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Icons before Instagram: Haider Ackermann, from master draper to menswear maestro

Karl Lagerfeld once famously declared Haider Ackermann the most plausible successor to his long-established mantle at Chanel. With the then-womenswear-only designer’s impressive résumé in consideration, it was a statement worth his salt.

Ackermann has yet to fulfil that prophecy. Instead, in a very unlikely move, he joined LVMH’s menswear brand Berluti as artistic director late in 2016. Just a few days ago, on his 47th birthday, the designer was thrown again into the limelight — this time for stepping down from his relatively new role after merely three seasons. Despite all three of those seasons being highly well-received, the French label and Ackermann parted ways without disclosing any reason.

As fashion’s game of musical chairs continues its unapologetic pace, Ackermann’s abrupt exit is a blip-like shuffle that will soon be forgotten, replaced by a figure that has yet to be revealed*. Still, we have plenty of reasons to believe that this is merely the preface to Ackermann’s legacy. Here, we look back through the journey of the design-dedicated, trend-defying designer.

(*UPDATE: LVMH has officially announced Kris Van Assche as Ackermann’s successor at Berluti.)

haider ackermann tilda swinton kanye west
Tilda Swinton (left) and Kanye West (right) are Ackermann’s (centre) self-professed loyalists.

Nomadic beginnings

Ackermann grew up with a diverse cultural exposure. The Colombian native was adopted into a French household. His father worked as a cartographer, driving his family to lead a nomadic way of life. Ackermann spent his early years roaming around Europe and Africa — living for intermittent short periods in places like Algeria, Chad and Ethiopia — before attending high school in the Netherlands.

In 1994, he migrated to Belgium, enrolling as a fashion student in the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, the avant-garde hotbed that counts Martin Margiela, the Antwerp Six and Dries Van Noten among its alumni. But before his final year at the acclaimed institute, Ackermann was asked to leave. The firm purist had failed to submit any assigned collections on time, due to his ambition to create and present designs which lived up to his standards.

Following the expulsion, he decided internships were the next best place to learn the industry’s ropes. He scored a five-month apprenticeship at John Galliano, and then moved studio to studio over the next years to work under niche European designers like Bernhard Willhelm, Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe and Mayerline.

It was only four years later when Ackermann resolved to start his own namesake label.

With exquisite fabrication and languorous drapes, Haider Ackermann’s womenswear always exudes the spirit of a modern traveller. Pictured here are looks from his Fall 2018 (left) and Spring 2012 (right) collections.

Becoming a master draper

In 2002, with Belgium as his basecamp, Haider Ackermann debuted his first collection at Paris Fashion Week. Proposing gracefully exaggerated popped collars and the loose silhouettes of harem pants, his initial offerings were designed for the uber-romantic nomads — a sartorial reflection of his peripatetic upbringing. The following seasons continued to explore the notion of travel, the conflicts that come with the experience of moving between different cultures and being a stranger in a strange land.

In his own mishmash way, Ackermann showed a flair for the dramatic: Great cascades of silk, leather and yarn, unembellished but for a twist or tuck; long sculptural gowns and pleated maxi-skirts to Perfecto jackets; couture details rendered in lowbrow materials like jersey. Ackermann brought glimpses of the fusion of couture and streetwear, way ahead of its time.

tilda swinton haider ackermann
Tilda Swinton at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival in a custom Haider Ackermann suit skirt.

Soon, he was fashion’s underground darling of the noughties. His label significantly blew up, and was chosen as a recipient for the influential Swiss Textile Award. As fate and rising demand would have it, he moved to Paris in 2005 to set up his own studio.

Over time, the designer garnered a small but devout fanbase of cultured in-the-knows, intellects and forward-thinking types — including that of actress Tilda Swinton, and of more recent prominence, the ultimate Ackermann avatar and Oscars nominee, Timothée Chalamet, who went on record to say that Ackermann is “the closest thing to what is an auteur in fashion”. Chalamet was also dressed in the designer’s Berluti threads during the awards season.

Which brings us to how the master draper began dipping his toes into menswear.

Mastering menswear

In 2010, Ackermann surprised the menswear scene by launching his first, and supposedly his last, menswear collection. Housed in the grandeur of Rome’s Palazzo Corisini, his louche-dapper men swaggered in swathes of boho robes, patchworks and brocades — the perfect Haider Ackermann gents to the Haider Ackermann ladies.

They were revelled and heralded as the year’s most celebrated menswear debut — that is, until merely a few months later, the apostate declared he would not present another men’s collection unless he felt aptly compelled, setting the fashion blogosphere ablaze with disbelief.

jimmy q haider ackermann
Model Jimmy Q in a Haider Ackermann’s Spring 2014 menswear look. (Photo: Vogue)

His much awaited comeback finally took place in 2013. Ackermann reintroduced his troop, the wearers of drop-crotch trousers (a staple the designer himself favours in his personal wardrobe) spearheaded by the tattoo-covered It-model Jimmy Q.

Season after season, he churns a parallel universe made of languid and romantic menswear and womenswear, inserting splinters of himself within the elements. While not exactly blurring the lines of gender norms, Ackermann’s designs, no matter whether they’re part of the men’s or women’s line, have a magnetic appeal to his loyalists. Kanye West and Swinton are among the serial wearers of both categories.

The short but sweet Berluti stint

It’s small wonder then, that LVMH was quick to rope in Ackermann to lead its anchor menswear purveyor, Berluti, when former artistic director Alessandro Sartori stepped down. After all, despite his brief record in menswear, the alluring and highly sellable patina Ackermann can easily bestow on any of his creations is one of the industry’s most prized commodities.

Ackermann delivered. Within his three seasons at Berluti, he made the heritage Italian brand relevant via his know-how of exceptional fabrication (i.e. shantung silk for khaki-style trousers, a blend of virgin-wool and angora for coats with astrakhan collars) and cultural currency expertise (he was named as the third “most engaged with” designer on Instagram, close behind Alessandro Michele of Gucci and Fenty Puma). Berluti was transformed into a newly youth-injected brand even fashion’s high-profile millennials the likes of Luka Sabbat and Chalamet find irresistibly cool.

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Timothée Chalamet at the 2018 Oscars red carpet, donning Ackermann’s now-signature Berluti silhouette. (Photo: Oscars)

Ackermann’s short stint also spawned an already-iconic silhouette — slim-cut pants cropped high above the ankles and paired with boots or single-sole dress shoes — which has trickled all the way down into the world of fast fashion.

While we’re still kept in the dark as to why Berluti and Ackermann cut ties, one thing’s for sure: It’s hardly Ackermann’s loss.

(Main image: Primol Xue; featured image: Robert Wunsch)

Icons before Instagram: Haider Ackermann, from master draper to menswear maestro

Bianca Husodo

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