Exclusive: Inside Haider Ackermann's Gaultier Couture debut

jean paul gaultier runway spring summer 1997 paris haute couture fashion week
Haider Ackermann's Gaultier Couture debutA look from the Spring 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier couture collection that inspired Haider Ackermann. - Getty Images

Lovely. Feathers. Linear. Purity. Calm.

These were just a few of the words that designer Haider Ackermann used to describe his forthcoming couture collection made with Jean Paul Gaultier. Wednesday’s show, which is the fourth in the Gaultier atelier’s unique guest designer program, is one of the most anticipated of the season.

In fact, the concept has become one of Paris Couture Week’s big agenda-setters. Sacai’s collaboration, the project’s debut, helped re-energise interest in the brand’s ergonomic classics; Y/Project and Diesel designer Glenn Martens’s denim-mania made red carpet gnarliness something to aspire to (and brought us Chloe Sevigny’s wedding dress); and Olivier Rousteing’s resulted in some of the most breathtaking and celebrated work of his career. It isn’t an audition, or a test of whether one designer’s vision might mesh with a house’s “codes,” but rather a chance for designers to go nuts in the creativity department, working with all the resources of a Parisian couture atelier. The collections tend to ripple far beyond the reaches of typical couture week fare, putting Martens’s name in the mix for big designer appointments, for example, and inspiring weeks of anticipation on social media about what looks the next guest designer might rework. It’s like a couture one-night stand.

“I do not even understand his generosity,” Ackermann said. “Because if it were my name, I would be so controlling.” He laughed. “And the fact that he can have this kind of freedom, to give us all carte blanche….” He trailed off. “I don't think that I would be capable of doing this.” They had lunch together, and Ackermann said he tried once or twice to bring up what he might want to do with couture. But Gaultier wasn’t interested: “He just wants to be surprised. So the only job that I have to do is try to honour him and to make him proud on Wednesday.”

Ackerman, wearing a black T-shirt and his usual tinted lenses for our interview, is one of fashion’s most elegant and awesome personalities. You might even say he’s a cooool duuude, with his moustache and his sunglasses and his out-there tailoring. He is a designer’s designer, counting Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano as fans of the eponymous brand he’s designed for over two decades. He’s also developed unusually tight friendships with Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet, two actors who are known for their wild taste and who often appear in the designer’s futuristic works on the red carpet. (Of his relationships with the two stars, he said, “We have the immense luxury that we simply agree” on what looks great.) Though we spoke in the harried midst of his finishing the collection on Sunday, he was spritely, earnest but unflappable. Like Gaultier, actually, he’s a bit mischievous. He began ruminating, at one point, about how great it would be to do another Gaultier couture collection—how deeper and wilder it would get. Then he stopped himself and giggled: “Why am I saying this?”

<span class="caption">Tilda Swinton wearing one of Ackermann’s designs at the Venice Film Festival in September.</span><span class="photo-credit">Maria Moratti - Getty Images</span>
Tilda Swinton wearing one of Ackermann’s designs at the Venice Film Festival in September.Maria Moratti - Getty Images

Ackerman called it “an interesting exercise” to look at Gaultier’s past work and find similarities to his own. His work is singular for the warmth and humanism of his approach to minimalism. Gaultier, on the other hand, is known for his maximalism and provocation, and yanking references from clothing traditions all over the world. “Where do you find the balance to make it yours?” Ackermann wondered aloud.

As he looked through Gaultier’s archives, “I realised that I was much closer to him than I ever would have expected.” When you look at Gaultier’s past collections, you might think of his maximalism, his layers and wild accessories and clashing bold patterns. “There’s so much happening, and there is so much styling,” Ackerman said, “and there’s so much hair and makeup, that you sometimes don’t go to the essentials, or you forget about the essentials.” Looking at these pieces up close, he appreciated “the architecture and the pattern makers and all the work and all the details—you say, Oh wowww….”

<span class="caption">The designer with his friend Timothée Chalamet, who is wearing Ackermann’s design, at the Venice Film Festival last September.</span><span class="photo-credit">Pascal Le Segretain - Getty Images</span>
The designer with his friend Timothée Chalamet, who is wearing Ackermann’s design, at the Venice Film Festival last September.Pascal Le Segretain - Getty Images

The tailoring of his 1997 couture debut particularly stood out—a feeling of the elemental or understated that may surprise even longtime Gautlier heads. “I wanted to touch on those pieces which were very serene, calm, very linear, very pure. I’m going to have a touch of this purity that he used to do, when you take all the styling and everything off.”

When asked what he discovered was possible in couture as opposed to ready-to-wear, he mentioned a bolero from that debut couture collection of Gaultier’s that featured enormous parrot feathers on the shoulders, pictured above.

Those kinds of feathers aren’t used in couture anymore, but the atelier helped him realise something similar. “All the people [in the atelier] are really passionate about the work,” he said, “because they’re spending so many hours and minutes and so much time dedicated to the littlest stitches. To see all this and observe it, it was a very moving experience.”

The hope for fashion fans and insiders is that the project might add to the Ackermann aura and bring him new opportunities at his own brand or elsewhere. There were rumours in late 2020 that his brand may close or be sold (it’s owned by Anne Chapelle, the Belgian fashion entrepreneur who also owned Ann Demeulemeester until she sold it to Italian fashion magnate Claudio Antonioli a little over two years ago), and the designer has not shown a collection since before the pandemic. In a season of designer musical chairs—Louis Vuitton’s menswear lead and the top job at Gucci are just two open roles—Ackermann’s name may well be in the mix, especially after Wednesday’s feathery-pure couture debut.

“With age, the more you’re getting older, the more dust you push from your shoulders,” Ackermann reflected. “So you’re searching for a kind of purity and something much calmer. And I think we’re living in a world which is shouting already. So much. Which is so loud. So the more and more we can restrain each other and be quiet and silent—I think that's a big luxury that we have. Let the others scream. Let you do your work in silence. It suits me better.”

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