The 'It' Boy of Paris

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Givhan

Sexy, hip Haider Ackermann is turning fashion into art.

It was a late Saturday morning earlier this month, in Paris, when so much about the global frock business changed. In what seemed the blink of an eye during the spring 2012 runway shows, Western sensibility lost its sway over fashion's silhouettes and hemlines. The rich hues of desert sunsets and busy souks replaced black--so East Coast urbane--as the new signifier of worldly sophistication. And our urgent need for speed in every aspect of daily life suddenly seemed rather pitiable.

The designer Haider Ackermann had just shown a languid collection of women's ready-to-wear that could best be described as poetic. His work succinctly captured the angst of modern times, beauty's new world order, and the yearnings of a global culture trying to find a way toward harmonious individuality.

In a dark concert space away from central Paris, to the sounds of music that both whispered and implored, Ackermann's models moved slowly in slender trousers cut from tie silks in blood-red and pale orange. They wore oversize blazers in shades of pine green and lapis blue. Their roomy blouses were clouds of fine silk that surrounded their torsos like a vapor.

Sand-colored, chiffon waistcoats shielded the body like a scrim; fragile yards of fabric covered the head with modest sensuality. And instead of wearing the precarious stilettos of the urban fashion warrior, the models were firmly grounded in silk oxford slides.

The collection mixed Western cuts with Middle Eastern traditions, North African restraint, and a polyglot's cultural ease.

For the designer, it was a triumph.

"I wanted to give women the luxury of just letting things go, of just being free," Ackermann told me following the show, after being overwhelmed by well-wishers.

The designer, a bespectacled and slender man with an olive complexion and a head of dark curly hair that stands up as if in a constant state of amusement, is continuing on a trajectory that began a year ago. This spring, he'd broken through the stratosphere with a glorious collection of tailored skirts and blazers that rippled over the body with the ease of a djellaba or sari.

For that collection, modeled to the accompaniment of Leonard Cohen's haunting "A Thousand Kisses Deep," Ackermann told me he wanted to convey "a more muscular attitude, but with a little bit of mystery, a little bit of the unknown." The audience reacted with cheers. Guests cried, overwhelmed not by the clothes themselves--for no reasonable person would weep over a frock--but by the emotions they stirred.

Ackermann does the nearly impossible with ease: he makes the fashion flock, he makes us look beyond our own world not with fear, voyeurism, or condescension but with joy and a sense of peace. "He makes multicultural references with such a light hand," says Ken Downing, the lanky, blond fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "He's able to take ethnic traditions and interpret them in a knowing way for the runway. It's not costume."

Ackermann arrived at this pinnacle slowly and methodically. Born in Santa Fe de Bogota, Colombia, he was adopted by French parents. His father's work as a cartographer ensured that Ackermann had a peripatetic childhood, bouncing around Morocco, Chad, and Algeria, among other countries. A trip to India inspired the color palette of the spring collection. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and launched his signature collection in 2001. Four years later, he won the prestigious Swiss Textile Award. With the backing of Belgian investors, he now leads the way as fashion transforms into a more diverse and globally focused industry. …