Born in Colombia, raised in Africa, schooled in Belgium and based in Paris, fashion’s favorite nomad has found a new home as creative director of Berluti.
I can’t remember why, but Haider Ackermann and I are talking horses. He’s a big fan of riding, which is odd, considering he’s only been on a horse once.
“I was in Colombia recently, and they had this beautiful stallion,” Ackermann tells me as we sit down at the Berluti offices in Paris one warm June afternoon. “I’d never ridden, so when I got on, he and I just turned and took off. We rode into the jungle, me just hanging on. It was near an area controlled by [armed guerilla force] FARC, so when I signed the insurance waiver before, they said, “Don’t go there!” Of course, the horse and I went there.”
This moment sort of sums up Haider Ackermann. He’s new to this. He’s a bit unpredictable. And right now he’s saddled up for an exhilarating, and potentially risky, ride.
Last September, Berluti CEO Antoine Arnault (part of the family behind French luxury titan LVMH) hired Ackermann as creative director. His arrival is the latest move in a decades-long strategy to transform the 122-year-old French shoemaker into a byword for luxury menswear. The transformation dates back to LVMH’s acquisition of the company in 1993, followed by Arnault’s hiring of designer Alessandro Sartori in 2011, and the expansion into ready-to-wear in 2012. In the past five years, Berluti has increased annual sales by more than 100 million euros, but though the gap is shrinking, the company has yet to turn a profit. Ackermann’s ascent could mark a turning point for the fashion house, as the designer injects the traditionally elegant Berluti man with some modern-day swagger.
Ackermann’s journey here has had its share of twists and turns. Born in 1971 in Bogota, his barnstorming childhood saw stints in Nigeria, Algeria, Iran, Chad, and the Netherlands as his family followed their cartographer patriarch. It was during these formative years that the future designer mapped trends and traced the styles which today serve as inspiration for his “modern nomad” aesthetic. A huge daydreamer as a kid, Ackermann says even his parents didn’t think he would amount to much. “But in my mind, things were clear. I know there was a road I had to take,” he says. At 17, he left home for Amsterdam, and ended up studying fashion design at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (the old stomping grounds to Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten), then interned at John Galliano before starting his own label, which he sells in chic concept stores like Colette in Paris and Corso Como in Milan.
As you might guess from that CV, there is a worldly romance about the guy. He speaks softly, and behind the swarthy mustache and beard, light scarf and John Lennon spectacles, you sense a modern day pirate, sitting on a treasure trove of ideas we haven’t even seen the half of. A lot of those ideas are solid gold, but he can appreciate gilt and gimcrack, too. There’s something to be learned from ostentation, especially in our Trumpian Mar-a-Lago present.
“I think it’s really interesting to have all this vulgarity today,” he says. “Everything provokes something right? Perhaps all this ugliness is good! Perhaps everything that’s happening right now will help people concentrate on what beauty really is and to take that road more than ever. ”
Not what you’d expect to hear from the man heading up a historically restrained house. Italian shoemaker Alessandro Berluti founded the company in Paris in 1895 based on the strength of a dramatically simple lace-up: crafted from a single piece of seamless leather, so minimally designed that it resembles a last more than a shoe. Since then Berluti has claimed a distinguished list of highbrow customers, from Marcel Proust and the Duke of Windsor to JFK and Aristotle Onassis. But Ackermann was hired to be a fashion bomb-thrower. And he’ll define a new kind of customer along the way.
“The Berluti guy, we haven’t found yet,” he says. “We’re still searching. We had the codes. We absorbed them. And then we threw them away.” Ackermann suggests the past Berluti man was a bit too reserved and serious for his own good. It was time for him to loosen up.
“Look. The world outside is tough. And that dude is working hard. He’s constantly on the road,” Ackermann says. “He’s a modern nomad. So he needs to have a very essential wardrobe. That’s the exercise for me – to make a wardrobe that’s very comfortable, easy.”
Taking over in the wake of Alessandro Sartori, who successfully took Berluti from leather goods to ready-to-wear in 2012, was a tall order. So was focusing solely on menswear, an arena where Ackermann admits he had limited experience. “I was coming from the women’s world and never considered myself to be a menswear designer in the first place,” Ackermann says (he’s being modest — his personal brand has included menswear since 2011). “When I got the call from Berluti, I was like, ‘Seriously?’”
Again, he undersells himself. Ackermann may not have been a household name, but thanks to his eponymous line, he had plenty of street cred in fashion-land. The Godfather himself, Karl Lagerfeld, once cited Ackermann as his heir apparent at Chanel, and for most of this century, he’s boasted a devoted following of stars like Usher, Kanye West, and gender-bending actress Tilda Swinton, who counts Ackermann as a friend. In typical Swintonian prose, she calls his clothes “supersonic medieval, sophisticated beyond pure simplicity, fluid beyond time or place. His clothes make you walk a grounded walk, face the wind, move comfortably,” she says. “Eternal, deathless chic.”
Kanye West, for his part, alerted a generation of style-conscious hypebeasts to the designer by wearing his pieces — which were in turn dissected on websites like Complex and copied by fast fashion retailers like H&M. There was a period when West seemed to live in Ackermann’s high-end, low-slung sweatpants, a piece inspired by the designer’s childhood in the desert.
“I was six or seven and we were living in Algeria at the time,” he says, “and you had these pants called the ‘Zouave’, which were low cut trousers, usually white. I always wanted to have them, but for some reason, my parents said no. It always stuck in my mind, and the moment I started to do the men’s collection, there was this “now I can have it!” feeling.
At his fall show in Paris last year, his first for Berluti, those same low hanging pants were there again, just one part of a collection that did have some kid-in-a-candy-store abandon. The colors — bottle green, chocolate, and dove grey — were rich, and the fabrics — silk, suede, and velvet — were even richer. But for all of that sumptuous appeal, the clothes were easy to wear. As appropriate in the airport as they would be at a dinner party, with influences drawn from everywhere (and so, nowhere).
That’s by design, Ackermann says. “All of us are nomadic nowadays. Look at how many people are traveling. They’re flying non-stop. They’re in cabs. And they’re traveling with their minds thanks to Instagram,” he says. “The world’s turning out to be this one big rolling thing. There is no one place.”
Because of this rootlessness, Ackermann claims he’s most “at home” when traveling. “When you’re very far away from home, you’re actually closer to home,” he says. “You have the luxury to sit down and analyze things. It gives you peace of mind. It’s not me in India, inspired by a woman wearing a sari. It’s me in India struck by the calmness of being in a foreign place that allows my thoughts to come inside.”
When at home in Paris, Ackermann finds his inspiration at 3am, taking long walks through the city. “When you’re alone in the street, that’s when I have the most fantastic dreams about my work,” he says. “Nights are the most beautiful moments for this. These are the stolen moments we eventually sell.”
However dreamy Haider Ackermann may seem, he’s not interested in creating clothes for some far-flung fantasy. He’s firmly rooted in the here and now. “We have a business to run here,” he says half-joking, but goes on soberly: “The only thing that’s interesting for me is to make clothes for nowadays. The Berluti guy’s down here with us. He’s totally in reality.” And he knows that reality can get messy. “I think on a personal level, you have to let failure and danger in,” he says. Get on the horse. Go wherever it takes you. “There’s always a crack somewhere you have to embrace, because that’s where the light shines through. Leonard Cohen once said that. That’s why the search for beauty and ugliness has always intrigued me,” he says. “That’s the interesting part.”