Acne co-founder Johnny Johansson
Tomorrow marks the opening of Swedish band Acne’s first store in Hong Kong at Ice House Street in Central. The brand has been opening a slew of boutiques around the world in style capitals like Paris, London and Los Angeles so this is just the next step in its world domination.
It couldn’t come at a better time. The brand is clearly on a high, with highlighy acclaimed ready-to-wear collections and other creative collaborations that have made it one of the most covetable labels among the fashion elite.
But just how did the brand go from a cult denim label to one of fashion’s most elusive and covetable brands? I interviewed co-founder and designer Johnny Johansson in Paris recently and here’s what he had to say. Enjoy.
Acne’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection
IT MAY BE hard to believe, but fame isn’t always the best thing for a fashion brand – just ask Acne co-founder and designer Johnny Johansson. By the beginning of the millennium, his label was riding high thanks to the success of its simple yet sleek denim which was splashed across every celebrity booty and major fashion magazine in the world.
Despite this, he was facing a tough decision that would eventually change the story – and legacy – of the brand.
“It should have been the best [period] but I describe it as the hangover. After all the success came problems with production and quality. At the same time we were worried we were stuck. We knew if we went down the [denim] route we would eventually be pigeonholed like one of those American brands that can only do one thing and then disappears.
“My business partner Mikael [Schiller, CEO] gave me a large dose of truth serum. He said, ‘Either we do jeans or do something else, just devote yourself to it’,” he remembers.
Johansson followed his gut and took a step back from the denim rush, focusing his efforts on other creative pursuits that would eventually establish Acne as one of the industry’s most covetable yet elusive labels with over 650 points of sales and 30 stores around the world, the latest of which opens in Hong Kong this week.
Acne, which stands for Ambition to Create Novel Expressions, was originally founded as a “creative collective” in Stockholm in 1996 by Johansson and three of his friends. Inspired in part by Andy Warhol’s Factory, the idea was to express their creativity through various platforms such as furniture, art, music, film and eventually fashion.
Johansson, the only original member who is still involved in the business, hails from a musical rather than fashion background. He says his dreams of being a rock star never materialised so he dabbled in furniture design and consulting, working for the likes of Swedish stalwarts like J.Lindenberg and H&M.
When Acne launched its first fashion project in 1997 he came up with the idea to create 100 pairs of unisex jeans, which he handed out to friends and other cool kids in the city.
“We wanted was to build a modern fashion brand that addresses how people think and consume fashion today. When we started we asked ourselves what is fashion’s most contemporary garment? We had no fashion history to relate to in Sweden, so our edge was to be current rather than look back. We chose denim because it’s in everyone’s wardrobe and is so functional. We had instant success, but from there we knew we had to do more,” he says.
Moving away from the lucrative denim market was a bold move, but Johansson believed that if they created a great product people would come back. And so they did, due in part to low-key projects and collaborations that would establish Acne’s authority beyond the fashion realm, ranging from books and a furniture line to the bi-annual Acne Paper, an independent magazine which boasts a high profile lineup of contributors such as Carine Roitfeld, David Lynch, Azzedine Alaïa and Paolo Roversi.
While these projects only added to the brand’s cool factor, the category that generated the most buzz is the evergrowing ready-to-wear collection, which Johansson started in 1999 (ready-to-wear and accessories now falls under the label Acne Studios).
“I had all these concepts and I remember initially launching schoolboy meets punk clothes. It was a mix of chinos and leather which I loved but it went nowhere. So then I decided to create items that contrasted with the jeans from T-shirts to tailored jackets, which really worked,” he says.
While Johansson took on the role of designing the men’s collection, the brand went through a series of women’s designers including well-known Swedish designer Anne Sofie Back. A few years ago Johansson took control of both lines, which by then had established a reputation thanks to its clean yet directional style which brought to mind cult designers like Helmut Lang.
“There are millions of good brands out there, so I am totally that aware we don’t need more clothing in the world. For me I am obsessed with creating what is contemporary. [Designing] is very personal but clothes also need to be straightforward. For me the street is where it happens. I want [my clothes] to be a reflection of the times because they also become important to the future.
“Because of this we have always designed for the creative youth. Acne is about creating a look for the kids that are actually doing things. Creativeness is very important, and it’s all about how you wear it,” he says.
This is clearly evident in the brand’s collections which boast a cool mix of wearability and high fashion details. The women’s spring/summer 2015 collection, for example, features sleeveless tailored vests with plunging necklines, which are matched with crisp bellbottoms and chunky chain I.D necklaces for a casual yet luxe look. For a touch of glamour there are silk blouses and matching pants covered in cheeky prints featuring lipstick, fruits and risque body parts. Highlights include a strapless minidress made from towelling fabric which could easily double as a very chic bath robe.
While details are important, so is sustainability and transparency. In the past few years Acne has focused on using more eco-friendly fabrics and have pledged to use at least 20 per cent organic cotton or environmentally friendly fabrics by the end of this year. They are also dedicated to keeping prices consistent and “democratic” for their customer which is a rarity in today’s fashion world.
“We don’t add on a luxury price tag because it gives us credibility. The cost the customer pays, is what the item is worth. I see brands sell T-shirts for 2,000 euros but that’s obviously a pricing strategy. The environmental aspect is also interesting for me– if you want to go cheap, that means you are exploiting people, which is a major problem. These are issues connected to the industry which I want to address,” he says.
Stores are also an area Johansson wants to develop although the plan is to go slowly so as not to alienate the brand’s core customer.
“This is our first boutique in Hong Kong. We are growing but we are not in a hurry. The approach we have is not traditional for any fashion brand – that’s one of the reasons why people enter our brand. It’s up to us to continue evolving and creating more interesting ways to draw them in.
“I always laugh when I think back to when we first printed our business cards which said, Acne Studios International.’ It was ridiculous then but look at us now,” he says.
A version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post