On the Paris Runways, Haider Ackermann Turns Fashion Into Art

Jerome Bonnet for Newsweek

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 Bogotà, 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.

The runways this season were filled with a more ethnically varied group of models, not just at freewheeling design houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier, where individuality and personality have long been valued, but also at more starched and traditional brands. The Hermès runway resembled an extraordinarily good-looking subcommittee of the United Nations. Even Chanel had a hint of diversity.

Some of this globalism is driven by the rising importance of Asian markets to the luxury economy. For instance, the largest luxury conglomerate in the world, the LVMH Group—home to the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton—considers its Facebook page in China so important to its bottom line that the company chieftain makes a point of regularly checking it. “I cannot read what is on it,” a chuckling Bernard Arnault admitted to me earlier this year, but all those Chinese “friends” have been his saving grace. In 2010, Asia—excluding Japan—had the distinction of being the largest market for all LVMH products, surpassing both Europe and North America.

Fashion’s definition of luxury is also shifting. The industry is reaching out to Africa and the Middle East, not only for inspiration but also for artisans and facilities that can handle high-end production. This Paris fashion season saw the launch of Maiyet, a luxury label created by Paul van Zyl, a human-rights lawyer who served as executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The idea behind the brand, he has said, is to “find artisans with rare skills and to elevate those skills and put them into luxury products.”

Van Zyl isn’t creating charity clothes—the sorts of garments do-gooders buy because of what they mean rather than how they look. “The reason we don’t want it to be that—not to be snobby—but Barneys [New York] is going to launch this. And the reason why is because it’s beautiful. It’s luxurious.”

Maiyet, overseen by fashion veteran Kristy Caylor, was unveiled in the lavishly appointed salons of a stately mansion on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt in Paris, with the help of such boldface names as hairstylist Orlando Pita and stylist Lori Goldstein. The clothes included a mix of bubble dresses in fine cotton, embroidered gowns with fishtail hems and sexy 18-karat-gold cuffs, as well as carved, natural horn necklaces. The hand-loomed cotton and embroidery were from India. The gold jewelry was produced in South Africa, the horn charms came from Kenya. The industry is beginning to see a contemporary kind of beauty in the traditions, geography, and histories of cultures beyond Europe and North America. The expression is oblique, thoughtful, and powerful. And no one surpasses Ackermann, with his subtle but moving use of color. His work is an abstract watercolor of emotion.

“The colors are so unbelievably beautiful, because they’re so saturated,” says Nancy Pearlstein, owner of the independent boutique Relish in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. “They’re understated, but they’re beautiful. They speak to me.”

In Ackermann’s modest showroom in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, Pearlstein is among the retailers who have come to see the collection up close, to finger the fabrics, to decide whether, when all is said and done, Ackermann’s runway magic can actually sell. Not just to fashion’s true believers, but to casual admirers, skeptics, and unabashed critics. His work is not cheap. The flowing jackets are $2,000; the pants average $1,500. And those silk oxford slides will ring in at $800.

But no one seems daunted; only moved, mesmerized, and inspired.