As Haider Ackermann exits Berluti, we revisit Ben Cobb’s exclusive interview with the Columbian-born designer, published in the A/W17 issue of Another Man
“This whole story is like a love affair,” says Haider Ackermann, leaning forward conspiratorially in a quiet corner of Claridge’s. “It’s like the beginning of a relationship, when you’re just sniffing and touching and observing – seeing where it leads. That’s how I feel: it’s a first date!”
It’s February and the Colombian-born designer is talking, in hushed, seductive tones, about his Autumn/ Winter 2017 debut collection for Berluti, which he sent down the Paris runway the previous week. He is still digesting the experience, his thoughts not yet fully formed: “You know, it’s strange to talk about, but it was just a start, a hint.” Staged inside the Grand Palais, the atmosphere spiked with expectation, what Ackermann delivered that evening was a tightly edited sartorial suckerpunch.
“What I wanted to do was bring Berluti on to the streets” – Haider Ackermann
Unstructured mohair coats, leather vests, suede trenches, raspberry velvet suits, pink silk tailored jackets, cropped trousers, popped collars and crocodile chisel-toe boots... The new Berluti man – a fine grain leather guitar case slung over his shoulder and a cigarette between his immaculately manicured fingers – instantly asserted himself as the louche, elegant freespirit of menswear.
“What I wanted to do was bring Berluti on to the streets,” he explains, re-adjusting his wire-frame glasses. “Berluti has always been something very precious but I want it to be more democratic than that. I wanted to take all this preciousness down. I love it when luxury is invisible, when you almost don’t see it; that, for me, makes it very beautiful.”
When, last September, CEO Antoine Arnault announced his choice to succeed Berluti’s exiting creative director Alessandro Sartori, there were no gasps of incredulity, just nods of approval. Injecting Ackermann’s romanticism, worldliness and rock’n’roll attitude – all signatures of his own eponymous brand – into this storied house promised a revolution and, crucially for LVMH’s only all-menswear label, a well-mannered one. For Ackermann, however, the news came as a complete shock.
“I was on the street walking when I got the call and I didn’t understand,” he remembers. “I thought they’d mistaken me for someone else! Seriously, I was so surprised because I felt other candidates were more legitimate because they already had much bigger careers in menswear… But, you know, when something intrigues you then you want to know more, and I love the fact that it was something unexpected and which also challenged me.”
“Luxury should never be boring” – Haider Ackermann
Most designers on their first day at an esteemed heritage brand head straight to the archives. Not Ackermann: he went to visit master shoemaker Ms Olga Berluti, whose Italian grandfather Alessandro established Maison Berluti in Paris in 1895, creating footwear for the great and the good of European society. “Shoes give the whole attitude of the man – the way he walks, everything – so I wanted to understand all about that,” he explains. “Plus I’m a good listener and Ms Berluti is a great storyteller.”
“She was surrounded by all those decadent men,” he continues, excitedly, “whether it was Yves Saint Laurent or Winston Churchill or Andy Warhol, she had all those amazing men around her and she was making shoes for them. Every shoe has a story and every detail has an eccentricity and decadence to it. I would like, over time, to bring that feeling back into Berluti because you cannot talk about luxury without that kind of madness – because luxury should never be boring.”
This mantra translates into subtle revelations peppered throughout the A/W17 collection, like a strip of deep red crocodile skin concealed under the collar of a black leather jacket (“I’m working on lots of those kinds of hidden surprises,” he says.) With a team of crack craftsmen on standby at Berluti HQ, Ackermann is clearly excited to test their skills and “try to take it somewhere else” but acknowledges that getting to grips with all the available processes has been “like learning a whole new dictionary”. “But I love that challenge,” he’s quick to point out, “because it makes me feel alive and I can’t sleep at night any more because I’m just dreaming of Mr B.”
So, lying in bed at night, imagining Mr B into being, what does this fantasy man start to look like?
“But I love that challenge because it makes me feel alive and I can’t sleep at night any more because I’m just dreaming of Mr B” – Haider Ackermann
“I’m still searching but what I wanted to give him was, not a nonchalance, but a kind of easiness. I wanted him to be at ease. The Berluti man is travelling all over the world, so there should always be a comfort to everything he wears… My own brand is simpler because that man is just a daydreamer, a vagabond, but the Berluti man is more of an imposing figure – for me, at least.” He pauses, marshalling his words. “They’re both me, obviously, but whereas my brand is who I am, Berluti is a projection of what I would like to be. At the moment I’m just trying to find my way but I think there is more pressure on the second show to define that character.”
Fast-forward to June and Ackermann’s Spring/ Summer 2018 collection. As the setting sun warmed the courtyard of the Monnaie de Paris, out came a wardrobe that took easiness to achingly luxurious heights: a grey suede bomber, a double-breasted silk suit in gold, a pale yellow leather biker jacket; rolled-up sleeves, soft shoulders, tailored jogging pants, crocodile sliders; and then, in a season-stealing moment, Stella Tennant and a male look-a-like slouching by in matching black leather trenches and cream trousers...
If, as Ackermann described it, his debut collection had been the first thrilling fumblings of a new romance, then this sophomore show signalled a man in the blissful throes of true love.