Polimoda Duets: Haider Ackermann

Fashion is a language

On the occasion of Pitti Immagine Uomo 99 on PittiConnect and curated by Polimoda, the newest episode of Polimoda Duets, a series of documentary interview videos involving some of the most outstanding cultural figures of our time, features fashion designer Haider Ackermann. 

Born in Colombia, Paris-based designer Haider Ackermann is a draping virtuoso with an envious avant-garde aesthetic. During his thought-provoking conversation with Filep Motwary, Editor-at-Large of Vogue Greece, Curator, Author and Fashion Critic, Ackermann chats about the need for fashion, the lessons he’s learned over the course of his 20-year career and what makes a collection great. 

"Fashion is a necessity. Fashion is culture," states Ackermann at the beginning of his Polimoda Duets. "Culture is essential. We need to read, we need to listen to music, we need to look at movies, we need to feel alive. It is an essential necessity. It all leads to a dream. Let’s keep on dreaming."

Growing up in Ethiopia, Chad, Algeria, France and the Netherlands, Ackermann soaked in the culture of different countries during his formative years. "The strangest thing is that I never thought of being a fashion designer. When you live in the countries that I lived in, I was simply seduced by fabrics.”

In the early 90s, Haider studied fashion design in Antwerp before starting his own brand twenty years ago. Today, he doesn't think fashion should be spelled out for the viewer. "There’s no explanation needed. Once the clothes leave the catwalk, it belongs to the audience," explains Haider. "It belongs to them. It’s important that they buy it and wear it and make it their own and transform it. They duplicate it and they destroy it with humor and seriousness and with love and that’s important."

"Fashion is a necessity. Fashion is culture. Culture is essential. We need to read, we need to listen to music, we need to look at movies, we need to feel alive. It is an essential necessity. It all leads to a dream. Let’s keep on dreaming."

In 2004, Haider won the Swiss Textiles Award and in 2012, he was presented the Fashion Group International Award by Karl Lagerfeld. He was named creative director of Berluti in 2016 and collaborated on three luxurious seasons before departing from the LVMH-owned brand. "I’m always in conflict with myself. This is my personal driving force and I hope it will be forever."

Polimoda Duets #15 | Haider Ackermann

TRANSCRIPT | DUETS WITH HAIDER ACKERMANN

Filep Motwary: Hello all. My name is Filep Motwary. I'm the Editor-at-Large for Vogue Greece. I'm a published author and a fashion curator as well as a photographer. Dear audience, friends, and fashion enthusiasts, it's my great honor and my joy to welcome Haider Ackermann to Polimoda Duets. Haider Ackermann has been redefining the female and more recently, the male silhouette with great sophistication, and he's known as one of the most praised designers within the fashion industry for 20 solid years.

Filep: Hello Haider, welcome. It's so nice to see you again. It's been almost a year already. I think that the last time we saw each other in person was backstage at your show. It was a moment when it became clear that we had to deal with something that was beyond our power and to be honest with you, I haven't traveled for fashion ever since. How has this past year been for you? How are you coping with the pandemic that emerged on a personal level, to begin with, but also how this has affected your ways of working or let's say the ways you apply your creativity?

Haider: Well, we had a few lockdowns, so it's not been one, but it's been several one. I have to say the first lockdown was the introspection, which can be either very tormenting. It can be also very stimulating for each of us. This whole question, and it's been a surreal moment, which we have not known before. It was beyond our imagination that we all could be locked in the way we were, but somewhere, I'm convinced that the boredom and the silence and the retreat, they are all source of benefits.

Do you know what I mean? With all the question of self and to reflect and then search the new values. This process was really, really interesting and it made us somewhere very humble. On the work level, for me, I had a conversation with my team on Zoom and this new approach was perhaps even more focused on the work, no time to lose where those moments to spend together. You don't want to spend hours in front of a screen. Every conversation was just almost calculated and like mathematic, we would go straight to subject and go straight to where we would like to have a conversation going. I personally really enjoy this moment.

Filep: Was it an easy transition for you this change?

Haider: Yes, because is a luxury to be bought and that's for people like us in our industry, it is a luxury to be silent and to listen to oneself. I really embraced it totally.

Filep: In a way, you're saying that COVID-19 compelled the fashion industry for a restart let's say. Having said that, what is left for fashion to tell at this specific moment, this continued situation where collections keep on being presented when we're still locked in our homes?

