“Effortlessly cool,” these are two words on the lips of most people when Stockholm-based fashion house Acne Studios comes into conversation. Despite becoming a global phenomenon and managing to stand out in a region where there are already a plethora of fashion brands with a strong pedigree, Acne Studios has retained the ability to stay elusive yet ubiquitous at the same time. Scroll through any “streetsnaps” from the past few years and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a set that hasn’t got someone wearing one of the brand’s signature leather jackets or denim shirts or jeans. However, regardless of its impact and becoming a mainstay within the world of art, fashion and contemporary culture, few know the points of struggle for the brand and how decisions are made in a company that has a board of directors but isn’t a public company. A lot of the success has unquestionably been down to Founder and Creative Director Jonny Johansson’s creative vision but Mikael Schiller also had a huge part to play with Acne Studios’ journey. Straight out of Stockholm School of Economics in 2001, Schiller went on to become Managing Director of the brand after helping the company write an investment memorandum. Although it may be hard to believe when considering Acne Studios’ 650 global accounts by 2013, the label was not in great financial ground when Schiller arrived. Cash flow was low and money was owed, forcing Schiller to call up everybody the brand borrowed from and gave them the ultimatum of accepting 30% or else they would declare bankruptcy – a bold move that allowed Schiller and Johansson to raise enough money to buy their original partners and run Acne Studios themselves. Fast-forward to now and the imprint has runway showings in Paris, brick and mortar stores in more than 13 countries with the latest being a new space in Hong Kong, as well as welcoming a new underwear line. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Mikael and talk about the journey of Acne Studios with him and Jonny at the helm, the reasons behind its success, and the future of it.
The story of you writing an investment memorandum for the Acne Studios in 2001 has been well documented. What did you see in the brand that no one else saw when the brand was not too financially strong?
I didn’t know so much about it at that time. I actually needed a job and it wasn’t really easy to get a job at that time. They asked me if I could do it, I accepted the job offer then I started to discover that there was some kind of energy, aesthetic and potential in Acne. After a while, they asked me if I wanted to work full-time and from there it was an easy choice.
Going to business school, did you always have an interest for fashion or was it the business side of things that drew you into becoming the Managing Director at that time?
I think everybody likes fashion one way or another; fashion is interesting because it is a way of self-expression. My time in fashion and aesthetics grew a lot working with Acne – obviously it’s not only about the clothes, it’s about the packaging, the stores, and the spaces we choose to open the stores. A large part of my job now is about traveling and discovering cities by walking, biking or driving around to get a feel for where we want to open. Sometimes we open in quite obvious locations and sometimes in off-locations where we fall in love with the buildings like in Downtown Los Angeles.
It seems like you did everything perfectly when you started and solved the financial problems by calling everybody the brand owed money to and offered 30% or else you would declare bankruptcy. Is there anything different you would do looking back now?
It was a really tough period, sometimes things hindsight look very easy and obvious but at that time I woke up at 3:30 every morning with a heartbeat, haunted by demons, so it wasn’t fun at all. We didn’t have a choice. In a way it was good because it made us tone down everything and start a bit from the beginning, making us really think about what’s most important. We have been really focusing on our goods more than doing everything at once because fashion is quite complex in that sense and you have to prioritize.
Scandinavia, especially Sweden, has some of the largest fashion retailers such as H&M and a multitude of rising brands. How do you set yourself apart from them?
We have to separate the product as the core of what we try to make really good products and a lot into making even better products. I think it’s good that H&M exist because to a certain extent, they have shown us it’s possible to make something global. I mean there are some global Swedish brands, everything from Volvo even though it’s owned by the Chinese now to ABBA – the music group from a long time ago – to Ericsson or Ikea. There’s this international outset among Swedes who speak English quite well and travel a lot just like the success of the Chinese.
“It was a really tough period, sometimes things hindsight look very easy and obvious but at that time I woke up at 3:30 every morning with a heartbeat, haunted by demons, so it wasn’t fun at all.”
Starting off as a multidisciplinary firm that stood for “Ambition to Create Novel Expressions,” has the brand remained consistent to its philosophy of being a platform for graphic design, film, production and advertising?
There’s an advertising company called Acne and a film production company called Acne. We don’t have the same owners, I sometimes say that we are like brothers and sisters with parents that have been away.
Acne Studios is not known for resorting to marketing tricks and advertising, how has it managed to stay relevant and desirable in such a crowded marketplace?
What’s great about the internet, social media and so forth is that somehow there has been a democratization of the message, in the sense that if you do something great, people will talk about it or document it. So we have been focusing on making really nice products with nice packaging and have stores with a point of difference that are inspiring in some sense. We have been working on providing really good service. When you do things and people appreciate it, people tell others, either just by wearing it or mentioning it and that is how we have done it.
