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On Fashioning Families: Tilda Swinton & Haider Ackermann In Conversation

The actress and designer have been close friends for nearly two decades. Over an intimate video call, the pair discuss vulnerability, collective action and the power of their long-time creative collaboration

This article is taken from the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine. To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we are making the issue free and available digitally for a limited time only to all our readers wherever you are in the world. Sign up here.

Tilda Swinton and Haider Ackermann are wearing almost-identical blue and white checked Bhutanese robes. Almost. The actor points to her roomy, rolled-up white cuffs. “Mine doesn’t have the blue,” she says. The designer thumbs the deep blue edge of his sleeve across the video call, in a sparsely decorated white room in his Paris apartment. “We were lucky enough to be together in Bhutan,” explains Swinton. “I can’t do the maths, something like four years ago? Maybe longer ... They’re very useful. Of course, they look very Scottish.” During their friendship of nearly 20 years, the pair have entwined work, play and travel since they first crossed paths – though neither remember exactly when that happened. Their coming together was perhaps inevitable: they are both, in their respective fields, maverick.

Swinton’s breakthrough role in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) was the beginning of an enduring artistic relationship: the actor went on to appear in five more of the groundbreaking director’s features (as well as being a narrator for Blue (1993)), and the two were close until his death in 1994. Forging her position as a coveted cult performer, Swinton has become a regular collaborator with auteurs Luca Guadagnino, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and Bong Joon-ho, and has staged experimental performances at MoMA and the Serpentine Gallery. Moving between genders, ages and even species on-screen (the roles of witches, a vampire and a dog are just a few to be found in her formidable filmography), her statuesque and otherworldly presence now shines in mainstream Hollywood productions, too. She is a beloved nonconformist.

Ackermann has received great acclaim for a similarly irreverent output. He flunked his fashion design degree at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1997, having failed to submit his assignments on time. A self-proclaimed “strange and wild person”, he could only work when he felt emotionally inclined, as he told this magazine in 2011. His sinuous, sensitively cut and draped designs are compelling in their luxury; fluid silks and satins and delicate sculpted leathers take on the majesty of soft armour in his hands and have been worn by Timothée Chalamet, Harry Styles, Rihanna, Kanye West – and, of course, Swinton – since his debut in 2003. Born in Colombia, he spent his childhood unyoked, travelling through Africa with his cartographer father and family. His runway shows in Paris offer moments of welcome quietude and poetry, elegantly estranged as they are from the hubbub of the fashion schedule.

Miles apart, the companions and clansmen celebrate both their own friendship and the power of long-time creative collaborations that, as Swinton explains, even in the most trying times, sustain you.

Tilda Swinton: You know what? Of all the things that I have to do today, to talk to you is exactly what I want. I mean, you and I could talk about absolutely anything. But right now, it feels so important to think about the value of close friendship. We are fortunate enough to know the value of close friendship not just in life but in work, which is particularly important for kids starting out now. And if there are kids reading this and wondering how they are going to be able to build a life’s work without the constructs we have come to rely upon in recent years ... Well, the first thing I would suggest is to start with those friendships, because they are the rarest and most self-sustaining part of all of this – they will never fail you. And I can’t think of anybody better to have this conversation with than you. You know, I had been aware of your work for a long time before, but how did we physically meet? Can you remember?

Haider Ackermann: I don’t know exactly when we met, but I am certain that we were meant to meet each other, to be in each other’s lives. What I do remember is being in Jodhpur, in India, and a fax came in. “You’d better go on the internet, because Ms Swinton is wearing your dress.” It was the opening of the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. For me it was so bizarre and surreal, because I had seen you in The Garden by Derek Jarman back in 1990 – I was intrigued, seduced and captivated by your presence [in it]. Not to mention Sally Potter’s Orlando, where I instantly fell in love with you – I may have never told you this. It was just at the beginning of my career – I’d started out in 2003 and this was a year later. I suddenly stood straighter, it was like someone saying to me, “OK, go for it, try this now, because this person that you’ve been admiring is standing by your side and she’s going to be your companion in this game.”

TS: And I remember the first piece that you sent me was a pair of trousers – which you still have by the way, my sweetheart. I gave them back to you to be altered and you never returned them ... ahem ... But before then, when I had seen images of your work – I hadn’t been to a show but I had seen images – they just looked like clothes for me. They had dignity and at the same time a fluidity, like the most princely pirate you could imagine. And that’s how I felt. I feel more or less princely – less, quite often – but definitely when the pirate in me is called up, it’s pretty much always hand in hand with Haider Ackermann, Esquire. I think that’s what I first sensed in you, a dignity, a vagabond romance and just a sublime sense of grace.

In a way, there’s only so much we can say about our relationship because that’s the beginning and now we have become incalculably close, and we have this lovely long life stretching behind us and ahead of us. Simply, I’m in company when I wear your clothes, and that’s the best way to feel. Especially if you’re a shy person, as I am, to walk out into these public arenas – literally like the Colosseum – in the company of Haider, that’s a true heart’s blessing. Sometimes you actually come with me, but even if you can’t be there, to be there in your clothes is really quite profoundly cosy. It’s all about fellowship and company.

“I think the next couple of years are going to feel very fecund for people. I think people are really going to dig deep into their friendships and realise that they can’t do it alone” – Tilda Swinton

HA: Of course we have a friendship and a work relationship, but what I think is very beautiful – or why I’m tremendously touched – is the longevity of it, which is quite rare in my field. This togetherness elevates us, strengthens us in our collaboration. It’s not affected by any kind of interest or social media purposes. Such honesty is very stimulating. It reminds me of the intimate collaboration Monsieur Givenchy had with Miss Audrey Hepburn.