Haider: Well, I took part of this group of independent designers and independent retails, which was led by Business of Fashion, by Tim Blanks and Imran where we discussed all-- How the industry was going and if there would be a healthy way to do the timing, the amount of collections, the deliveries. To have this period spending still, it was for all of us a moment to reflect, how could we do it differently?

How could we think differently? The approach was really very noble. I think that at the end it would not be a collective solution, but everybody individual had to think about their own house, how to lead it forward, and that's been very, very interesting. Each maison will now find its own path the way they would like to continue.

Filep: To conclude this on a personal level, how would you describe this period we're in, in terms of aesthetics and theory? We make this stopped, as you so nicely described, but at the same time, we need to be productive as--

Haider: I think this is just a moment for each of us to be even more recentre on your aesthetics, more than ever figure out who you are, what you would like to be and where you would like to go more than ever. It's fascinating.

Filep: How has the current crisis impacted our general relationship to clothing and fashion?

Haider: The fact that the consumer has been locked in, there is no social event, there is no mundanity going on, so a part of a dream has been removed. Basically, that's how I feel. The défilés always permitted to step out of the commercial parts, you were selling a story next to the clothes. The garments were not only the garments. All this imagination, it led to an artistic direction which was needed because fashion should be seen and should be felt and should be touched.

Because of not having all this, because people are locked in, we don't have this anymore. We don't have this fantasy anymore. In those moments, when you have a défilé, the garment is not just a garment. There's a whole story behind it, and I do believe it is very important because fashion is a language, fashion is a community. The moment that you have défilés, is the moment that people were together, people were feeling the same, people were exchanging ideas, people are getting excited, and all this makes it all alive.

Filep: Looking at this from a more general perspective and the role of fashion at this very moment especially, its individual expression and liberation role in our changing society due to a pandemic as such, is there really an impact, do you think or not? Is there really a place for fashion at this moment? Is it a priority as it used to be?

Haider: It is. Fashion is a necessity. Fashion is culture. Culture is essential. We need to read. We need to listen to music. We need to look at movies. We need to feel alive to all those expressions, so it is an essential necessity.

Filep: What about rebellion?

Haider: It all leads to a dream and that dream can bring us, so please, let's keep on dreaming. Oh, yes, absolutely.

Filep: Back in the 1980s, for example, we experienced designers making statements through fashion like we had Jean-Charles de Castelbajac or we had someone like Kathleen Hammond that they used these large printed T-shirts carrying all these messages and they were considered to be rebellions at the time. What does rebellion look like in fashion these days? What does it mean to you as a leading brand in the industry to be rebellious, and what is the outcome a rebellion is aiming for?

Haider: Well, in my case perhaps not as a leading brand but an independent brand. For being an independent brand to express yourself, to be out there, to continue and above all to say is being rebellious already in itself. To be confronted and to confront the others with your aesthetics and your ideas, it is being rebellious. I think it is needed, it is important for me to exist.

Filep: Being in fashion, Haider, for 20 years, that's a very long time. I would like to ask you to-- If possible, for you to compare, let's say, the current state of fashion system to the days when you launched, when you first launched your brand as a young designer.

Haider: Well, I certainly do not like to compare, I have to say at the same time when I was a student, it was the '90s, which I refer as the golden age because everything was possible. Everything was possible and there was a pleasure of freedom and eccentricity of decadence. Everyone wanted to be individual. I navigated through this period with lots and lots of excitement.

As a student, you were going from a John Galliano show to Helmut Lang to Comme des Garçons. It was surreal. It was surreal, and the models were those fascinating chameleons.

You had this search for extreme individuality, which is more strongly than what we ever feel now. Not that I'm nostalgic about this period, but there was a period where there was no judgement. Everybody could be their own.

Filep: I think it was much more stimulating time than it is now, and I think the icons have changed.

Haider: Nothing was reduced, and there was a total freedom. Freedom means having no fears. You were totally liberated from everything, and not just by all the excitement that life can bring or cannot bring and all the destruction that life can bring or not bring. There was all these explosions.

Filep: Having said that, Haider, do you think there's a chance that we return to that innocence or not?

Haider: We cannot return to what it used to be or what it was, and we should leave it where it was because that makes that period very extraordinary. I do believe that we need to search for more open doors. More open doors.

