Up until 1996, the word "acne" wasn't very fashion.
Since Acne – which actually stands for Ambition to Create Novel Expressions – began, though, the label otherwise known as a common skin disorder has become distinctly hip. Jonny Johansson, one of the founders and now global creative director, has said he liked the idea of "appropriating a difficult word" and making it cool. Messing with us, basically. Now, though, Johansson, a soft-spoken soul sporting a MA1 flying jacket and Acne jeans, is a little embarrassed. "I wish we hadn't called it that," he says. "People said it was a weird name, and I agree with them." The brand's official title now is Acne Studios.
When Acne started with four guys and a lot of idealism, they had the equivalent of writer's block. "If you're doing a modern brand, where do you start?" says Johansson. Jeans worked because they were iconic: "You might as well try to do Coca-Cola or you're going about it the wrong way." The first designs were plain, straight-legged with distinctive red stitching. They made 100 pairs and gave them to "the creative kids" in Stockholm. Soon, editorials from Wallpaper* and French Vogue turned up. By the early noughties, Acne had officially blipped on to the fashion radar.
Before Acne, the idea of Stockholm style probably stood for more in the world of interiors than fashion. The brand – the most internationally notable fashion label from Sweden bar H&M – has exported its home city's look of layers, sportswear details, prints, and a lot of black all over the world, reportedly making nearly £78m in the process last year. "If you're from Sweden, you grew up with Swedish design – it's in your DNA, functionality," says Johansson. "We're often mistaken for minimalists but we're very colourful and love nature."
You might think a brand such as Acne would open in London's hipster central, Dalston. But, if you're sensing a theme here, that's far too obvious. Instead, its new store opening next month is on Pelham Street in Brompton Cross – more the territory of yummy mummies than mom jeans. This preference for off-centre locations plays out across the world. Its first Paris store is in a converted garage that Schiller admits is "hard to find" while the Stockholm flagship is in the former bank where hostages were taken in 1973 and the phrase Stockholm Syndrome was coined.
Anyone after a spot of workplace envy should check out Acne's famous-in-fashion studio. A converted bank that dates back to the 16th century, it features an art nouveau frieze, labyrinthine rooms and a communal kitchen with birch benches, Barbara Hepworth-style sculptures and a worktop hewn out of green marble. And that's not even mentioning the population of this style utopia. A team lunch on the day the Guardian visits includes girls with purple hair, handsome men in modernist glasses and Hamish Bowles from American Vogue.
Acne likes nothing better than making something a bit wrong the height of cool. See its trademark pink, which covers all its shopping bags, merchandising and stationery. "I told Johnny we needed recognisable bags," says Mikael Schiller, the brand's executive chairman, who is wearing a typical Acne ensemble of classic brogues with a wrinkled mac. "He went full on. Now you see these butch guys walking around with pink bags everywhere."
The Pistol boot
You know those ankle boots you have with the chunky heel and zips? You can thank Acne for those. Their version, the Pistol boot, which goes for around £380, has been copied by high-street stores everywhere and became a bestseller for the brand. Designed as "a mix of cowboy and motorcycle and riding boot," says Johansson, he believes its success is down to boring old practicality. "It's big in bad-weather places – Scandinavia, the UK," he says. "Girls are running around London in sandals in the middle of winter, so when you propose a rough and cool design, it's a success."
Ask Acne – a brand associated with off-duty-model style and slouchy, leggy people in general – who it would most like to collaborate with and you expect it to say an edgy new label you've never heard of. Wrong. "Rolex," says Johansson. This kind of cool contrariness is key to Acne. So far, the brand has worked with Snowdon, the 83-year-old British photographer, Candy, the Spanish magazine for transvestites, and Lanvin. "What connects them all is a certain kind of humour," says Johansson. "They have a quirkiness to them."
Before working in fashion, Johansson dallied with furniture. He showed he still had the knack with a three-piece suite the brand brought out in 2010 – designed to "find the inheritance for Swedish design," he says. He did that by referencing the Nya Berlin couch made by Carl Malmsten in the 20s for the Swedish embassy in the German capital. In typical Acne style, though, they messed with it: putting the drawings into Illustrator and stretching them out. The result was a hybrid: long and skinny furniture perfect for fashion people.
Acne doesn't court fashion's top 10% to wear its clothes, they do it anyway. Celebrities including Rihanna, Alexa Chung and front-row stalwart Yasmin Sewell are regularly photographed in them too, something lots of other brands would kill for – or certainly pay through the nose. This is not the Acne way. "We never paid anyone and we don't want to," says Johansson. "That doesn't mean we don't like celebrities wearing our clothing but that strategy is cold and hard and short-lived. Our brand is about product. If you start from there, everything else falls into place."
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