Interview: Haider Ackermann

by Elisabetta Maze

He has known many ports, beside the one of the town in which he lives and works today: Antwerp. Born in Santa Fe’, Bogotá, in 1971, the designer Haider Ackermann was adopted by a French family. He grew up living in various cities throughout Europe and Africa. Due to his father’s work as a cartographer, the family moved several times during his childhood, living in places such as Ethiopia, Chad, France and Algeria, before finally settling in the Netherlands. After high school, Haider moved first to Amsterdam and then to Antwerp in order to study fashion design at the world-famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Leaving the Academy after only three years, Haider worked for various fashion labels, both commercial and not, saving money and continuing to draw and imagine the possibility of his own collection. After having saved enough money and gained confidence thanks to the support of friends and acquaintances, among whom Raf Simons stands out, in 2002 Ackermann presented his first female collection in Paris. A sensuous, soft collection, which impressed buyers and press and induced the Italian Ruffo, producer of leather goods, to offer him the creative direction of Ruffo Research. An unexpected success. But the real turning point comes in 2004. The designer wins the Swiss Textiles Award, the richest and most prestigious fashion prize in all Europe. An extra asset to pursue his creative course, producing collections characterized by contrasts, in which Ackermann’s distinctive essence takes shape in a mix of high and low culture, elegance and street life. He is intrigued by cultural differences and cultural force: the purity and simple aesthetic of forms mixed with the activity and vitality of life itself.

You were born in Santa Fe’ de Bogotá, Columbia. With French parents, you grew up in various cities, spending your childhood in Europe and Africa, before fina settling in the Netherlands. Is there any episode from your childhood which has marked and influenced your creative development?
How much have your origins and travels influenced your collections? And in what way?
Those memories of Africa, they are all in you as a vague dream…it fades away, but is nevertheless present. It’s simply a part of you and your references. And unconsciously, when you draw or fantasize the images of chadors, djellabas, kaftans, sarouels, they are clearing up.

In 1994, at the end of high school, you decided to move to Belgium to attend the prestigious Academy of Antwerp. When did you really understand that fashion would be your future?
I didn’t know if it would be my future, but I knew  I had to try. Why else would I have played with fabrics in my childhood and observed all those African ‘Giacometti’ women in their metres of cotton.

At the beginning of your fashion career, you started without a big budget. But you met people and friends who really believed in your talent and helped you. Is there someone who pushed you more?
The belief and trust of my friends and family were a big push and besides, to have the support of Raf Simons
Simons, who is someone I really respect, is a big plus to throw yourself into the arena. It gave me the why-not-try?-have-nothing-to-lose kind of confidence at that particular point.

Your first collection, presented at the Paris Fashion Week, was completely self-financed. After only two weeks from your debut Ruffo called you to design the Ruffo Research line. What was this experience like and why do you think that this company specializing in leather goods chose you?
To work with a company and factory standing behind you, and the awareness of this, is a luxury, especially when you’ve just done a collection with lots of leather because of the attraction of a second skin and smell. You learn a lot and are thrown into things. It’s an enriching experience.

Today there are many young designers called to re-design and re-invent historical fashion-brands, from Sophia Kokosalaki for Vionnet to Nicolas Guesquiere for Balenciaga.
If you were to become the head designer for an important historical griffe, for which one would you like to work?
It all depends on where the brand would like to go and what it would want to achieve…
But a regrettably non-existent company such as the one of Mme Grès would be quite exciting, I have to admit.

In 2004 you won a hundred thousand euros adjudicating the first place in the Swiss Textiles Award. How did you spend that money (did you focus on textiles, press office, public relations, distribution)?
I concentrated on putting together a collection and a défilé in Paris, though the times were difficult. But I was convinced of not losing my visibility.

Would you define yourself as an avant-garde designer? Which adjectives would you use to describe your style and yourself?
It has never been my goal to be an avant-garde designer and it certainly would not reflect my personality. My aesthetics are certainly not revolutionary and eye-catching. It’s more about discreet, muted colours, about searching for a certain luxury of not caring, but also trying to respect and not take away the attention from the woman’s face with clothes or decoration…
I can’t and don’t want to define what I do, I’d rather leave it open for people to interpret it as they feel.

Do you consider yourself “revolutionary” in fashion? Can fashion still have a political ambition?
It is not up to me to send out messages, I just try to make nice clothes.

I read that you assert: “You can only design what you know”.
Does that mean that for you a garment tells about daily life, your experiences, your memories?
What kind of knowledge have you acquired from the beginning of your career till now?
How do you translate these memories in your creations?
You learn day by day how to translate your history of ideas, your observations, into something which strikes a good balance between creativity and the ability to be worn comfortably.

What about your next projects?
There is a new défilé in March, another chapter to tell.