Haider Ackermann cuts an uncommon swath through the world of French fashion. He has the dark, whiskered, romantically dramatic look of a nineteenth-century gaucho, though he is—by birth—from Colombia, half a continent north of the pampas. By upbringing, he is nearly unclassifiable. He was adopted by a French cartographer and his wife and raised in Africa and the Netherlands; later, he was educated in Belgium and trained in France, between which he now splits his time. In the middle of August, when all of Paris is having its holiday in the South of Italy or the South of France, he is not hard to pick out at a table at the Café Marly, overlooking the Louvre, in his crushed fedora and shawl. But it is still easier to mistake him than to place him. “When I was young, I used to go to bars in New York, and when people would ask me what I was doing, I would say I was cleaning dishes in a bar,” he said, with half a chuckle, not long after we’d met. “And due to my skin color, they believed me.” This of a designer who instructs the members of his small studio in at least four languages: English, French, German, and Dutch.
The fact is, the past few years have made it much harder for him to hide. Once the perennial periphery man, he has come very near to the center of the fashion whirl, a move confirmed by the placing of fashion’s most potent of laurels: envy. Everyone seems to want Ackermann, and there is hardly a major fashion label whose helm fate, or the rumor mill, has not inclined him toward. His name was bandied about for positions at Margiela (which he acknowledges) and Dior and Givenchy (which he does not); and a few years ago, Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director for life of Chanel, named him the only designer working who would be fit to replace him someday.
Ackermann forged his reputation on the strength of his women’s collections. They are made of elaborately draped, wrapped, and ribbon-tied acres of silk and jacquard, seeming to draw on every global tradition of dress, from the Indian sari to the Japanese kimono to the Middle Eastern chador. The least debt, in fact, is to the best-known, Western tradition. Although he freely acknowledges the influence of the mid-century couturiers Madame Grès and Yves Saint Laurent, fabric seems to matter more to him than fashion. “It was not fashion I was touched by,” he explained of his earliest interest. “It was the movement of the fabrics. I lived in countries where they used six or eight meters of fabric. My mother can tell you: When I was a child on the beach, I would always hang my towel to see the wind blowing through it.”
Even today, he lives not in the cosmopolitan center of Paris, but farther afield, in the twentieth arrondissement. “Saturday morning, I wake up at nine o’clock and read the newspapers,” he said. “Africans walk around, Asian, Jewish, all different nationalities. They have the weirdest combination of clothes. You have all those people talking to each other. It’s nothing pretentious. There’s so much fashion on the street, but not fashion, which for me is very inspiring. It brings me back to when I was younger, living in Africa.”
Because draping is central to the way he designs for women—and, as he once put it, “You can’t drape a man”—Haider Ackermann never designed menswear and never much thought about it. Until, in 2010, the Florentine trade fair Pitti Immagine invited him to present a women’s collection and underwrote the cost of doing so. They gave him, Ackermann recalled with some relish, carte blanche. He decided on the Palazzo Corsini for his location and began to envision the woman he’d dress there. “I always make up stories to myself—that’s how I always work,” he said. “She’s wandering through the corridors to her room, and of course she’s lonely. Of course she’s waiting for the man. He’s going to come home, but she doesn’t know when. I saw her walking, I saw the whole thing. But who’s the man that she’s waiting for, actually? What does he look like?”
The show opened with Scott Barnhill—once a waifish star of nineties male modeling, now appealingly weather-beaten—in a sash, smoking slippers, and a jacket so finely embroidered, he looked like the famous Phillips portrait of Lord Byron. And suddenly Haider Ackermann was a menswear designer.