PARIS – Jean Paul Gaultier’s first haute couture show happened some 25 years ago, but Haider Ackermann still remembers its sublime chic and showed the goosebumps on his forearms as he described a sleek black suit with colorful feathers erupting from the sleeves.
As the latest guest couturier at Jean Paul Gaultier, slated to show a one-off collection in January during Paris Couture Week, Ackermann cited a wish to exalt the legendary designer’s quieter side, including his tailoring prowess.
“I wanted to explore this purity, which is absolutely magnificent,” he enthused. “Sometimes all those millimeters are forgotten, how perfect couture can be.”
In an exclusive interview with WWD, the two designers described their long admiration for each other’s work and their mutual belief in original creativity and technical excellence.
For his part, Gaultier remembers reading in Le Figaro about a hot new Belgian designer named Haider and being dazzled by his sophisticated colors and unexpected silhouettes.
“It was different and at the same time classic, but with a twist,” he said.
He described in detail a bomber jacket with an extra-long zipper that undulated down the front of the garment like a ruffle and confessed thinking: “Ah, it’s a pity I didn’t have that idea myself.”
Seated opposite each other on black sofas in Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture salon designed by Philippe Starck, the two men shared a laugh after that quip, demonstrating an appreciation for design peers that inspired them to further sharpen their creativity.
Ackermann put in a plug for Marina Yee, one of the lesser-known of the Antwerp Six that put the small Belgian city on the international fashion radar in the ’80s and ’90s. “No one talks about her, but she was highly, highly talented,” he said.
For his part, Gaultier argued that Martin Margiela should have been included to make an Antwerp Seven, even though Margiela graduated a year earlier than the famous graduates of the Belgian city’s Royal College of Fine Art. “When I went there, I discovered how good they were: They were knowing everything, so professional. It’s a very good school, I should say better than the French one,” he said.
Gaultier famously hired Margiela as his design assistant in 1984 and three years later the Belgian wunderkind would branch out on his own. Gaultier lauded the unique spirit around fashion emanating from the north and how its designers interpreted tradition in new ways.
Ackermann confessed that Gaultier was on his radar from his days as a fashion student in Antwerp, when he would come to Paris and sneak into fashion shows.
He recalled the fall-winter 1994 collection dubbed “Le Grand Voyage.” Gaultier staged the show in some frigid warehouse in the 15th arrondissement and had Björk modeling looks inspired by Inuit costumes.
Ackermann recalled being “transported to other worlds” at Gaultier shows. “He made you travel with your mind,” he said. “You just had to take the Metro a few stops and you would completely enter a different world, and that was very mind-blowing for us.
“Your imagination was just exploding, which was really, really beautiful,” he said.
Gaultier interjected with a few unknown tidbits about that 1994 show. For one, he didn’t have official authorization to use the venue.
Second, “everybody was crying but not because of the beauty of the show but because I had put fake snow on the ground and it was very irritating to the eyes,” the designer said with a long and hearty laugh.
After retiring from the runway in early 2020, Gaultier had the idea to invite a guest designer each season to realize a couture collection, drawing on his 50 years of fashion creation. He came up with the concept way back after the house of Jean Patou, where he worked early in his career, found itself without a designer.
Ackermann referred to himself several times as “No. 4,” following one-off Jean Paul Gaultier couture collections by Chitose Abe of Sacai, Glenn Martens of Y/Project and Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain.
Gaultier underscored that his intention was to invite accomplished and established designers with strong signatures to interpret his oeuvre, bringing ideas that would never had occurred to him.
For example, he motioned to a corner of the vast couture salon, where a Stockman was dressed in a striped top sculpted from glass — a direct reference to Gaultier’s hit 1995 fragrance Le Male. It was the opening look in Rousteing’s one-off couture effort last July.
Likewise, Gaultier marveled at the way Martens elaborated on his corset dressing in a way that he would never have considered.
“I think it’s important that they bring their personality. So what is interesting is inviting someone who has character, and who has a style that can add to my style,” he explained. “He or she has to bring something else.”
Both men said good fashion from their peers encourages them to give the best of themselves.
“When Comme des Garçons first came to Paris, I loved it, but I didn’t wish to make anything like that. But in reality, when you discover a very good collection, it gives you energy for yourself to do something nice,” Gaultier said. “I don’t take their idea, but I will try another one. You must not be influenced by the other, because it’s your personality. Of course, it depends if you want to create or you want to follow.”
Ackermann said he also finds motivation from certain designers, headlined by Gaultier: “When you look up to people, it makes you want to move forward as well, and that’s great.”
While he never attended a Haider Ackermann show in person, Gaultier said he was always struck by the sophisticated colors, often acid-tinged, shown in interesting combinations. Gaultier also lauded Ackermann’s shapes, minimal and focused “without a lot of effects… which I think is great and I respect because sometimes I add a little too much — the contrary of minimal.” He laughed again.
For his part, Ackermann said Gaultier “opened his mind” also because he “pushed the envelop in culture and society,” referring to the designer’s very early celebrations of sexual and racial diversity and his embrace of high and low cultures.
“Every conversation we are having nowadays in 2022, he had them back in 1994 or even earlier,” Ackermann marveled.
“I came from a very Catholic surrounding, very protected,” said the Colombian-born designer, who was raised in Africa and the Netherlands. “Suddenly there was somebody else talking about other subjects… about the gay community, about the Black community… He opened up a wider world for me.”
Now he’s opened up haute couture to a rotating cast of newbies, a gesture that Ackermann lauded as generous, courageous and open-minded.
“It’s a difficult exercise, but it’s a beautiful exercise,” he said. “When the house approached me, strangely I immediately knew what I wanted to do. It was an instinct.”
His mind went immediately to Gaultier’s couture debut, rich in immaculate tailoring, and he wished to honor him by exalting that legacy.
“We all know the madness, the craziness,” Ackermann said, alluding to the designer’s theatrical and outlandish side. “I mean, the Jean Paul Gaultier dictionary is so big, there’s so much to be taken in, so much to absorb.”
While the designer knows that dictionary well, he still took a dive into the Gaultier archive.
“It’s a luxury, seriously, you should it do one day,” he enthused. “Also because you recognize how much he has been doing, it’s remarkable. I mean, it’s embarrassing to talk in front of him about this. But the things we are doing nowadays were already there back in the ’90s. I think any fashion student should come look at the archives. Because the references go a long way back, even though we’re thinking they’re from yesterday.”
Gaultier and Ackermann had dinner together once the contract was signed but the conversation kept clear of the project at hand.
Gaultier stressed that each guest designer gets carte blanche, and he does not wish to influence him or her in any way — and discover the couture collection along with the rest of the audience during the couture-week show.
“It’s because of respect and also confidence in the person,” he said.
Gaultier said when he’s collaborated with filmmakers, for example, it is risky to accept too many recommendations because then you end up wishing to please the person instead of “doing the spontaneous things that I should do.”
Echoing other guest designers, Ackermann said it’s been a longtime dream of his to touch haute couture.
“Since a child I was dreaming of couture. Christian Lacroix was also one of the people I admired,” he said. “When you work with the atelier, you really feel the love and the passion they have for this job. It’s not like a regular job. There’s intimacy and love in the details, in the time devoted to it…. And everyone has so much admiration for Monsieur Gaultier. It’s really sweet to listen to them. It’s very tender.”
Gaultier interjected, motioning to Ackermann and chuckling: “And from what I heard, they have a lot of respect for him.”
Yet he is relishing the surprise of the big reveal next January. “It’s a little pleasure I give myself,” he said, recalling the thrill of attending a few shows by other designers, including Thierry Mugler, early in his career. “I was loving to discover what he did, and be surprised,” he recalled. “I loved how strongly he was into his own style — to have the audacity to be outrageous sometimes.
“When you see people that have talent, it’s always very good and very positive, bringing good energy and we need that, you know. It makes you dream.”
Ackermann said he’s relished the project so far, stressing that haute couture is “much more focused and concentrated” than ready-to-wear. “The exercise is more beautiful, you go much more in the details. And also because you take the time, which is a true luxury nowadays, to make a collection…. I’m really blessed and happy to be here, seriously.”
Ackermann demurred when prompted to give some hints about the collection.
“He and I are very different people. He’s very open, generous, very joyful. I’m much more discreet and shy,” he said of Gaultier.
Yet after his trawl though the Gaultier archive, Ackermann found “that we both talk about different cultures; we both talk about masculine and feminine; we both have an admiration for tailoring. I think we are both in love with women. So I think all those subjects that he and I share are things that I’m going to try to put out there and show what we have in common.
“Also, I’m going to try to find this fine line of playfulness,” he continued. “I will explain afterwards when the collection is done how every reference came from Monsieur Gaultier, but then I translate it in my own way, how I would say it in 2022.”
Ackermann, whose last runway show for his signature ready-to-wear collection was for fall-winter 2020, has been largely flying under the radar, making a big splash here and there by dressing the likes of Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet for key red-carpet appearances.
According to market sources, the designer recently settled a trademark tussle with his previous backer, which will free him to relaunch his eponymous label in future. He was mum on the timing for that project.
In the meantime, he has been absorbed in the haute couture project, and a co-ed collection for Italian sportswear brand Fila that he unveiled at a runway show in Manchester, England, last month.
Asked if he had a favorite collaboration during his long fashion career, Gaultier spoke about some that got away: In the early ’90s, he was approached regarding collaborations with Nike, Adidas and others, which he would have loved to do but could not because of contractual reasons.
“Sorry to interrupt, but how avant-garde is this man?” Ackermann interjected, agog at this revelation.
“I have been influenced by sportswear, of course,” Gaultier added. “It’s why I did Junior Gaultier at that time.”
Asked if there’s any collaboration he would dream to do now as a personal project, Gaultier said he’s “more into musicals and things like that.”
To wit: He has been conscripted by the Friedrichstadt-Palast theater in Berlin to help mount another show. “I like doing those kind of things, which are around fashion, but not real fashion that you have to wear.”