The Minimal Maximalist: Jonny Johansson and Acne Studios
The Minimal Maximalist: Jonny Johansson and Acne Studios
- Words Alexander Azar
- Date January 10, 2018
Acne Studios is often thought of as the face of minimalism. Pair a black T-shirt with blue Acne jeans and white Common Projects, and you are instantly in the uniform of the cult of minimalism. Acne’s founder and creative director, Jonny Johansson, merges eccentric Swedish design with his aspiration to be current, propelling the reverence of minimalists globally. However, Johansson identifies as a maximalist, and sees maximal minimalism as the main appeal of Acne Studios. Johansson’s periodic maximalist flair—from the brand’s (occasionally controversial) campaigns to the pale pink color of Acne’s shopping bags—have rounded out Acne Studios’ subdued designs and made his wildly successful label a staple within fashion for two decades.
Jonny Johansson was born in a small town in Sweden called Umeå, eight hours north of Stockholm, on April 18, 1970. Johansson, whose mom was artistic and whose dad was a musician, was exposed to creative pursuits at a young age. As a young boy, Johansson was influenced by traditionally Swedish design and even his grandparent’s furniture. However, he did not want to be a fashion designer. Initially taking after his father, he “wanted to be a musician, [he] wanted to be in a band.”
After finishing high school, Johansson formed a rock band named Violet. As the frontman for the band, Johansson was in charge of set design, choosing the clothing for each show and making the posters. Johansson ended up bouncing back-and-forth between bands, as his role in them shifted to in pursuit of a holistic artistic experience. In an interview with Net-A-Porter, Johansson said, “I also felt that being a creative is more than just one sort of sense, one sort of expression, it’s a lot of things that come together.”
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In 1996, Johansson, after a brief stint at Diesel, cofounded the collective ACNE (Associated Computer Nerds Enterprise), with his friend Tom Skoging and two other partners. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, The Stockholm-based collective wanted to create an all-encompassing artistic consulting firm. While the name ACNE may appear revolting, Johansson appreciated “appropriating a difficult word” into a cultural staple. Consisting of four compartments: advertising, music, visual arts and fashion, Acne aspired to combine these different creative disciplines into something fantastic.
The collective’s first venture was a fashion project in 1997. Johansson, heading up the fashion projects, was tasked with finding “the white canvas of fashion,” something both generic and current. The answer: five pocket denim. With little prior knowledge on how to design, produce or sell clothing, Johansson’s team eventually made 100 pairs of unisex jeans, which were given to his family, friends and other artistic people in Stockholm. The jeans quickly became a local hit, and ACNE jeans became a must have for anyone in Stockholm who wanted their backside to indicate that they were in-the-know.
By 1998, the fashion label was creating full progressive lines, which were available in stores globally. ACNE clothing developed its own aesthetic almost instantaneously. The clothing was driven by subtle juxtapositions (i.e. art and the common skin disease), and its simplicity and modernity made ACNE clothing globally coveted. The garments were immediately featured in Wallpaper, French Vogue and Elle Sweden. With press coverage and cult base of friends and followers, the demand for ACNE products skyrocketed.
By 2001, the fashion department of ACNE was expanding rapidly, but not sustainably. The company was in major debt, so Johansson appointed a new executive chairman, Mikael Schiller. Schiller got the investors to agree to accept 30 percent of the payments they were due and over time Acne’s debts were erased. Soon after, and Schiller and Johansson bought out the rest of ACNE and changed the meaning of the acronym to “Ambition to Create Novel Expression.” Johansson and Schiller continued to work on the fashion side of the company—now dubbed Acne Studios—while Tom Skoging managed the remaining projects.
