Writer Mark Smith sat down with the Swedish co-founder to discuss his past and taking it slow in the age of instant celebrity.
Now that street- and sportswear are unquestionably fashion’s twin moons, it’s easy to forget how recently everything looked much more…Swedish. Jonny Johansson, who co-founded Acne Studios in Stockholm in 1996, was never much interested in the polite strictures of denim-and-a-Breton-stripe—which goes some way to explain why, as pared-down totems and throwaway-fashion chains from his native land run into difficulties, Acne Studios continues to flourish. Indeed, as writer Mark Smith sat down with Johansson this summer for the conversation that follows, Acne acquisition rumors were swirling in the financial pages, with some reporting that Goldman Sachs had found a majority purchaser for the company, estimated to be worth up to €500 million.
Still, it was a merger of sorts rather than an acquisition that Johansson had on his mind that day: the then-secret collaboration between Acne Studios and Fjällräven, the outdoor brand whose “adorkable” rectangular Kånken backpack has long been a staple of the Swedish schoolyard. Versions of that bag and other iconic Fjällräven products, such as its sub-zero Greenland parka, have been given a deliciously off-kilter Acne Studios treatment in a hybrid collection that Johansson reports was years in the making, on account of each brand’s determination to do right by its respective design principles. Following the conversation, which took place in Stockholm, Smith journeyed to the pristine snowscapes of Kiruna, in remote, northern Sweden for a spectacular expedition led by Acne and Fjällräven crew and a host of determined huskies.
Mark Smith—There were three people with Fjällräven backpacks on my flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm. And they were very different kinds of people, it seemed to me. One young woman had a Hello Kitty-meets-steampunk thing going on. Another was a very appropriate-looking businessman.
Jonny Johansson—Oh, really? That’s cool.
Mark—Did you love the brand as a young person?
Jonny—No—opposite, I would say. We all grew up with it—it’s, like, a sacred Swedish brand. Today it’s different, but back then, it was kind of associated with tree-huggers.
Mark—So why do you think it’s had this reinvention?
Jonny—I think that kids in general look at those issues that we have today with pollution, nature, and all of that [differently]. When I grew up, it wasn’t really cool to camp or hike or anything like that. I grew up quite far north in Sweden, so the Fjällräven jacket was a very functional garment. It’s the warmest down jacket I ever tried. I’ve always had one. When we started the project, my co-worker came with her dad’s old jacket and pointed out things that look different now and what she thought was better. Everyone here has a relationship to the brand in some way.
Mark—You said you grew up in the north.
Jonny—Very far north.
Mark—Do you still consider yourself a northerner?
Jonny—When Game of Thrones came out and they talked about the people from the north, I felt connected. [Laughs] I’m like the people from the north, with the fur, you know? I guess I’m more about Stockholm now. My family’s not from the north of Sweden, but my dad worked there for 10 years—so, yeah, I am one of those people from the north.
Mark—Tell me about this collaboration with Fjällräven. How did they regard Acne?
Jonny—I think they were a bit scared, because it was me who wanted to do the collaboration. They never asked us. I think it’s quite a nice place [for Fjällräven] to be—outside fashion, but still inside, if you know what I mean. That’s how I’ll always perceive our brand, too—like aliens within the fashion circus. My dream with this was more to say that there’s more Swedish clothing that is interesting and that I actually have some pride in. Otherwise, it’s just H&M.
Mark—How easy is it to stay close to the actual creativity of your company now that things are on such a broad scale?
Jonny—It’s not really a problem for me in the [same] sense [that it’s] a personal problem. Everybody respects me in a professional way, if you know what I mean. I go through everything we do. If the product looks shit, I’m really involved, and I’m trying to make it good. But it’s on a personal level: Do I like it or not? Do I like fashion or not? Is it something I’m meant to do? You know, I’ve done this for 20 years now. Even more—I was 26 when I started this company. The connection is more important for me than what comes out—the meetings and such. [But] if I am able to believe in what I do, my limitation is going to be the result. Do you see what I mean? It’s not anyone’s fault if the product looks [like] shit but mine—if I’m not passionate enough, it will look boring or ugly or bad [in] quality. The only struggle I have is with myself: Do I like it? Do I like fashion? Do I like people in fashion?
Mark—[Laughs] Do you?
Jonny—No, I don’t…but, you know. [Laughs]
Mark—[Laughs] None of them?
Jonny—No, I don’t like anyone. I’m exaggerating, honestly. But I think it’s a very rough world. You have so much pressure, and everybody has to deliver. I try to stay human, but it’s very difficult.
“You have two choices as a designer: either you try to become a celebrity and a designer, or you’re just a designer. And I know which path I choose.”
Mark—It’s interesting, because you hear that from pretty much everybody who works in fashion. It’s not something that affects just the brand builders—it’s also something that affects the intern. This is a very brutal, very demanding, insatiable beast. There is a massive contradiction, it seems to me, in the heart of fashion, which is that you have these creative, typically liberal, worldly, interested, interesting people working at the coalface of consumer capitalism. [Laughs]
Jonny—It’s the mix between those two worlds that fashion is, basically.
