The “backbone” of Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann speaks about her role in Antwerpen Fashion.

Late last year, Ann Demeulemeester released a hand-written note: “A new time is coming both for my personal life and the brand ‘Ann Demeulemeester.’ I feel it’s time to separate our paths.” This concise and understated statement rippled through the industry, much like the brand itself: Dark though daring, tough yet romantic. Think Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, who are amongst her long time friends and inspirations.

For over twenty years, both Ann Demeulemeester as the person and the brand have evolved from being credited as one of the Antwerp Six to becoming a well-established, self-standing fashion brand which has retained its “cult” identity and following. A large part of this story was only possible due to Anne Chapelle - the CEO and owner of both Ann Demulemeester and Haider Ackermann.

“Ann touched me twenty years ago. She executes her profession with so much love and precision and she’s nosy in everything, down to the finishing of each garment.” Chapelle talked about “Ann” inside the brand’s flagship store in Antwerp.

Chapelle is not your typical financier / industrialist as seen in today’s conglomerated fashion industry. She graduated from the Tropical Institute for Medicine followed by a successful pharmaceutical career in Antwerp, Belgium prior to Ann and Haider knocking on her door for financial and business help.

“I’m like their ‘backbone’, their advisor. I need to be able to say, ‘no, you’re wrong.’ And for Haider, I represent the outside, the customer. He always asks me to look at his collections at different design stages, and then listen to how people look at what he does.”

Haider Ackermann, another alumni from the Antwerp fashion school, emerged onto the fashion scene at the beginning of the noughties. His sensitivity in playing with silhouettes, draping and rich colour palette — touched a new group of intellectual women with an attitude, much like his close friends, the Oscar winning actress Tilda Swinton and top model Saskia de Brauw. But it’s not only his sensitivity that prompted Chapelle to take him on like a fairy godmother:

“Haider came to ask me for help and I was very touched by his emotion and generosity in his heart. His balance of colours is always beautiful but I remember he once drifted away and tried black in one of his collections, and in the end, he’s not about black. But that’s ok, he tried!”

Aside from being the “no-saying” fairy godmother, Chapelle is also a close friend, and family member to both designers. She recalled,

“We share a lot of beautiful private moments. All three of us once walked through the desert, that’s very special to me. We have tension, we have beauty, we cry, we laugh and we have relaxed moments, just like a family.”

And it is the family quality which helps them grow as people and ultimately as a business.

Chapelle was invited to join the United Nation’s Global Compact Leader Summit (2013). This was the first time a representative of a smaller fashion house was able to make a presence. She is proud of her participation, and said:

“As a company we are respectful of human and labour rights. Everything in our company is transparent. Some in the fashion industry may criticise that we are growing too slowly but we are like a family business, completely self-supporting and never find the cheapest solution. Everyone in the company respects that and we prefer to go slowly, steadily, securely and surely.”

Now that Ann Demeulemeester as the designer has retired - and that the brand has matured, Haider Ackermann is flourishing slowly and surely, will this fairy godmother of Antwerpen fashion consider to take on another young talent?

“No, the two brands that I have are like my children and having two is definitely enough!”

Interview by Lucienne Leung-Davies
Video by Danny Sangra
Catwalk images and video courtesy of Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann.