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If these sound like old topics to industry insiders it’s because I’m not young - and an outsider. My insider status was short-lived and aeons ago. Somewhere between the bleak midwinter of the late 1970s and the fall-out from New Romanticism in the early 1980s. Yet, still I cling. On the sideline watching trouser hems rise and crotches drop, as seasons come and collections go. For me, the swashbuckling leather and velvet creations of a designer like, say, Haider Ackermann - a champion of both Lutens and luxury - is something to witness, but never wear. When it comes to the wardrobe of the middle-aged male I like the simple Warhol maxim - A good plain look is my favourite look. If I didn’t want to look so ‘bad’, I would want to look ‘plain’. But not too plain. Not The Man In The Camel Coat.
Yet, still I cling. I wrote about Justin O’Shea when creative directors were dropping like flies, having been recruited by luxury brands following effective runs at independent labels. Both the arrival and exit of O’Shea at Brioni was a shock. At least in the hamlet that is heritage menswear. His departure announced at Paris fashion week last autumn, after six months in the job. That same season - a further surprise. Haider Ackermann joined the eminent Italian-born, Paris-based bottier Berluti. Would he go the same way? Both men were keen to bring attitude, rock music, and guitar cases to labels synonymous with tailoring and tradition. Unlike O’Shea, Ackermann was a trained designer, and one closely associated with womenswear. This was his chance to ‘work in luxury’, he declared. And what did he mean by luxury? ‘Having access to materials of great nobility’, came the answer. The opportunity to utilise the skills of Berluti’s private army of master tailors at the atelier Arnys, who famously produced the black velvet Forestière jacket that became a staple of Le Corbusier’s style (coupled with the ‘Architect frames’ that were his spectacles). Like Berluti, Arnys was acquired by the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, with the Arnault family in the saddle. They had plans. Haider Ackermann was the one to bring them to fruition. To reach out to the street; to initiate the young, well-hung and wealthy into those ancient, ritualistic codes of luxury.
‘I have another story to tell’, Ackermann said when offering his reason for taking on tailored menswear and moving to Berluti. Creating characters and telling stories is central to his work. Some say he’s an artist. So many designers are said to be, or believed to be, or claim to be……. artists. Just as certain designers now claim to be activists. It’s an outmoded, old-fashioned move. The posturing and sloganeering are dated. The deluded progressive has turned so-called radicalism and identity politics into a cartoon, and liberalism has crashed and burned in a cul-de-sac. In such a climate Brexit is a revolution, and America’s new president a maverick. Yet, the designer activist, like the celebrity activist, continues to reel out clichés as worn out and washed up as old accessories.
Momentarily, Ackermann dabbled in this with those ‘Be You' slogans on sweat-tops, that brought flashbacks of ‘Choose Life’ and ‘Frankie Says’ to those of us that endured fashion’s excesses in the 1980s.
There’s more. Ackermann has been described as both erudite and an ‘intellectual’. Now that is rare in the field of fashion. So was he being smart or playing it safe, when the first model to emerge from the shadows in his debut for the luxury brand in January, at the Grand Palais, Paris, was more Berluti than Haider Ackermann? - The Man In The Camel Coat. The staple of the wardrobe of the middle-aged male who simply wants to look plain. Wasn’t everyone expecting something closer to the super-sized
shoulders that captivated at menswear collections the previous season? That David Byrne silhouette circa 'Stop Making Sense', favoured by the new boy on the block - the other Gvasalia brother, moonlighting from Vetements - at Balenciaga. Why the big suit? Why not? Perhaps this is what Ackermann means when he talks of writing another story, of planning for the Berluti customer who will one day accessorise a cashmere coat with baggy leggings: 'I want to make a new man for the 21st century. Something harder within the limitations of traditional tailoring’.
The Haider Ackermann story began with his birth in Bogotá in 1971. The ‘Haider Ackermann’ story began with the launch of his eponymous label in 2002, and a womenswear collection the following year. The sightings of menswear design was rare and later, defined by vivid colours, crushed velvets and shiny boots of leather. When he says he hopes to create a new language and new identity at Berluti, once again, Serge Lutens springs to mind: ‘All I'm talking about is identity – that is all I've been talking about my whole life’. Fitting for someone who claims to have a ‘blurred’ identity. Similar could be said of Haider Ackermann. His father was a mapmaker. His infancy, adolescence spent in various countries - Ethiopia, Algeria, Netherlands - before attending fashion school in Antwerp, and winding up in Paris. 'When you are young, you are very tormented and very insecure’, he said in March this year. 'Now my creativity comes from happiness. It's nice to dream and build up your own story, you know, I like to search for things and have some fantasy’. It’s a well-run rites of passage for the young outsider, the marginalised itinerant - but reading this made me think of the talented, oddball narrator in Harold Brodkey’s ‘The State Of Grace’: ‘If dreams came true, then I would have my childhood in one form or another, someday’. I guess Ackermann is finally having his.
At Berluti, he replaced Alessandro Sartori, who was engaged to develop a clothing range for the distinguished shoemaker, before he jumped ship and joined Ermenegildo Zegna. A trained tailor, he undertook to reel in that rising generation of rich consumers by departing from tradition, introducing a casual element and - colour. The company was known as much for its ‘patinas’ as for the shoe that put it on the map at the tail end of the nineteenth century, created froma single piece of leather and without any sign of a seam. Sartori ramped up the colours at Berluti, pushing them beyond the primary. At the Grand Palais on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in January, where once the Fauvists shocked the art world by exhibiting their explosions of colour, Ackermann delivered a palette that, in part, was reputed to reference the brutal hues of Francis Bacon: the purple of bruises; the bloody red of cuts and gashes. These were eased in as The Man In The Camel coat, and the blacks, browns and beiges, that followed gave way to a spectrum of cherry reds, violets, emerald greens, blushing pinks in the shape of trench coats, tuxedos, parkas, jean jackets and bombers. Colours that would have given Matisse a run for his money.