Under Johansson and Schiller, Acne Studios became a brand about balance. Schiller advised Johansson to sell the products locally and cut down on the size of each collection. To that, Johansson responded, “I am fine with making it more local for now, but if we are just going to make jeans and T-shirts we are just going to be just another jeans brand, so I am going to go; I am not up for it.” Acne continued to produce full collections each season, but focused its retail in the Scandinavian region, which currently houses 19 of its 53 stores. This logistical strategy likely informed its very particular and uncompromising retail strategy: “If we find something we really like and can afford it, we do it.” Schiller said to Business of Fashion in 2013, “If we find something really cheap, but don’t love it, we don’t do it. If we find something we really love, but can’t afford it we don’t do it.” Acne continued to grow naturally and—even with this deliberate approach to design and retail—by the mid-2000s, had finally established a sustainable, global market presence.
While Acne had garnered great retail success, Johansson aspired to do more. It makes sense given the multi-disciplinary approach that was core to Acne’s earliest iteration. In 2005, the brand launched a biannual magazine, Acne Paper. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, Acne Paper releases one or two issues each year around a central thought: “[A] theme big enough to appeal to everyone interested in the arts regardless of their age or their culture.” It quickly became one of the most exciting small magazines on the market; it subtly challenged convention, with details like a title placed at the bottom of the magazine and its large uncoated format. Acne Paper embodied what the ACNE collective truly was about: combining many creative disciplines into one, singular vision.
As Johansson became more experienced as a designer, he began adding more overt themes to his collections. Many collections have been based around a concept, likea Swedish summer or Fall/Winter 2013’s highly-exposed garment construction. These collections oftentimes feature Johansson’s eccentric Swedish maximalism, while Acne’s mainstays (found in more seasonless collections like the Blå Konst line and garments featuring the brand’s signature “Face Motif”) tend to be more subdued.
In 2006, Jonny Johansson and Tom Skoging split paths, as Acne Studios and Acne Paper separated from the collective ACNE. According to representatives at ACNE, Johansson had a much larger passion for fashion while Tom and other ACNE employees were more invested in graphic design. Eventually, as Acne managing director David Olsson said to Highsnobiety, “We just grew apart, and it was time for us to let it go and it was time for Acne Studios to sail away.” (Olsson also insists that the original ACNE acronym unfurled to mean “Associated Computer Nerd Enterprises.”) Later on that year, Acne Studios launched e-commerce.
In 2008, Acne Studios and Lanvin teamed up, creating a collaboration collection aimed at crafting Lanvin silhouettes in one of Acne's most well-known materials—denim. Johansson, speaking on the partnership with Lanvin, told Vogue, “What I found really inspiring in this collaboration was working with the street element of denim and the couture shaping of Lanvin.” This collection highlighted Johansson’s love for juxtaposition, as it combined the traditional, heavily-detailed design of Lanvin with Acne’s simplified chic. While nearly every other Acne Studios’ collaboration has been with a small, non-clothing company, when asked in 2013 whom he’d most like to collaborate with in the future, Johansson said “Rolex.”
Johansson’s zealousness for design is not only apparent in Acne’s clothing, but also in its retail experience. Johansson and Schiller both agreed that while Acne was expanding, they would not build the stores in popular, high-end retail areas, but rather in places they vibe with. It’s telling that Acne’s first store in Paris was converted from an abandoned garage. Johansson designed his stores to be incredibly modern, linear and colorful in their own respective ways, making his minimalist clothing pop against the maximalist store design. As a final touch, Acne also hands out pink shopping bags, extending the shopping experience back to your house.
As Acne was booming in 2010, Johansson took a brief hiatus as creative director to learn about Swedish design and furniture. On his leave, Johansson re-discovered the beauty behind Swedish furniture design and its inherent roots of functionality. In addition to launching a line of sofas upon his return, his Spring/Summer 2011 collection displayed his reinvigorated focus and a love for the airy aspects of his native nation. When Tim Blanks (then with Vogue) spoke to Johansson to sort out what exactly was ‘Swedish’ about that collection’s clothes, he explained that they were “Spiritual, natural… hippie.” As these collections show, while Acne does have a recurring audience in its denim and leather goods—Johansson’s ceaseless creative interests have caused the collection themes to vary wildly if you’re looking at and comparing their identities in chronological order. If it wasn’t for Acne’s original idea to be the center point at the intersection of many artistic mediums, this might be a little too chaotic. But, then again, not every brand is Acne Studios. As staffers say internally: “Discover how far you can go.” No idea is off limits.
