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Photography by Andrew Elliot

Haider Ackermann: a Colombian homecoming

A diary documenting Haider Ackermann's return to his birth place for a retrospective show

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused

In July, fashion designer Haider Ackermann returned to the country of his birth, Colombia, for a spectacular retrospective show. Close friend Jerry Stafford went along and wrote a diary of their adventure

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it – Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Haider Ackermann left Colombia soon after his birth in Bogotá in 1971 to live in Europe and north Africa with his adoptive French family. He returned to his homeland for the first time last year when he visited Medellín, the country’s second-largest city, at the invitation of Inexmoda, a private non-profit company created to give support to and develop the country’s textile and fashion industries. This year, Ackermann was back in Medellín for the 25th edition of fashion fair Colombiamoda, with a spectacular retrospective show spanning the last ten years of his career that formed the centrepiece of the week-long event. I met Haider at a small party in Paris at the start of his career. We share friends, many of whom, like me, travelled to Medellín for the show. This extended family has watched him grow into an internationally recognised and renowned designer, whose signature approach to draping, folding and cutting, with its rich colour palette and dark romance, has made him one of the most influential of his generation.

July 19 

Medellín appears out of the evening mist from the valley below as my car hurtles down a series of thickly wooded hairpin bends towards its constellation of lights. A 24-hour journey from Paris via Miami has left me tired but exhilarated, with a strange expectant beat to my heart. It could be the altitude – the city is about 1500 metres above sea level – or a certain trepidation, given that Medellín was once known as the most violent city in the world, the result of an urban war set off by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s. Since then, through visionary urban development policies, improved education schemes and a groundswell of popular resistance, the City of Eternal Spring has become a model of economic development, and was voted most innovative city of 2012 in a competition organised by the Urban Land Institute. It has risen phoenix–like from the ashes of a civil conflict which left thousands dead or missing – there are few people I meet on my visit who have not lost a family member or friend to the drug wars. 

Haider Ackermann: “I imagined at first that I would stage the show in a crumbling monastery. I soon understood that there is the romantic side of this country, and that it is now time to embrace the future and leave a certain dark past behind. It’s a renaissance and a celebration. Sometimes I am inclined to take the more melancholic road. The EPM building, where we finally showed, seemed appropriate as it is a symbol of the future. One can only try to learn, to understand and to embrace the differences between cultures."

July 20

I venture into the city. The bright yellow blooms of guayacán trees blaze above, shading my gaze beneath an ascending gyre of vultures  spiralling and balancing on the hot thermal currents. One of the scavengers swoops low, cutting through the sluggish air while the sounds of urban construction echo and the sun beats down relentlessly. I make my way to the Plaza Mayor convention centre, where Haider’s team have been installed. A line of beautiful Colombian models wait patiently outside the vast luminous studio space that doubles for casting and fittings. Along one side of the room, like empty chrysalises, hang outfits from each of the designer’s collections, from his first Paris show in 2002 to his AW13 presentation. Haider winds metres of anthracite silk around a Colombian girl, gently turning and wrapping her to create a soft cocoon of shimmering light around her naked body. Across the square is the landmark EPM building (aka the “intelligent building"), where Haider will stage his Colombian debut. It is a towering modernist column with views across the valley to the mountains. Two thousand guests will gather on the wide roof terrace, open to the elements. As a public utilities building with a commitment to social accountability, it is the symbol of a city reborn, a city which has decided to leave behind its violent past, to embrace change and move forward. 

Carlos Eduardo Botero, executive president, Inexmoda: “Twenty-five years ago only a few international buyers visited Colombiamoda. This year it was visited by 1,700 from more than 30 countries. In the beginning the runways were small and very simple, promoting local talents. Today we have a very professional scenario with all the new technology to promote the best of our designers and brands. We have schools of fashion and an international guest like Mr Ackermann. It has been a challenge to put Haider’s dream together with the realities and resources of our country and the city of Medellín. Colombia belongs to the new world, while Haider grew up in the old continent, where every place has hundreds of years of history."

July 21

I have known Victoria Fernandez, the event’s co-ordinator, for years. We share many friends, some no longer with us, loved, lost, lamented. Her own mother was assassinated by the mafia in Medellín, her home town, almost 30 years ago. Victoria was in Tokyo at the time, promoting designers such as Marc Jacobs, Stephen Jones, 
Leigh Bowery and Bodymap. 