Filep: Something that has changed since then, for a long time, people would think of fashion as a place of exclusivity. Should fashion have followership limitation? If so, who puts these limitations at the end?

Haider: I personally did not mind the exclusivity of fashion. I think it was very interesting back in the days, wanting to belong to a certain gang or family, to desire to be a part of this community. Now the open doors killed all the desire because you can have everything in a second, in a minute and be proud of it. The longing to or the longing to belong somewhere, it's gone.

Filep: It's somehow vanished. We are playing by different rules now.

Haider: The fact that you have access to everything now killed something, definitely.

Filep: You mentioned before, at the time in the 90s, you said you were a student. I want to ask you, what is the role of education in who you have become? What are the values, let's say, that you still carry from your days as a fashion student? How it formed you.

Haider: As you know, I studied in Antwerp. I think the big lesson I learned there is that as a designer, you should always think, who is the person you have in front of you, and how much you respect this person. It is not the garments or wearing the clothes, but it's vice versa. You had to be focused. There was this sobriety of the Flemish school where no decoration was needed. All of this language, of course, me coming from a part which used to be in Africa where everything was all about the creation--

Filep: I want to ask you about that later.

Haider: All things of colors and everything. I was reduced to something which was much more narrow, but much more focused on the garment. I guess this soberness on the Flemish school did me very well.

Filep: How much time did it take you to actually, let's say, clarify in your head the direction that you wanted to follow? Do you think that your aesthetics were already planned, or was it something that happened eventually?

Haider: It's an evolution. It happens with the time and what you're going through, and it defines-- We all go into different periods and all these affects our work, whether you might be involved and your clothes are going to be more generous, or whether you might be in a period where you will be more scared, you will be more introvert, everything would feel more protected. It all depends on every different stage of life that you went through.

Filep: Speaking of students, I am often asked, let's say, what makes a fashion collection great. As you know, we know each other for quite a long time. I'm an observer of fashion. I'm a writer, a photographer, hence my perspective is much different than yours. To you as a fashion designer, what makes a great collection apart from being sellable?

Haider: A courageous one, one with more compromise. One where the designer has that story to tell, and he will go into the end to tell it.

Filep: Does it really take courage to present a collection during fashion week with all these critics and all these people?

Haider: It takes courage. At the end of the show, you are naked in front of an audience. It is the most strangest moment where everything is done. You've been working all those months for those five minutes. The applause is gone and you're standing all by yourself in this moment of absolute solitude one needs to face. It takes courage to face all the criticism and all the eyes that are on you. It's courageous, but it's the most wonderful feeling. Don't get me wrong. This moment of solitude, it's a desire one. Absolutely.

Filep: As not much is said about your earlier references, I know you don't like this question, what was the social context of your childhood in terms of fashion references? You mentioned before Africa, and I interrupted you. Guide us through your early references and early experiences that inspired you to become who you are today.

Haider: The strange thing is I never thought of being a fashion designer. When you live in these countries that I lived in, I was simply seduced by the mix of fabrics that surrounded me. I live in Chad, I live in Ethiopia, I live in Algeria, and women are wrapped and covered in mixed fabrics, whether it's protection of the body, whether it's protection of the sun, whether it's protection of the soul, whether it's protection from men.

I never knew who would be-- I was always curious who would be this woman underneath all those mixed fabric. That discovery and that path to try to understand it, that was what I was seduced by or curious or intrigued by, and never knowing that this would lead to me to be a fashion designer. It was just those mixed fabrics in the wind, and those ghosts in medina were running along on the walls. That whole mystery was seductive to me. It was the whole question, like, what is a woman? What is this all about?

Filep: What was the moment when it actually became interest to the point that you actually decided that it was your calling, let's say, and you embraced it as a creative career, and also to what was achieved gradually? If you can walk me through your personal development that came in parallel to your work because you mentioned that before your work development? How did one help the other? Let's start with the first part of the question, the moment where you decide to become a designer and then what followed.

Haider: I do not recall the moment that I decided to be designed, I think it was a continuation of everything, because I have the luxury to have had all those visions and images, and they are anchored to me, they are part of me. Then it was automatically in my first collection, how would I translate who I am and what I am about? Not in the first degree, it's all like a mirage or in the back.

Filep: I'm wondering, were all these questions clear in your head because these are very mature questions?

