In 1996 Jonny Johansson, along with three colleagues, set up the brand Acne. The inauspiciously named firm (the acronym actually stands for Ambition to Create Novel Expressions) was a creative collective that would dip into many different areas from film to furniture to product design to publishing: it was a sort of modern- day version of Andy Warhol’s Factory that aimed to blur the lines between commerce and culture.
The Stockholm-based company was never really about just fashion – it wasn’t really about fashion at all – but when Johansson designed his first pair of jeans in 1997 the rise of Acne as a fashion label began. ‘We started out with jeans because it’s the most generic and most important garment for people in the times we live in,’ Johansson has said of those early days.
Those very first jeans, one hundred pairs, were distributed to friends but soon the trousers, with their androgynous cut and distinctive red stitching, were the coolest items to be seen in at a time when premium denim was just starting to take off. Trendsetters in other countries were developing an interest in all things Scandinavian too, thanks to new lifestyle magazines such as Wallpaper which was a cheerleader for the clean, modern lines and refreshing functionality of the ‘Scandi’ look. The success of the jeans inspired Johansson to push the fashion side of the company and today, hundreds of thousands of pairs of Acne jeans are sold every year.
According to Johansson, Acne’s clothes have always been about ‘generic’ pieces – the perfect tee, jeans, aviator jacket or slouchy knit. The label’s clothes for men and women are cool but very wearable, classic but always with a modern twist and mostly neutral but with enough punchy colour to single them out as something a bit different. They will carry the wearer through their day in impeccable, precise style.
Acne remains seasonless and timeless while being totally of the moment and, while Acne has a very designer and luxury feel, it’s far more accessible than most – if not all – of its competitors.
This alchemy has won the label the devotion of fashion editors, international buyers and street-style bloggers and has transformed it into a business that turns over €80m annually. It has also led to rapid expansion; the brand now has 31 stores as well as hundreds of stockists globally.
Its biannual magazine Acne Paper sticks to the house’s founding principles and blends culture and commerce in a cool, cerebral way with contributors as diverse as Carine Roitfeld, Tilda Swinton, Mario Testino and artist Gillian Wearing. Acne would never do anything as obvious as producing a regular glossy publication to simply promote its own products.
Acne’s collaborations also mark it out as a truly modern brand. When it linked with Lanvin in 2010, Acne truly hit the international stage. Other projects have involved illustrators, and Bianchi Bicycles with whom Acne created a racing bike in trend-leading colours. It seems that the label is consistently making headlines with its innovative hook-ups.
No place like home
And although Johansson has often stressed that his nationality is not central to his aesthetic, the brand’s Stockholm roots seem pivotal to its slightly quirky appeal. Johansson and his team are based in a grand former bank in Stockholm’s Old Town and the showroom is housed in a large ballroom. Although Acne has become an international hit, this is where Johansson has chosen to stay.
‘We always said we’d like to create our own little planet,’ Johannson has said. ‘I don’t want to be restrained by what other people are doing, because there are a lot of creative, fantastic people everywhere, and if you look at them too much you lose your ability to create freely without any pressure.’ And for Johansson’s many devoted followers – who probably couldn't get dressed without the label’s fabulous knits, sharp tailoring and slinky dresses – right now, sartorially speaking at least, planet Acne is the only place to be.