Mark—Which is very uncomfortable for lots of people.
Jonny—It’s not art.
Mark—It’s not art.
Jonny—If it were, it would be called [art], no?
Mark—Sure, but don’t you think that those contradictions are sometimes what drives some of the odd behavior or discomfort?
Jonny—Yeah. I mean, I am very fortunate if I compare [myself] to other people in my [position]. First of all, I have a lot of power inside the company.
Mark—It’s a private company.
Jonny—Yeah. It’s a good situation to be in, first and foremost. So I am not complaining in the sense of whining, ‘My job is shit.’ You asked me more if I like the fashion world, and I don’t. I don’t participate in anything that has to do with fashion. It doesn’t interest me. Shit, doing things interests me. Being part of the process is super exciting. The whole collage, or whatever fashion is—that’s interesting. The compromise, the sacrifice, it’s cool, but I don’t like ‘what’s hot and what’s not.’ That’s the situation we’re going more and more into, and that race—I’m just too old, and I don’t read fast enough. There’s probably going to be a computer that tells you what’s hot and what’s not.
Mark—Well, totally. The last time I was in Stockholm was to meet Oscar Olsson, the guy behind [the H&M-backed brand] Nyden. And that’s exactly what Nyden is: data-driven fashion, with a warehouse that opinion-makers go in and interact with.
Jonny—I don’t say it’s wrong. I just say it’s not me—it just doesn’t interest me. I’m happy when I can make things. And I have a financial background, so I’m able to play freely, but within brackets. I can’t imagine people working in the industry that can’t do what I am able to do.
Mark—You mean being at the mercy of somebody else’s money, machinery.…
Jonny—Yeah. I don’t even get how they can be put through it. No wonder people are going for drugs or whatever they have to do. Or changing jobs all the time.
Mark—Well, the new generation really are [building brands]. Someone like Simon Porte Jacquemus.
Jonny—I like what he does a lot. You can see that in his design. He’s able to do what he thinks is interesting.
Mark—Yeah, and it’s such an overused word, but it is very ‘authentic.’ It is, genuinely. I think what’s uncomfortable for me—I’m kind of on the bridge of those generations—is, yes, it’s authentic, but it’s also quite narcissistic.
Jonny—In what way?
Mark—I think what he does is great, and he’s a very nice person, but you could easily be left with the impression of, ‘My brand is all about me, and it’s all about me growing up in the South of France, and here are my holiday pictures….’ You’re just tying into the machinery of Instagram and this total narcissism, which I find very hard to connect with. I think fashion is interesting to the extent that it’s somebody else’s perspective.
Jonny—For me, it becomes two discussions. One is the so-called ‘narcissism,’ with Instagram. You have two choices as a designer: either you try to become a celebrity and a designer, or you’re just a designer. And I know which path I choose. I think these things started with Tom Ford wanting to be a famous star or whatever, and through fashion going towards that in some way. I don’t know him at all, and I don’t know what his wishes were, but from the outside perspective, before that I didn’t feel like designers were celebrities. They might have been famous for what they’ve done, but they weren’t famous because they were good-looking and a designer.
Mark—You were talking about keeping the company private, and of course there’s been some speculation recently. Where does that speculation come from?
Jonny—The structure of our company is I own almost 40% [and] Mikael Schiller owns almost 40%. We run the show. We have [had] 20% [owned by outsiders] since 2000. And why we took in money is I started Acne with a few people. Me and Micke wanted to take the fashion part out of it, financially, and we did. To do that, we had to have some money from external [sources]. [The outside owners] want to sell or might not want to sell, so people are going bonkers about buying us now. We get questions, like, every day.
Mark—But you would presumably be the constant in that?
Jonny—Everybody has a price in the end, don’t they? [Laughs]
Mark—[Laughs] I don’t know. Some people want to hold on to what they created at all costs.
Jonny—Yeah, I’m not one of those. Life is so bloody short. This is more or less the only thing I’ve done for a long, long time. So, I don’t know. It’s all speculation, anyway, to be honest. But the interesting thing is, it’s all people coming out of the woodwork, wanting to have a piece of the pie. So, yeah, it’s fun. It feels good, because it tells me we’re doing something good also from the business perspective. But I don’t see a situation where I don’t have any power, because I know that’s going to create problems for me.
Mark—You said people coming out of the woodwork and wanting a piece of the pie. How do you mean?
Jonny—I think that we stayed for this many years, and we’ve been growing every year, and we have a following that has patience and is interested in what we do. And this is not how the world looks today in fashion. It’s very fast. It’s hard to find brands that live for a long time—and I think it’s about how you build a brand, too. What is the investment back into the brand? What do you sacrifice for doing something? Nothing is for free, basically. You can’t just sell things and not give anything back. It has to be an honest…
Jonny—Yeah, some sort of exchange. It could be political, socially responsible…
Jonny—Artistic. It could be all of those things at once. It could be price. It could be special treatment. I think we could’ve gone out, like, 15 years ago and just burned out completely and earned a lot of money. But we didn’t, because we believe that building a brand for the long term takes time, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It does happen overnight for [some] people, but it’s also more short-lived.
