Nomad's brand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am

Colombian-born Haider Ackermann is one of fashion's brightest talents. Karl Lagerfeld famously named him as his potential heir at Chanel. Fashion writers and celebrity bloggers such as Diane Pernet rave about him.

After nearly eight years of focusing solely on womenswear, Ackermann launched his one-off menswear collection in Florence, which debuted in Hong Kong at Lane Crawford on January 20.

Ackermann says doing a collection can be 'quite traumatic at moments' and admits to being anxious and insecure at times, so receiving praise 'is always very touching and overwhelming'.

'The compliment from Mr Lagerfeld is one of the most beautiful in my life ... but you can't obsess on it,' he says.

His first women's collection showed in Paris in 2003 to international critical acclaim. The following year he won the prestigious Swiss Textile Award. After signing up with the Belgian Groupe 32, Ackermann moved to Paris in 2005 to set up his atelier.

A trip to Florence to present at the Pitti Women's shows gave rise to his men's collection. The dilapidated Florentine Palazzo inspired the luxe nomad that would define his first men's looks.

'I went to Florence to visit locations where we could do the event, and wandering through the architecture was amazing,' he says. 'All these palaces destroyed by time, in disrepair, which is romantic and beautiful, yet sad at the same time.

'You look at this old glory and it's sad to see it abandoned. I imagined a woman walking into a room and waiting for the one she loves who has left her, because those places were so empty.

'I started to think, who is the man behind the Ackermann woman? Is he following her into her dreams and her travels? All this questioning led me to do a men's wardrobe.'

What emerged from his reverie were long, languid shapes tumbling off shoulders in a collection of louche, gorgeous, opium-den men's attire. Billowing silks, kimonos and tight-fitted jackets give his menswear catwalk an eclectic feel. Oriental colours, intricate patterns and swathes of fabric drape the Ackermann man. He emerges as a degenerate aristocrat, or gypsy king, in rustles of imperial purple, ebony, emerald green and electric blue. The contrast between aristocratic elegance and street toughness that defines his SS11 women's collections also defines his men's, which is dark, mysterious and worn in.

Ackermann says he finds it easier to design for women because he can immerse himself in a fantasy world. Men are more difficult because the purpose of design is not purely aesthetic. While the Ackermann woman has become more worldly over the years, the Ackermann man is mysterious and elusive.

'It is all about his gesture, his attitude, to reinforce what he is actually, so you just have to use subtlety - you are so concentrated on the clothes and less concentrated on the whole image,' he says.

Despite many seeing the designer's reflection in the collection, Ackermann says it is not autobiographical.

'Of course, my designs are influenced by having a nomadic life when I was younger. You don't know where you are coming from and where you are going to. Most of the time, I imagined those people who belong, at the same time, everywhere and nowhere.'

Ackermann's father worked for Amnesty International, so the family led a nomadic life. Born in Colombia and raised by a French couple, he lived in Chad, Algeria, Ethiopia, France, the Netherlands and then studied in Antwerp, Belgium.

'Of course, we need people like my father, who are working and trying to liberate, protect and defend people who are living in misery,' Ackermann says. 'You see the news and its all war and misery, so it's nice to have people who are also trying to find the beauty in life, too. It's about balance. Life is all about contrasts and contradictions, so my father might be one and myself the other - but we understand each other.'

He says that as he travelled around the world with his French parents, he thought to himself, 'I'm so damned French.' Now that he lives in Paris, he realises that he isn't. 'You end up belonging nowhere,' he says.

Growing up in North Africa and being around veiled and hidden 'mystery women', sparked his interest in the power of fashion.

'It brought the curiosity into me that weirdly didn't happen with my brother and sister. It intrigued me. There was this kind of sensuality, even sexuality, because you don't ever know what's happening behind those veils ... it was all working with your imagination and fantasies.'

It is clear from the outset that the designer is beguiled by things hidden and by people who are a little detached and unreachable. He admits being attracted to women who have 'a distance between themselves and society' but has always been against the idea of a single muse.

'I wouldn't find it democratic to have one person as a muse. A muse has always been a very silent person, just standing there, being beautiful - which is not for me because I like women who talk, when there is a vocabulary behind it and when they intrigue me by their words and gestures,' Ackermann says.

The tension in his designs takes time to digest. He makes you work at it, but the message unfolds beautifully. It is not for everyone, but he believes his work will become more approachable in time. In any case, reality isn't something he aspires to.

'I don't want to show reality on the catwalk - there is too much reality nowadays; you just want people to escape, forget their problems and enter into another kind of sensitivity. I think that's the most interesting part. If you show too much of a reality, then what do they have to dream of?'