TS: But back to the nice thought that people starting out might read what we’re talking about – obviously people are very challenged right now. We’re experiencing a challenge to narrative and a challenge to a sense of our imagination, because it’s all about great expectations, and the things that people expected to be happening in 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 might have to be recalibrated. I keep thinking of young artists starting out imagining their first five years of work, building up towards something and then recognising that their plans may not be so. And not having the resource gained by perspective that urges us not to panic. Long friendship in work is reliable – that’s the thing that will see you through. And you don’t need endless financial resources for that. I’m very fortunate. I started with Derek Jarman. I came out of university and batted about a little bit in the slightly industrial world and realised very, very quickly that I couldn’t survive there. When I met Derek everything fell into place, because he understood the power of long, loyal, developing, relaxed, familial relationships. That was his material. So I learnt to trust that with him. And on it goes.

Let’s do the maths – we’ve basically been knocking around together for nearly 20 years. Thinking of remaining authentic with somebody else over 20 years is such a thrill because you inevitably change and you inevitably develop and you inevitably have moments of dip and triumph and the friendship goes on. A few years ago we formed a little band – there are four of us with Sandro Kopp and Waris Ahluwalia, we’re called Four Friends – and we started this very important ritual. The intention to travel somewhere new together every year. We went to Bhutan, we went to Rajasthan, Thailand. It’s been a little interrupted recently, but those journeys sustain me every day I think about them. Just to travel with your old muckers in that way ... Let’s pray we can do it again before long.

HA: Ethiopia, Bolivia, Mongolia are waiting for us, remember? Those are incredible moments when we can just fly away together and put a distance between us and our world. It’s very strange, because in those journeys, this cocoon, the four friends really connect, we sit together, we listen, we share subjects that you would normally never touch because they are too fragile or too sensitive. Those are escapes beyond the limits of time. Being far from home makes you actually closer to yourself, because suddenly you take the time for it.

TS: We always end up working in a strange way. I can think of at least three moments on different journeys when one or other of us was in some kind of creative crisis and, over breakfast one morning, brought it to the four and we really fleshed it out in a way that you couldn’t in Paris or Scotland or London or wherever. We were able to get really productive thinking done up a mountain. But again, it’s about trust, isn’t it? It’s about that feeling of endlessly reliable trust that you can take anything to that group and you’re not going to put anybody off.

There was that moment in the Maldives when we created The Gathering [in 2014]. I was given the opportunity by the heavenly Soneva Fushi to create an experience there for 20 of us, artists who happened to be friends. Within the first few days, we all shared with each other that most of us were stuck. There were a number of people who were talking about actually giving up what they were doing – musicians saying that they were going to stop making music – designers, filmmakers, all sorts of people who were in a real hole at that time. And everybody went from strength to strength afterwards because we really shared, we really chewed the cud together and we swam, we danced – very importantly – made sandcastles and watched and marvelled at fish by day and films under the stars at night. It was very restorative.

HA: Tilda, there have been moments when I was very doubtful about myself or the situation I was in. Those few words of yours in the morning help me face the day again. They are the most beautiful gesture of love one can receive. I certainly believe that my loyal friendships are my absolute luxury.

“The climate of vulnerability this year has pushed us to stand even closer to our dear companions. We want to stick to our guns and reinforce this togetherness” – Haider Ackermann

TS: We call each other brothers. I have three blood brothers of my own and I feel close to them in a very particular way, but I feel differently and deeply close to my discovered brothers and sisters in life, like Haider, like Waris, like Sandro, like Joanna, like Isabella, like Jefferson Hack.

The community that AnOther represents and serves, nourishes and grows makes me think of starting in the Eighties with Derek. He was part of a different generation of the same context, the same community actually. He kind of handed on torches to Sandy Powell and Simon Fisher Turner and me, and all of us young ones, and on we go. Derek inspired me to realise that one man’s mainstream is another man’s muddy little stream. Our mainstream was always there, even though it’s very often referred to as marginal by a kind of highway of commercial enterprise. But now I think there’s hope, really, for kids to draw strength from our tribe because we keep going. We are consistent. We keep going, come what may, because we’ve got that glue of something more than just the industrial enterprise. It’s real and it’s personal and perpetual and it’s truly rewarding.

I think the next couple of years are going to feel very fecund for people. I think people are really going to dig deep into their friendships and realise that they can’t do it alone. The whole sense of collective action has become, more and more widely, clearly something to rely on.

HA: The climate of vulnerability this year has pushed us to stand even closer to our dear companions. We want to stick to our guns and reinforce this togetherness.

TS: People are feeling vulnerable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling vulnerable can also mean feeling open, feeling unguarded, which means you might be best suited to working with and reaching out to people you feel really comfortable and safe with. I miss my friends, of course, and I’m longing for us all to be together, but it’s amazing: we’re much more patient than we thought we were. I’m very impressed by us all. Live music and dancing – who knew we would go the whole year without them? But we’ve managed to do it. We just have to keep going and it will all kick in again. Meanwhile, thank the lord we live in a time when we can see each other virtually. That’s really a great blessing. It would be much more difficult if we couldn’t do this, don’t you think?

This article originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine which will be on sale from 8 April, 2021. Pre-order a copy here and sign up for free access to the issue here.