If Francis Bacon was the inspiration for one aspect of the collection, another, located on the mood board at Ackermann HQ was David Bowie, in the year of his death and in his incarnation as the Thin White Duke. The slicked back orange hair, alabaster skin, and stripped down kit of starched white shirt and night black waistcoat. A look that managed to be as striking as any of the personas that had gone before.
‘I wanted to make luxury a little more careless’, Ackermann said in the wake of the show. ‘Which is why we had so many different guys, from skinheads to long-haired rockers. Berluti should be for a lot of different men’. But the test for Ackermann and Berluti is whether the collection will be as lucrative as it is creative. There remains a world of difference between menswear and womenswear, and as though to bridge this gap, Ackermann placed female models in men’s attire on the runway. He says: 'In feminine fashion, the creation is always complicated because this body is foreign to me. That of man is obviously closer’. Even now, in a new century still in its infancy, menswear design takes time to progress. Particularly when it comes to tailoring and craftsmanship. But Ackermann’s in it for the long haul, making his vision a reality over years rather than within a single season. And it’s a huge shift for him, from the layering, and draping and cropping of fabrics that characterise his womenswear, and the swashbuckling themes of his earlier sporadic outings in menswear, to the sculpted suits at Berluti. Here, change, like God, is in the detail.
Something I was aware of way back in the aforementioned bleak mid-winter of another age, studying the skill of bespoke tailoring and pattern cutting in commercial east end streets where it was a dying art. In the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, a copy of L’Uomo Vogue was placed before us and we were encouraged to draw and adapt the detail on men’s suits. So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip, and on a dizzily radical impulse - an ambitious puff took a raglan sleeve towards the blouson. It’s an approach that the army of tailors at Arnys have prided themselves on, rarely bowing to the winds of change ushered in by fashion and consumerism: ’Boldness comes through in the unique details. The lining of a garment often conceals a surprise. Sometimes, the surprise is in the choice of buttons, the placement of elbow patches or the print of a tie’.
Berluti’s new boy has also taken this into account, by keeping the old guard on board - past clients read like a ‘Who’s Who’ in French culture throughout the last hundred years. From Marcel Proust to Yves St Laurent via the Jeans Luc Godard and Cocteau - by simply tweaking the detail or the fabric of a traditional garment: a crocodile duffle coat, a yellow fur lapel. Despite his short time as creative director, he has formulated his own idea of contemporary Berluti man: ‘I would like him to keep a part of the mystery, that one can not completely define it, knowing that he travels a lot, works on a planetary scale, comes from everywhere and from nowhere’. This was apparent at the Grand Palais show. Beyond the ambitions to expand the colour scheme, and juggle the casual and the sartorial, the modern and the traditional, emerged a nomadic motif that was a nod to the designer’s peripatetic youth, and his internship at Galliano. It was a period when he was sleeping on the street, and leaving his luggage in a locker at the youth hostel where he showered. Despite being employed at a couture house streets away.
The nomadic theme was reminiscent of the Burberry spring collection of 2015, when the sojourns of the late-travel writer Bruce Chatwin provided the inspiration. That approach was earthier in some ways, despite deep-purple and bottle-green suedes and velvet outerwear. There were field hats with battered brims, and coats and bags with pockets the size of bellows to hold the wearer’s worldly goods. For Beluti, Ackermann produced backpacks and a sack-like holdall that could equally contain everything the minimalist, the nomad, or the homeless intern owned. Again, it was a move that brings to mind the words of Serge Lutens, a figure that Ackermann has name-checked and saluted on several occasions. He was one point of reference when the designer curated an issue of A magazine, along with Francis Bacon and Robert Mapplethorpe. Lutens has claimed that his greatest luxury is that he can live without almost anything. He has survived in a yurt and a studio, yet has spent 35 years creating a home and garden in the medina of the Marrakech that vibrates with the musks that have suffused his perfumes. Here he delves into the trio of writers - Proust, Baudelaire, Genet - that also help him tell his stories; here he read his favourite piecesof writing - ‘Le Condamné à Mort’- to Haider Ackerman. Reflecting on the experience, the designer mused: ‘Telling a story is the greatest gift that someone can give you’.
Now Ackerman himself is in the business of pinpointing luxury in his work, and making attempts to interpret it: ‘I love things to last. But it feels like now with all this fast, this speed, the timing that we have, we don’t even really have time to love the pieces that we own’. He wants to create a wardrobe rather than a collection. He wants to create an item that has longevity. Something that Beluti succeeded in doing from the beginning with a shoe that was inspired by Parisian architecture, and created by the company’s founding father who gave it his name - the ‘Alessandro’. By 1962 several more distinctive designs had been added, including that year, the Andy loafer, dedicated to Warhol. Ackermann now looks to create his Alessandro, his Yves Saint Laurent ‘Le Smoking’, his Nombre Noir. ‘Any creation which may one day be considered a luxury’, Serge Lutens once said, ‘can be interpreted initially as a reproach, borne of a world that resists change out of desire for self-preservation’.