The rise has been phenomenal and it is stocked at a number of locations worldwide, how have you been able to maintain that illusive and “effortlessly cool” aesthetic while being so ubiquitous?
What is interesting is that we have more than the turnover but we have decreased the doors globally with 200 accounts. So what we have done is to work with the ones that are working well even closer like I.T and we have grown our mutual business and exited some other accounts. Our idea is not to do everything but do the things we do well, like carefully selecting the retailers. Also, opening up our own stores and developing Acnestudios.com has been really important for concentrating the brand on a universal sense. I think you can get another understanding of what Acne is if you walk into the Icehouse store than just going to an account.
“What’s great about the internet, social media and so forth is that somehow there has democratization of the message, in the sense that if you do something great, people will talk about it or document it.”
Acne Studios stores are known for their beautifully designed layouts, where do the concepts and inspirations come from for these retail spaces?
From the beginning we had pictures of a lot of different studios, and we just try to make a new version of that. Now it’s much more progressive than previously. We have been working a lot – perforated floors, perforated aluminum wall and LED screens that are lighted with movement sometimes, reflecting on the aluminum wall to give a certain kind of life to it even though the store itself is quite monochrome.
When opening a store in a different country, do you vary that space to accommodate the local market or does the design remain consistent throughout every store?
We have been trying to make a concept but it is changing a lot all the time, so it depends.
What drew you to open a new store in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is one of these really important global cities and it’s a city that has actually inspired us a lot. In a way you can say why didn’t we open here five years ago? It’s an obvious city for a brand such as ours to open here and we have a lot of opportunities to grow in this region. We see that there are a lot of Asians shopping in our U.S. or European stores and all the small sizes are sold out already now so we have to skew our size differently going forward.
When I visited Scandinavia, I notice several stores within a pretty close vicinity of each other, especially in Copenhagen. Is there a reason for this?
No, we open one store in Copenhagen then another bigger store and then we didn’t find a location where we really wanted. We found this location and took it but now in hindsight it doesn’t really make sense.
The Los Angeles store also welcomed a new cafe, is the brand moving towards an all-encompassing lifestyle approach?
We fell in love with this Eastern Columbia building and at that time there were no other high-end fashion stores in the area. One of our really good friends has these cafes in Stockholm and we asked him if he wanted to open a cafe, so it was a very organic thing and the space is very big – it’s 5,000 square feet. It’s more of a one-off thing.
Acne Studios was predominantly known for its jeans. Was it difficult to integrate even more into the brand such as runway shows, etc.?
We have been doing quite a few things that may not be so obvious and people have been quite skeptical initially. People were saying at the beginning that you cannot make a magazine with integrity when you have a fashion label, but I think we have proved there is because it has its own cult following almost. It’s a large format, we work with great photographers and great writers. Now the denim is only a small proportion of our total turnovers. We haven’t always chosen the easy route but in the end (knock on wood) it worked out.
You’ve launched the underwear line recently as well, was it the right time to launch now or was it a long time coming?
In a way if you look at it from a very strategic level, it’s a very stupid thing to do because if you want to work more you should launch a bag line or something, but we had an idea of how we can do in a really nice way. Not only the product but we are only going to sell it in our own stores so then we don’t have to take into consideration how underwear is usually sold because there is quite a rigid system for that.
So a lot of these decision come when you feel it is right for the brand rather than really researching first, it’s just what you really want to do?
Yeah, we work a lot from the inside out. We don’t want to make stupid things even though sometimes we do…
Can you give an example?
We made a collaboration with Bianchi and if you think logistics for clothes is difficult, logistics for bicycles is a nightmare…
You’ve had a lot of collaborations over the years as well. What draws you to certain designers and how do you go about choosing them?
It all starts with the creative process and product. If we think we can make something interesting together, which I think we felt with Alber and the Acne x Lanvin collaboration, but the idea of co-branding is not so interesting. Unfortunately, we say no more often than we say yes.
The brand has an extremely strong online presence, what is the next step to engage even more people?
I think online and offline is really going to become one in a sense. It’s gonna be difficult to say what’s online and what’s retail in the sense that maybe if you walk into our store in New York, you see something that you really like but we don’t have your size at that time, then we can send it to you wherever you want in the world. You pay in store and we send it out free of charge from our stock. The idea of researching something online then maybe reserving it and going down to try it on in the store and if you like, you buy it and that kind of behavior is going to grow a lot. That is where we have an advantage compared to maybe Net-a-Porter or the Corner, or these kind of accounts.
What made you decide to start the online store so early in 2006 when the brand didn’t have any physical retail stores?
It just felt modern and it felt like an important thing for us to do. It challenges at the beginning though because at one end, the web store needs to have many pictures and on the other, you need to have really nice kinds of challenges that are everyday challenges for the creative side versus the commercial side. A lot of what we do is trying to find some kind of harmony and dynamic between the two.