Haider Ackermann: The Draped Crusader

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Colombian designer Haider Ackermann is no newcomer to the fashion scene, but his perfectly pintucked and elegantly elongating clothes are finally beginning to attract the attention they deserve, says Susannah Frankel

It is always gratifying when a designer who has quietly, and without compromise, upheld an aesthetic for years takes his place in the limelight.

So it is with Haider Ackermann who first showed at the Paris collections 10 years ago now and who has built up a loyal following with the most sartorially forward thinking. Now, though, his runway presentations and the highly singular vision they represent are one of the high points of the French fashion season across the board.

Still – and relatively speaking – Ackermann works against the mainstream. His collections comprise a stately procession of models, each wearing their own individual, intricately worked and impeccably realised style. Colour sings. The drape of his fabrics is among the finest in the industry. Leather is moulded, tooled and washed until it is as delicate as tissue paper. There are no money-spinning bags or other trinkets to detract from the story that is, and always has been, the clothes.

There is little straightforward about Ackermann's designs. In fact, they are often so complex that when, for example, in March 2011, Lady Gaga appeared on the front cover of American Vogue wearing Haider Ackermann, the hapless fashion editor responsible for styling her look called the designer to ask for his personal help dressing her. No "how many fashion editors does it take..." jokes called for, please. Oh, and the fact that Ackermann even ended up in that position in the first place is quite a coup. The prime cover spot of any glossy magazine worth its credentials is predominantly the preserve of big-brand advertisers. Haider Ackermann, which is independently owned, doesn't have the budget for that.

Ackermann was born in Santa Fe de Bogotá in Colombia and adopted by French parents. His father, a cartographer, travelled across Africa with his young son and a brother and sister, also adopted. Ackermann remembers Ethiopian women draped in bubu. "When you're a child, everything seems so much more big and tall and they have these very skeletal figures and a certain fragility. I still project those women." Certainly, a sense of proportion reminiscent also of Giacometti's sculpture is part of the picture. In Algeria, Ackermann saw "mysterious women hidden behind metres of fabric, slippering through the medina of Oran", and enveloping the female form more than exposing it continues to be important to him.

Aged 12, the designer moved with his family to The Netherlands, and then on to Antwerp where he furthered his education at the Academie des Beaux-Arts, alma mater to Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten to name just three. Raf Simons, the newly appointed design director at Christian Dior (Ackermann was rumoured to be in line for that position too, incidentally), didn't study at the celebrated fashion school in that city but he was at the epicentre of its creative scene while Ackermann was a student. "He [Haider] never graduated because he couldn't finish his collections. If he had to do five silhouettes, he would only do three. But they were the best," Simons has said. In Belgium, Ackermann learned that it was important to consider the comfort and dignity of any future devotees. "There is so much respect for the woman who will ultimately wear the clothes in the Belgian school and the intention is always not to make decoration out of them," is how he puts it. "It's about the woman first and foremost. The clothes should only reflect what she is."

After college Ackermann spent a short time as an intern at John Galliano before setting up his own label. So naïve was he that when he debuted on the catwalk he neglected to invite any buyers. Still, the style press were in attendance and knew a good thing when they saw it and it wasn't long before his designs were sold in Colette in Paris, Corso Como in Milan and Louis in Antwerp. Since then, his company has grown, organically and in a perfectly well-judged manner. Ackermann is no fool and has never claimed to be averse to working for a label other than his own. As well as being name-checked for Dior, he was thought to be the most natural successor to the aforementioned Margiela when he retired in 2009. For now, though, his prime concern is his signature line. That Ackermann has friends in high places is a given. Karl Lagerfeld for one endorses his talent. In 2010, the Chanel creative director told press that the younger designer would be his preferred successor as and when the time comes. Praise indeed.

Perhaps more importantly still, the actor Tilda Swinton loves Haider Ackermann. No one wears his preternaturally long, lean and covered silhouette quite so imposingly. A little over a year ago she talked to her friend for Interview magazine. "I just feel this satisfaction that what seemed so clear and inevitable to everyone around you for so long – that people would one day be open to your work – is finally taking place," she said. "You must feel that there's such a Haider-shaped space that you're filling now for people beyond the few of us who'd been invited into your world before..."

That Haider Ackermann-shaped space is a million miles away from fast fashion and the endless invention and reinvention of trends. Instead it is opulent, modest, majestic even and a deliberately slow burner... The more closely you look, the more lovely it all seems. It is precious, then, in the best possible sense of the word.

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