"I think sometimes I’m seen as boring," he admits. "But it’s that area of fashion where I feel comfortable; it’s not about juxtaposition, really, it’s about being modern, being very now. That’s why we started doing jeans, because it’s the most important garment for everyone nowadays."
Jeans are important, sure, but they’re not seen as especially amazing, creative, or sexy. They’re not really seen as a designed item, today. In fact, the notion of designer jeans feels dated, mired in those faux-vocative underwear-exposing Nineties Calvin Klein adverts. But they were the kick-off point for Acne’s clothing line, back in 1997. Johansson created 100 pairs, gave them to 100 influential friends, and a cult was born. They remain a bestselling product category for the company.
Acne Studios, as it is still collectively known, was originally intended to have a multidisciplinary atmosphere to mimic The Factory of Andy Warhol – another creative who understood the power of boring. In its early years, it dabbled in graphic design and film production. Even today, the fashion house produces a large-format biannual magazine, Acne Paper. It features people such as Fran Lebowitz, Richard Serra and Mikhail Baryshnikov (all have been on the cover) and seems to only incidentally contain Acne clothing.
Acne clothes, at their best, have a feeling of universality
The name Acne is an acronym, for Ambition to Create Novel Expression. It reminds me of Acme, that fictional corporation which provides Wile E Coyote with various detonating devices to try and catch his ever-elusive Road Runner. It has a universality. It feels like a name you know already – something that has been there for ever.
Acne clothes, at their best, have that feeling, too. They aren’t about the frightening realms of fashion. “The challenge I have been having is to be able to make really interesting designs which are functional but still remain interesting,” says Johansson. "It doesn’t sound so sexy, but when I started fashion it was the time of Helmut Lang and Prada, who were making amazing clothing without being too abstract."
Jonny Johansson is the label’s 45-year-old co-founder and designer
That’s the territory Acne still occupy. Although their catwalk shows, staged first in London and now in Paris, flirt, to varying degrees of success, with styles that the industry may dub ‘editorial’ (oddly fitting trousers, ungainly proportions, frankly ugly fabrics), the core Acne style is not only ready-to-wear, but easy to wear. It mimics Scandinavian furniture design with its simplicity and focus on fusing both form and function into clothes that work, rather than just look the part. You can’t help but think of Ikea, and their championing of interesting design that still does its job incredibly well. Acne’s doing the same for your wardrobe.
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"The older I get, I realise I have a Swedish inheritance," allows Johansson. "I never really knew about it, I almost fought against it, and tried to be international… I think we are different; local and global at the same time."
That paradox is accurate. Acne is global – but it’s been achieved by exporting that local sense of Swede ease. It has 650 outlets in 66 countries around the world, and a turnover of over €100m, achieved without advertising, but rather through the cultish pull of the clothing.
The core Acne style is not only ready-to-wear, but easy to wear
Its ironic, considering that fashion wasn’t what Johansson wanted to do in the first place. “I never wanted to be a fashion designer. I have taken the place of somebody who maybe wanted it – but I have a music background, really. I found the whole fashion thing through music and it’s all about self-expression in the end.” Rather than a hindrance, Johansson finds his lack of technical training liberating. “It gives a great confidence because you have no confidence,” he laughs at his own tangential logic. “I never felt that I would be hurt if someone said that I was bad, because I am a musician – but that is just personal to me.” (Johansson, incidentally, still plays his guitar, albeit not professionally.)
That perhaps explains the sense of cool that pervades Acne’s clothing – imbuing even a humble (or boring) white shirt with something elevated. In an odd way, where other designer labels stand for tradition and a certain way of working, Acne stands for cool. Look at the collaborations the label indulges in, with everyone from Lord Snowdon (on a book, and a complementary range of blue shirts), to the transsexual fashion magazine Candy (on a clutch of blouses for him and/or her). When they decided to launch a capsule range of denim, the French fashion house Lanvin worked with Acne. The former’s sense of tradition and couture workmanship fused with Acne’s cool. And the fact that they make great denim.
The latest expansion in the Acne empire is underwear. Sort of. Acne has had underwear for years. “I was wearing boxer shorts at that moment and there weren’t really any that were working,” shrugs Johansson of its genesis. This time, rather than creating something bog-standard (those boxers, although slender-cut, were nothing special), Johansson and his team tried to give them a sense of the twisted boredom Acne has made its own. Acne’s pants come in a selection of odd, fleshy colours. Those nudist tones, and the fact they fit snuggly to the body, are because, Johansson says, he prefers going commando. It’s not a normal marketing spiel for hawking underpants.
Imperfection is perfect: Eensy-weensy shorts barely peek out below an oversized shirt and bomber jacket, above bare legs and feet shoved into thick, Velcro-tabbed trainers
"Underwear in general; if you see a man in underwear it’s kind of embarrassing, so I’ve been playing a lot with that thought," states Johansson. “They’re not too sexy… That’s kind of sexy in a way.” When I mention the tactics recently employed by a mass-market designer company to promote their underwear – involving the soft-core pornographic paraphernalia of barely-clothed ‘selfies’ and hashtags, he wrinkles his nose. “That just smells of marketing and branding. Yes we all do it but it should be done in a more subtle way and not in bad taste. It’s a sad idea of using people – because they think that’s what they have to do to feel appreciated.” In short, it doesn’t sound cool.
“It’s always this aspect of cool – what is cool?” says Johansson. “I guess it’s personal.” It is personal, to him and hence to Acne. Cool is not about adding extraneous design features to the garments, but about refining what’s there, to make them perfect. Sometimes, imperfection is perfect: I’m thinking of an outfit from their spring menswear collection, where eensy-weensy shorts barely peek out below an oversized shirt and bomber jacket, above bare legs and feet shoved into thick, Velcro-tabbed trainers. It looks like the sort of awkward, gangly outfit you might have been forced to assemble from stuff in the lost property bin when you forgot your PE kit. But there’s something about the pieces that makes the whole look compelling, interesting, exciting even – despite its boredom. How paradoxical. How Acne.