“I’m just surrounded by all these kids taking drugs, and I’m [thinking], ‘It’s exactly the same as when I was there.’ It’s different, but it’s the same.”
Mark—I’ve just been in the [Acne] store next door, and it seems to me there are Acne tropes that come back, that are recognizable. Maybe that’s something that comes with maturity for the brand, that it has the confidence to return to things. Do you think that’s true?
Jonny—It’s more about my confidence, I think, because I was always afraid that people didn’t like what we were doing.
Jonny—And that my creativity wasn’t the best thing in the world, if you know what I mean. Because I could see that other people were much better.
Jonny—Who do I compare myself to? I’m not going to fall into that trap—sorry. [Laughs]
Jonny—Who do I like? I can answer that. I think Nicolas Ghesquière. He was a genius when he was doing his stuff. Obviously Alber [Elbaz], when he was in the right moment. I love Miuccia Prada. I really like Jacquemus. I think he’s very promising, in a good way.
Mark—There was a heyday for Swedish culture in the late ’90s, and it included the democratization of Scandinavian fashion. I think Acne fights against that in lots of ways.
Jonny—Yeah. We’re the only one who survived that. It was a lucky moment for us, because that’s when we came about. But I also think that a lot of the things are happening in the industry that we foresaw. We were talking about customers not belonging to a certain genre of fashion—meaning ready-to-wear or streetwear—but they were criss-crossing and mixing. I remember us having conversations with Barneys, like, ‘We want to be on all the floors.’
Mark—It used to be tremendously regimented everywhere. Every single department store was like that.
Jonny—And we’ve fought that since then. Also, how we build our price strategy, meaning, whatever it costs for us to produce, [we add the] same margin on everything. A t-shirt should have a price you understand. I remember being so pissed at Helmut Lang. I was at a department store when I was a kid, and they sold some t-shirts from the show, and I remember it costing a fortune—like, 10 times the normal t-shirt. I thought, ‘You are fucking me over. I like what you do, but I can’t necessarily agree with this garment.’
Mark—You felt you were being exploited?
Jonny—Yeah. If the price isn’t coherent with the product, it makes you feel robbed or exploited. If I make a leather jacket, people know if it’s Italian leather and done in a tannery that’s environmentally [responsible], it’s going to cost a bit. But you’re going to wear it for a while, and you understand that leather is a bit expensive, because you probably bought a leather chair once, or leather shoes. I think price as a strategy is ridiculous today.
Mark—Let’s talk about Swedishness. A lot of Swedish icons that I identify with are of a time that’s gone now. Who is culturally interesting to you at the moment? Are there Swedes that your sons relate to that are interesting to you? Is the cultural life of Sweden something that energizes you at this moment?
Jonny—If I knew what was going on, yeah. I don’t know shit, unfortunately. I don’t know what’s going on. My sons tell me what to do, if there’s anything. I went to a concert the other day in a sort of slaughterhouse outside Stockholm with some young hip-hop artist from the north of Sweden. I’m just surrounded by all these kids taking drugs, and I’m [thinking], ‘It’s exactly the same as when I was there.’ It’s different, but it’s the same, if you know what I mean. Same as in, here comes these other kids I have to say hello to. I go, I overextend my hugging and kissing, and then we try to speak, and the sound doesn’t help—you can’t speak. You know, it’s the same.
Mark—[Laughs] So how do you socialize? Do you host dinners?
Mark—You go out to restaurants?
Jonny—No, I don’t.
Jonny—[Laughs] No, really I don’t, actually. I’m pretty boring. I know it’s weird, but I don’t have so many friends, actually, since I stopped playing in bands and stuff.
Mark—Do you think men need an excuse to find friendship? They need to have a shared subject.
Jonny—Yeah, I think so. I always have. You know, all the friends I have now, I work with. And we are work friends. My son says when he’s provoking me, ‘You only have paid friends.’ [Laughs]
Mark—Does that give you pause, or do you think that’s fine? Because I think lots of people are in that situation. You can love people that you work with, and you spend all your time with them, and it’s magnificent. You really admire what they do and how they do it. But if you take the work away, what are you actually doing?
Jonny—How do you have…?
Mark—I think it’s the same. I got married last year, and I—
Jonny—You’re working all the time, obviously, aren’t you?
Mark—I mean, yeah, but something like a marriage makes you scrutinize friendships. And, you know, it’s not possible to have 500 Facebook friends that are [real] friends. It’s not normal.
Jonny—I never had Facebook, so that’s probably why…
Mark—[Laughs] So you won’t need to buy back your details from the Kremlin.
Jonny—No. Nobody wants [Facebook], anyway, right?
Mark—I’m sure your sons are not at all interested.
Jonny—They have Snapchat. That’s the only thing they do.
Mark—But I think this question of masculinity and friendship is super interesting.
Jonny—Yeah, it’s very interesting.
Mark—It’s one of the big questions of our time, I think, because men are being criticized—and rightly so, in lots of different ways. And arguably it’s the over-identification with the world of work that leads to these men being disproportionately powerful in the world.
Jonny—Yeah, it’s a very deep subject. I like it, though.
Mark—We’re not going to get to the bottom of it. [Laughs]