I’m presenting my second collection in a few days. I’m going to proceed seasonally, without haste and without trying to make a splash. It’s going to be very interesting to try to strike a balance between discretion and sobriety, on the one hand, because Mr. Berluti is no fashion victim, and a genuine fashion for men, on the other. We’re operating in an artisanal world where the pieces are very well made. These aren’t garments you’re going to toss out at the end of every season. They’re a wardrobe that you’re going to keep, that you’re going to live with. I have to match discretion with inspiration, find for the Berluti man the right balance between the desire to be in fashion and its contrary: the desire not to depend on fashion’s fluctuations and whims. I find this interesting especially in light of present-day fashion, where everybody’s out yelling. There might be a need right now for a little silence and calm.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s your second collection, and you yourself seem very serene. No stress at all over working for a great fashion house?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — Berluti is a small house within a large group, so it’s different. I feel good there. I haven’t lost my sensibility as an independent designer. What’s certain is that I needed this turn of events. I needed a change. In truth, I was waiting impatiently for the opportunity. There’s something very serene, very calm about this place. I was astonished at the welcome I received. It was all open arms. I’m proud to work for this house, because there were other, far more legitimate candidates. I respect them for taking that step.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you not too busy between the collections under your name and the Berluti collections? How do you manage to take on both?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — I love my work! In any case, I’m too old to go clubbing!
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s not too much to have two different studios in two different places?
HAIDER ACKERMANN — It’s a lot, but when you have ambitions and dreams, you forget how tired you are. You want to move forward. I want to continue my story. My life has more breadth now than it did before.
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