Cult Fashion House Akris

James T. Murray

The Swiss label, known for its quiet classicism, luxe fabrics, and stealth aesthetic, suddenly finds itself right on trend.

“This question,” says designer Albert Kriemler, looking down at a swatch of Capri-blue silk destined for Akris’s resort collection, “always comes up.” He is at the table in his studio, and the scene is familiar: There are inspiration boards with images of the Villa d’Este on the walls and limoncello-colored cashmere piled high in a corner. Outside the designer’s workroom, however, lies not a bustling New York streetscape, not a gloriously gray Milan afternoon, not Paris in the springtime. Kriemler’s view is of the rolling hills of St. Gallen, a city in eastern Switzerland nestled between Lake Constance and the Appenzell Alps (best known for its textile mills and embroidery houses) that even Kriemler has described as “relatively peripheral.” So it’s perhaps inevitable that so many ask why a fashion designer, whose double-faced cashmere jackets show in Paris and sell for $3,000 at Saks, Bergdorf’s, and Neiman Marcus, a man who went to the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Petit Palais three times in the first month it opened, who develops revolutionary silkscreened fabrics of contemporary art, might choose this quaint town to call home. As with his tailoring, Kriemler’s response is smooth and precise: “There is so much stimulation out there,” he says. “We’re flooded with images. Other senses and needs tend to get shortchanged. Life should be about optimum, not maximum.”

Which is exactly the level Akris is operating at these days. The label was founded in Switzerland in 1922 as an apron manufacturer by Alice Kriemler-Schoch (the company name is inspired by her initials). Today her grandsons Albert and Peter split the family firm: Albert designs; Peter is in charge of production and management. “They are an ideal team,” says Ginny Hershey-Lambert, senior vice president and head of women’s buying at Bergdorf Goodman, who has worked with Akris both here and during her 22 years with Neiman Marcus. Certainly a successful one: Ask industry insiders to describe Akris and they will undoubtedly talk of its understated aesthetic and uncompromising quality, but they’ll also bring up the rumor of how Bergdorf’s reportedly made $1 million in one day at an Akris trunk show.

And for a long time Akris had a reputation as “the most successful label you’ve never heard of” with a cultishly devoted following of high-powered women who relied on it for well-made tailored pieces. But it didn’t seem to register with quite the same enthusiasm in the fashion world. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Kriemlers began showing their collection during Paris Fashion Week, and reviews focused on the conservative classicism of the line. The word “commercial” was sometimes attached. “I hate that term,” says Hershey-Lambert. “What does it even mean? That he makes beautiful clothes that women actually want to wear?” More recently, however, critics have begun to strongly praise Akris’s luxe fabrics, its craftsmanship, its perfect trousers, its photo prints on silk. What’s changed? “Nothing,” Hershey-Lambert says. “Fashion has just moved toward where Albert has always been.”

Which is not to say that the 50-year-old Albert Kriemler has been standing in St. Gallen waiting for them. “Clothes need to be incomparably modern. That’s my duty,” says Kriemler, who tapped fashion photographer (and Lady Gaga video director) Steven Klein to shoot the Akris campaigns 15 years ago. Style icon Daphne Guinness is this season’s face.

After years of resisting the pressure to expand into accessories, Kriemler recently debuted a line of horsehair handbags (see “The Ai-Team”). “It has to be,” he says, “the exact right thing at the exact right time.” He believes deeply in never wavering from what he calls the code of the house. “We are very no-logo, but there are certain elements that are just very Akris.” In every collection there will always be, for example, a tailored jacket like the saffron-colored cropped blazer ($3,990) for fall. It will likely be made of double-faced wool or cashmere, two-sided fabrics traditionally used in couture that Kriemler believes can transform a simple garment into a sublime one. The seams will be hand-pressed, the buttons handsewn, the inside lined with silk. There will be elements borrowed from traditional men’s tailoring, like this season’s cinched vest ($995) and slightly flared trouser ($1,600) in unwashed, undyed camel’s hair.

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At some point a trapezoidal pattern will appear (an homage to the letter A). This time it came in the form of jet crystals sewn on the tulle-net shoulders of a black evening column ($5,800). There will always be great pants. There won’t be any animal patterns: “Not Akris,” says Kriemler. But there will be a photo print, a relatively new element to the “code” that has quickly become a signature. One season it was a Monet-ish watercolor, then a print on chiffon by the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. For fall the most widely praised piece was a nude shift featuring a mysterious black shadow. Some thought Kriemler was referencing the shroud of Turin; others saw in it a Rorschach test. “It was a pixelated image of a quiet lake I saw in a newspaper,” he says. “We worked on that for a very long time.”

The lake-print tunic was worn over a stitched-leather ribbed turtleneck. “It all begins with the fabric,” says Kriemler, speaking like a true son of St. Gallen. The town may not be on the fashion party map, but its textile mills and embroidery houses provide much of the raw material for the industry. Swatches of Prada lace are displayed in the archives of the Forster Rohner factory. In another room a loom spins out multicolored wool destined to become a Marc Jacobs dress. Kriemler’s proximity to these craftsmen allows him to experiment with fabric development, creating bouclé light enough to be worn in summer, leather so finely lasered that a jacket has the weight and feel of a cardigan. He experiments with a mission to create fabric that performs in the most efficient, most flattering way. “If clothing loses its functionality, “ says Kriemler, “it loses its modernity.”

Though he lives in St. Gallen, Kriemler, ironically, may be one of the designers least removed from the women who actually wear his clothes. He hosts select retailers at St. Gallen throughout the year to present his collections and to get feedback on pieces that seem most relevant to clients right now. “Do you realize how rare that is?” says one. “Some designers don’t even want us at their fashion shows.” Just this summer Bergdorf’s invited Akris clients to the store for a presentation of the fall 2010 collection. Kriemler was beamed in via Skype from St. Gallen. It was the department store’s very first virtual trunk show.

For more information, go to akris.ch.

The Ai Team

“There are so many products out there,” says Akris designer Albert Kriemler. “You need to find your own past.” The Swiss label debuted a handbag line only last year after acquiring Comtesse, a German firm specializing in Mongolian horsehair accessories. Horsehair had long been a part of Akris, lining its collars and coats. (It also covers the walls of the boutiques.) The horsehair Ai bag (from $1,650) has a subtle trapezoidal A-shape, the only suggestion of a logo in the entire line. There is the hobo-like Alba ($3,990) with a horsehair handle, and the Amata clutch (from $1,990). They all come with the Kriemler code to look as good in seasons to come as they do now. akris.ch.