Victoria Fernandez, show co-ordinator: “I was born in Popayán. Both of my parents came from Medellín. The family of my mother opened the first bookstore in Medellín and a concert hall. Medellín was always a prosperous city where blood mixed and great entrepreneurs were born. It is the birthplace of Colombia’s textile industry and the location of the famous festival of flowers every year. It is also the city of the most sympathetic and well-disposed people in Colombia, always willing and eager for new things. I guess my sense of curiosity came from there. We are fearless people.“

I felt more vulnerable at this show than any other. It was like a first date, when you want to seduce and be desired, with all the anxiety of possible disappointment.

A group of us visit the library school in District 13, until very recently a no-go area for anyone but mafia gangs. The children sit before a television screen watching fairytale cartoons – they smile at us as we gaze at them. I take the cable car up the mountain with Colombian designer Amelia Toro who tells me that her father was assassinated during the conflict. She has opened a factory here in Medellín to teach women to create full garment pieces rather than just a part of the outfit, in an initiative designed to encourage independence and creativity. She used to work in New York but returned because she cannot imagine not doing something for her own community. As she talks we glide silently over shanty towns towards a lunch banquet and press conference thrown by Inexmoda and the city of Medellín for Haider Ackermann. 

 July 22

The runway for the show stretches the length of the top level of the EPM building. Guests include María Clemencia Rodríguez Múnera, wife of president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. Vast panoramic windows looking out to the illuminated surrounding hills create the impression of an holographic cityscape. Several of Haider’s favourite models have arrived from various parts of the world to walk in the show: Kati Nescher, Daiane Conterato, Alana Zimmer. Backstage, the garments for each girl hang with their names attached, costumes awaiting their performers to breathe life into their opulent layers. Haider fits a final outfit, a draped and folded leather plastron, on Saskia de Brauw. With her cropped hair she looks like Joan of Arc or a Spanish swordfighter, with black leather gauntlets and dark pants that pool to the floor.

Victoria Fernandez: “The clothes are made for a woman who will make a long journey into the infinite. 
They are timeless. Haider is a citizen of the world but there is something very mysterious and intriguing about his spirit and I think this comes from his Colombian genes. He is one of a kind." 

Shrouds of dry ice whirl through the light as the wind blows across the open terrace. The first girls appear on the runway like chimeras, silhouetted ghosts moving in and out of the shadow, dark, deep jewel colours smouldering like embers in the gloaming. Emerald silk flows like the sails of weather-beaten vessels, tendrils trailing in their wake like the wings of dark birds. The models’ feet barely touch the ground, their heads proud, eyes reflecting the full moon. It’s processional, medieval, pagan: a tapestry of illuminated figures woven against the night sky lining a long road leading toward the light. A heart beating, an end and a beginning.

Haider Ackermann: “I felt more vulnerable at this show than any other show I have done. It was all about seduction. It is an introduction to my work, to myself. It was like a first date, when you want to seduce and be desired, with all the anxiety of possible disappointment.” 

Saskia de Brauw, artist and model: “Before the show started, we were on the top of a high-rise building overlooking the city, with a perfect view of the surrounding mountains. 
The dressers ate their bags of packed dinner, handing out crisps to each other and chemical-looking fizzy drinks as the sun set. Models were scattered around on the veranda. I could see their thin silhouettes in the near darkness, an occasional light of a cigarette moving from dangling hand to mouth. It felt peaceful. No stress, just beauty..."

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but... life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves– Gabriel García Márquez

Haider Ackermann: “I suddenly feel on the other side of the curtain. I have had so many heroes who made me dream and now others are dreaming of my little career. This is very rewarding as somehow you feel useful: your story makes more sense, it is more concrete, it has more value. To believe and follow your dream is a start and base for any of us. After the show my friends and I visited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where the indigenous community of Arhuaco lives in a magic jungle. They weave wool rucksacks in which they shape their thoughts, symbolising the origin and preservation of their culture. In the surroundings of El Morrosquillo Golf, in the departments of Cordoba and Sucre, the Zenu community make the famous ‘vueltiao’ hats. Colombia offers 24 different regions of craftmanship and weaving. It is all quite unique, intriguing and certainly something to be proud of. I have been approached to develop a project together with these artisans. One does not know yet where this could lead but certainly this exchange would be a wonderful experience. But let me first digest all that has happened to me in Colombia, and slowly, step by step, I will see how on my little level I could make myself useful. This story is to be continued.”