Haider: Well, I don't know if at the time, I really thought about this, but now I certainly do. What are you doing with all your luggage? Especially when you have a nomadic life as I had, you carry your home with you. You have everything on your shoulders. There was a moment that I had to let a few things go also to be lighter, and then it was eventually, I had to become a designer, I had to do something with this. How do I get rid of this? How do I express myself to loosen up?

Filep: You told your parents, "Hey, I want to do this"? What did they say, or how did you do it? Was it because of friends, your surroundings?

Haider: No. Nothing in my surrounding or in my families might have approached me to this, to what fashion was, which I did not know what fashion was. I did not know. When I was intrigued by all this, I didn't know that there exist a fashion industry. I think it's much later that I bumped into magazines, where I found Mr. Saint Laurent and Madame Grès and all that. Then I understood everything that I was touching and all those mixed fabric had a purpose, but when I was doing it, I did not understand that.

It took a while. At that point, I lived in north of Holland, where I felt different. I had a different skin color. Diversity was not such a big word as it nowadays. I was a French young dude coming from Colombia, not speaking Dutch at that moment and being in the north of Holland being lost and not certainly not being myself. The only way to escape was to go to Amsterdam, which was the big city at the age of 17, and try to taste life and what it will be.

Filep: I want to ask you, you spoke about the because the consistency. Indeed, there is a certain and calculated consistency in your signature. I cannot help but wonder about the balance between refining the signature of Haider Ackermann each season and doing something new. I'm following your work for many years now. I've come to your shows for a long time. I'm also backstage, I see the preparation. I think I see the clothes before anyone else. I mean, all of us being backstage we have this privilege.

Haider: You see my nervousness.

Filep: Yes, and there's something about your work that although is consistent, it's always new. You want to be that woman or you want to be that man wearing these clothes. There's also a great respect towards the gender but at the same time, the gender is not specific.

Haider: To be fair, there's nothing calculated about my consistency of signature. I am one of the designers who works in continuity. I think my signature is more like a writing, and you try to write down the story, and you go from one paragraph to the other, in the hope that every paragraph, which is every season, you will intrigue the audience for going through the next chapter.

I'm more in that league of those designs, which are in a continuity and you learn from every season, you learn something else from the past, or you could not finish this story so you take it, put it in a drawer, and then you open the drawer again for next season, and you're reworking and you continue like this. Yes, this gender situation, it has not been, in my case, a questioning about journalists. It was more a questioning of desire and sexuality.

How much do you like to wear as a woman, I imagine, how much do you like to wear the pullover of your lover? How much do you like to escape with his coat? How much as a man, you'd like to take the shirt of your girlfriend, which is just a little bit too narrow, a little bit too tight, which can make the sleeve a little shorter, which is going to give you an attitude, which is going to give you a certain style because everything is in the proportions. My couture has always been in a more loving, sexual way. The exchange of garments to smell and to feel the other.

Filep: Having said that, I'm wondering whether you're ever in conflict with your own taste. If you think of relevancy, for example, before you present or you create a collection.

Haider: I'm always in conflict with myself.

[laughter]

Haider: And with my own taste. This is my personal driving force. I hope it will be forever.

Filep: It helps you to reborn, or to--

Haider: It's stimulating. It's stimulating to be yourself, any kind of violence that makes you think or make you change your mind. Yes. Otherwise, it will be quite a boredom.

Filep: Yes. Speaking about the rules of fashion and how the nature of fashion has changed, of course, with the social media and all these new elements that define the new era. Would you say that it's possible for a brand to be successful today without being creative?

Haider: Well, all I can say it works and it exists.

[laughter]

Haider: Yes. It works and it exists.

Filep: Previously we spoke about the audience attending your shows, but on a wider scale, from a wider perspective, how do you hope that people understand your work? Or does it matter to you only that they buy it? Does it matter to you for them to understand it, to feel connected to it?

Haider: No. I did not need people to understand my work. Sometimes there is no explanation needed. Once the clothes leave the catwalk, it belongs to the audience. It belongs to them and it's important that they buy it and they wear it, and they make it their own, and they transform it. They duplicate it, they destroy it with humor and with seriousness and with love. I think that's important.

Filep: Haider, how easy it is to disconnect yourself from a collection that you have been working on for at least six months?

Haider: How I disconnect myself?

Filep: Yes. Is it easy?