Unlike most other high-end fashion brands, Acne Studios prides itself on inclusivity, not exclusivity. While slightly ironic considering their steep prices, Johansson’s clothing is meant for everyone. Acne has avoided celebrity appearances, opting for more honest marketing. Johansson, recognizing a new generation that dresses not to seek “approval from society or to follow set norms,” caused a stir when he featured his 11-year-old son in the Fall/Winter 2015 womenswear collection’s campaign, seeing his son as an extension of that new generation. A few years later, in August 2017, Johansson also featured a same-sex couple with four kids in his unisex “Face Motif” campaign, expanding Acne’s web of inclusivity.
“I’m obsessed with uniform clothing in families and I wanted to portray this phenomenon. I love those images of families dressing in the same outfit, and this new collection dedicated to the face motif also has a similar feeling of staple goods,” Johansson said of the campaign. “It is also a way of highlighting that while every family is different, we all have the same love and want the best for our children. There is no ‘normal’ family—all families are normal.” Like the neutral emoji-like face, its neutrality is neither happy nor sad; minimal nor maximal; it’s just—normal.
Despite the brand’s great success, Johansson and Schiller remain the primary owners of the company. Schiller, who has been approached by both lesser-known large private equity-firms and the more-well-known fashion giant Kering, has refused offers for hundreds of millions of dollars for ownership of Acne Studios. “I think being in control is so important to us,” Schiller said in a 2013 interview with Business of Fashion. Even though the company reached over €100 million in sales in 2013, Schiller would still prefer to grow organically. Despite the brand’s great success, both Schiller and Johansson have dedicated themselves to preserving Acne’s vision for artistic integrity; given the brand’s history as a semi-artistic collective, it’s not surprising that the pair would prize artistic merit above quick monetary gain.
In April of 2017, Acne Studios relaunched its denim line under the name “Acne Studios Blå Konst,” meaning blue art in Swedish. Considering Acne’s foundations as a denim brand (a segment of the brand that Acne’s fans have always prized), this was one of the largest shake-ups the company instituted since it started. “I always had a vision of Acne Studios being a design-driven brand, even since we launched the first 100 pairs of jeans,” Johansson noted at the time of Blå Konst’s launch. “I will always love denim as it is a part of our roots, our DNA.” Johansson simplified the denim line to feature three fits, Land (loose), River (tapered) and North (slim). By selling Acne denim under a different line, Johansson hopes to give each pair of denim the design attention it deserves. Through its nature-based references, minimalist functionality and simple-yet-effective detailing, Blå Konst exemplifies what Acne Studios is all about.
Johansson’s functional designs and steady business model are part of his “honest fashion” philosophy. “I find sometimes fashion becomes about exoticism,” Johansson said in a 2016 interview with GQ, “I think the reality is more interesting, you know, everyday life in a way.” Considering Acne’s own commitment to minimalist design and creating simple, accessible—but still artistically engaging—clothing, it’s hardly surprising that Johansson would appreciate the beauty in everyday life. In its 20th year since its launch, Acne has remained a recognizable force in fashion because of its integrity to this artistic vision in one way or another.
Acne Studios has remained current through Johansson’s thematic collections and subtle juxtapositions propelling consumers to engage with fashion as an art form. Even though collections and campaigns may vary wildly from season to season, that very eclecticism represents the multi-faceted artistic curiosity of both Johansson and “ACNE” itself. From conservative minimalists, to eccentric maximalists, Acne Studios has built one of the largest, most diverse (and, more importantly, inclusive) fan bases in fashion. Johansson’s dedication to contemporary fashion allowed him to not only find the “white canvas of fashion” in denim, but also leave his artistic footprint on it. From its outset in 1997, Acne has remained dedicated to its creative vision: the convergence of artistic disciplines. Without relying too much on contemporary buzzwords, in that way, Johansson truly embodies the role of a modern creative director.