Why would one be seduced by something, only to throw it away after one season?” asked Haider Ackermann on an unusually balmy early-spring morning in New York. Ackermann was in town from Paris to shoot the new campaign for Berluti, where he has served as creative director for less than a year.
“Men want to have intimacy with their clothes and get old with them,” he continued. “Every time a man chooses the cashmere coat from his wardrobe, he remembers where he wore it before and who he was dating.”
When Ackermann was tapped to take over the storied French house, which has been turning out elegant, handmade shoes since 1895, and added ready-to-wear six years ago, the designer was not single, professionally speaking. In fact, while his name had come up for high-profile gigs in the past (Dior, Maison Margiela), he seemed rather devoted to his namesake men’s and women’s collections. But to the surprise of the industry, and also himself, he said, “I got seduced. I had long discussions with the house about beauty and what beauty means to me. The more we talked, and the more I learned the Berluti story, the more I knew it should be me.”
Over the years, Ackermann’s idea of beauty has emerged as a singular vision, independent of whatever vagaries may grip the fashion world. He’s as likely to be inspired by Saharan tribes and modern flamenco as he is by the warm palette of India or classical ballet, themes he’ll research with relish yet present in a minimal, elevated, coherent way. With an emphasis on avant-garde leatherwork and robe-like draping, his look could be described as androgynous—had he not transcended that trope long ago with a chic wardrobe devoid of obvious sex appeal, male or female.
When Berluti announced that it had chosen Ackermann, now in his mid-40s, the designer explained that part of what appealed to him about the job was countering expectations that he would work for an established women’s label. “And I didn’t want to make men more beautiful or handsome, but to give them an attitude, a maturity. I’m getting more mature, too; maybe I just want to be that man now.”
Ackermann’s worldly approach calls to mind his own globetrotting background: He was born in Colombia, where he was adopted by French parents, raised in Africa and the Netherlands, and trained in Antwerp; he’s now based in Paris, where he launched his label in 2003, quietly but steadily developing his nomadic-monk sensibility.
In 2010, Karl Lagerfeld paid him the ultimate compliment when talking about a potential successor at Chanel with Numéro magazine. “I have a contract for life, so it all depends on who I would like to hand it to,” he said. “At the moment, I’d say Haider Ackermann.” With that kind of spotless pedigree and reputation, Ackermann became a catch for a house savvy enough to support his quest for noble beauty and global glamour. Berluti did just that, bringing with it the resources and patrimoine to realize Ackermann’s more fanciful notions.
“With Berluti, I’m clashing the idea of the brilliant, accomplished man in a tuxedo with the relaxed young dude in a parka,” Ackermann said. Last January, at the soaring Grand Palais, in Paris, his debut collection featured strong statements with a dandyish twist, like lambskin bombers with contrasting shearling collars or crushed-velvet suits worn cavalierly over singlets. Narrow rocker boots and leather guitar cases that models slung over their shoulders were contrasted with a parade of impeccable leather and croc bags. A few looks, including a purple velvet suit, were modeled by women.
For now, it’s unlikely this gesture will evolve into a women’s line, but then again, Ackermann’s own men’s and women’s collections could be swapped by gender-fluid customers. We live in a post-binary world, and Ackermann’s mind is most certainly of our time.
Not surprisingly, longtime friend and unwavering fan Tilda Swinton, who can pull off men’s and women’s clothes with equal aplomb, sprang to her feet following the show. Later that night, she joined Marisa Berenson, Liya Kebede, and Natalia Vodianova at Maxim’s for a celebratory dinner.
“I’m really seriously happy and proud to be here,” Ackermann gushed to his supporters. “The whole Berluti team, they took me in their arms like a family. That’s such a beautiful thing.”
If the word weren’t too old-fashioned for Ackermann, the aforementioned women would be considered his muses. But “it’s not about muses,” he pooh-poohed. “A muse is a silent person. Women nowadays are outspoken and, not to be vulgar, they have balls. If she wants, she’ll borrow the clothes of her lover. There’s nothing sexier than that. I’m interested in women more than muses. Women have the power at the end of the day.”
Despite his success at Berluti, Ackermann is determined to continue his own women’s and men’s lines. “With my own collections I can do all the funkiness and craziness I like, since that kind of man is not especially grounded. He’s more of a daydreamer.” That was the undisputed message of his first foray into men’s wear, in 2010, when he mixed men’s pieces into the women’s collection he presented at the Pitti Uomo fair, in Florence, accompanied by model Jamie Bochert playing the piano live. Three years later, he officially launched his own men’s line. Spectacularly decadent, his debut show was essentially a paean to dapper fops through the ages—Rimbaud, Wilde, Swinton—incorporating lush, louche fabrics ranging from silks to iridescent jacquards.
It’s unlikely the more upstanding Berluti guy will ever reach this level of sartorial debauchery. But on this auspicious morning—with Ackermann in head-to-toe Berluti—it became clear he’s taking on his new role with well-groomed gusto. “It’s a new day, a new attitude,” he affirmed. “That, to me, is very seductive.”
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