Haider: I never disconnect. I don't think that I know any designer who disconnect. You're always somehow busy with it. You will go to the museum the next day to try to change your mind, to absorb something else. You will see a vase, and then you think, "How can I translate this vase in my collection?" You do notice that the mind is always on the road. No, I don't disconnect. [chuckles]

Filep: A lot has been said now about the importance of craft and the savoir faire for example. I'm wondering how do you value the existence of it in what you do, of savoir faire and how it resonates with your own philosophy of making fashion that is heading towards a full digitized future, let's say?

Haider: Well, you know the savoir faire and the time-consuming and the work it takes. Most of the time, it's so much love and so much passion by so many people. When you, for instance, look at how haute couture défilés is built and how the craftmanship and artisanal is there, one needs to be in love with his business to do it. All of this has its strengths. There again, as I said before, you need to feel it, you need to touch it, you need to sense it. Digital will not replace the emotion that you feel when you are there, are present. We need to find a new home.

Filep: Haider, your clothes, the clothes that you create are impeccably made. They are. That's a compliment. I'm wondering, how you haven't yet decided to move a step forward and engage yourself with haute couture, officially at least.

Haider: That would be my wildest dream.

Filep: Why don't you go for it?

Haider: Who knows?

Filep: Maybe you are planning something?

Haider: Who knows what tomorrow's made of? Yes, to have this-- I remember back in the day, if you look at monsieur Christian Lacroix's haute couture-- If one loves fashion, one needs to know this, just to look at the garments from nearby, it's just-- I do not like to compare fashion to art, but it's certainly art form.

Filep: Having said that, I think that there's a lack of appreciation from the general public in the making of fashion. Is there a way we can reverse that, do you think, or not? How can we educate people about what really fashion is, and the making of fashion is? At the time where everything is so ephemeral, what can we do to change that?

Haider: Well, it's first a question which sounds odd, but it's first a question of educating the consumer, because the consumer is taking so much space. I think there's work to be done by the industry because now, it's almost the consumer leading us while it should be vice versa and it has always been in the past. This said, at the same time, there is no lack of appreciation when we see how much space this industry has in this world.

It is one of the biggest industries worldwide, and it makes a huge and massive amount of people work in wealthy and poor countries. It really takes place. We would not say this about other industries, which makes our heart kicking and beat like the music industry, or like the cinema industry. All those industries give us a possibility to dream. It should never be underestimated.

Filep: I want to ask you about your gaze towards fashion. Do you look differently at the fashion you create than fashion in general, or not?

Haider: It's a very difficult question, because I do not think in fashion terms. Fashion is a big word, and I'm trying to understand what fashion means nowadays. YouTube, social media, and everything. Fashion took a different turn than how I've been raised. More is the question, what is fashion nowadays and where would you like to bring it? It's a big question, and I think this is a very important question for all of us to ask each other nowadays, but I'm not sure I know.

Filep: Back to your work and critique and how people observe what you do. Do you think fashion critique still matters to designers or to you? Are you curious to hear how others observe what you create? Perhaps, what would be the reasons why these observations might interest you?

Haider: Well, it certainly still matters to me. I'm open to any kind of criticism because criticisms can help you grow, can help you move forwards, can disturb you, can challenge you, and all of this, it's vital for me. It's necessity, as long as the criticism is founded and constructive without any judgment. Yes, I'm curious.

Filep: What is the greatest lesson you learned from someone else's mistake?

Haider: I can only learn from my mistakes.

Filep: What would be the greatest lessons you have learned? Greatest lessons you have learned.

Haider: It's very important to train. It's important to have your story. The train is just the beginning of the whole story. One should never forget that. Whatever comes your way, one should never forget that. As Yoko Ono said, "Dream your dream alone, it's only a dream. Dream your dream together, it's reality." You can never do this job alone. You need to be very well surrounded. Also, you need to be in a very certain and hard reality and be prepared with surrounding yourself with the right people.

Filep: Yes. That's very important. That's such an important message. I want to thank you, Haider, for this opportunity you have given me today and our audience at Polimoda. I truly hope that we will see each other very soon in Paris at one of your shows, as we did before.

Haider: Well, Filep, thank you so much, and thank you Polimoda to just listen to what I eventually have to say. Seriously, let's embrace this moment. We're all going to come stronger out of it and we're going to come out with our strong values. It's a passage we have to go through, but it's a good one. Despite what's happening, all this reflection is necessary, and then we'll see each other very, very soon.