Can a 20-year-old label – a relative whippersnapper – and a Swedish one at that, really mix it with the big-league luxury brands? We speak to Acne Studios executive chairman Mikael Schiller about his business plans, retail strategy and pink shopping bags.
Acne Studios is a thoroughly modern fashion brand. It hails not from Paris or Milan, of course, but from Stockholm, where it was launched in 1997 by a media agency who made 100 pairs of jeans to gift to friends. Its evolution since then has been striking: it has morphed from a denim label to a high-fashion brand that shows collections in Paris and has shops that look like art galleries. It is inestimably cool, known for its oversized silhouettes and powder-pink shopping bags. It does not hew to the fashion industry’s strict rules: its most recent play is showing at the same time as Couture Week rather than Ready To Wear (even though it is a ready-to-wear brand). As its popularity – and status – continues to grow (in 2017 it opened shops in cities including Sydney, San Francisco and Milan), some are suggesting it is on the brink of joining the league of “luxury” brands. Which would be quite a coup for a non-French, non-Italian brand that is but 20 years old.
Today it is helmed by three men: creative director Jonny Johansson, executive chairman Mikael Schiller (pictured), and CEO Mattias Magnusson. Johansson and Schiller are also the co-owners. We caught up with Schiller – a smiley, down-to-earth Swede who runs the business side of things with Magnusson but is particularly focused on retail expansion – at the brand’s Stockholm HQ.
MONOCLE: The brand was on the verge of going bankrupt when you joined it in 2001. What was it like coming into the company?
MIKAEL SCHILLER: I was 25; I had been to business school but I’d never worked in fashion. Acne’s owners did not want business people to come in and destroy the company by saying “no” to things. But fashion is about logistics and long-term planning, so it needs a business approach. The product was amazing but they’d been struggling with running the company. So when I came in they were open to me saying, “This is how we can make this work from a business perspective.” Because it’s difficult to be creative when you cannot pay your bills.
M: At first, Acne Studios was known as a denim brand. How did you grow beyond this?
MS: In 2004-05 we spoke about not wanting to be too dependent on denim. Usually brands grow from a prêt-à-porter base downwards [into “basic” products such as denim] but we wanted to go the other way. Some people were shaking their heads. They said, “Focus on jeans and T-shirts”, but Jonny said, “No, then we’ll be just be another denim brand.” We’ve always been passion-driven and Jonny was intrigued by the idea of doing fashion shows. We didn’t have any hardcore investors telling us exactly what to do; we have always made our own decisions. I think we’ve been forward leaning but it has not been forced: it’s not like we are executing a five-year plan.
M: You overhauled your denim line last year with the release of Blå Konst. Why?
MS: Denim is a special universe and it can be hard to connect to that universe while doing prêt-à-porter collections each season. Blå Konst was a way for Jonny to get back to denim. Commercially I think it was stupid in the short term but long term it’s going to be good because it gave Jonny the passion to work with denim again.
M: Why was it stupid commercially?
MS: Because people have their favourite Acne jeans model that they’ve been wearing for many years and now they will come back to the store and we’ll say, “No we don’t have that.”
M: Where do you see Acne Studios sitting in the market? It seems like it is on the brink of joining that league of luxury brands, which is very unusual for an independent label from Stockholm…
MS: It might hold you back if you’re too conscious of how you want to be perceived. We feel more at home showing in the prêt-à-porter department than in denim [in stores]. A couple of years ago we said people will misunderstand us if we are only in the denim department so we moved from one to the other. That said, I think there’s this defining that the industry – whether it’s department stores or magazines – does in terms of placing brands. But the end consumer doesn’t do that, it doesn’t matter to them.
M: Your SS18 show referenced being “outsiders”. Have you always felt like industry outsiders?
MS: We are outsiders. And we’re starting to embrace that more now. Today there are fewer rules than there were 15 years ago. There used to be a small group of people that had a huge influence over the success of brands. You needed an “OK” from X editor or X department store. These people are still important but now brands can find their own way. We have never been a brand with a big designer at the head who goes to dinners with celebrities in LA. We’ve had to work with what we’ve got, which is an urge to make great fashion and package it in an interesting and cool way.
M: Acne Studios is known for its pink shopping bags. How did these come about?
MS: I said it would be good if our bags were quite visible because, if we open a shop in a new city, it helps if people recognise the bags: it’s a good way of telling everyone we are here. It’s not rocket science. But we did have a big problem in the beginning because some male customers – mostly in Stockholm – didn’t want to carry a pink bag.
M: Tell us about your retail strategy.
MS: Our thinking has been to open a shop in a location that is 100 metres in the wrong direction now, but that might be a hot spot in a couple of years. We opened our Paris shop in 2007 in the Palais Royale, which at that time was filled with art galleries and vintage stores and was a bit “off”. Our Stockholm shop is in a former bank where there was a robbery in the 1970s that gave rise to the term “Stockholm syndrome”. After that, many businesses in the building that didn’t work out. People said, “You cannot open there, it’s never going to work.” But it’s been a good place for us.
M: What’s next?
MS: China is extremely interesting. A lot of people fill their suitcases with Acne products in Europe and then sell them at TMall [China’s biggest online retailer]. They are called daigous: they are like professional buyers. It works because Acne has a lot of demand in China but we don’t have many shops. Obviously it makes more sense for us to cater for those end customers ourselves – via e-commerce and also by opening some more shops.
Fashion and media:
Acne Studios was founded by the creative agency Acne. In its early years the fashion label did not pay for advertising, publishing ads in Acne Paper, a biennial magazine produced by the agency. Today that agency – run independently of the fashion brand and with offices in Stockholm, Paris, London and Berlin – produces ad campaigns for clients including Ikea, Byredo and bmw. It is perhaps the most notable example of a fashion brand being linked to a media firm. Other fashion-media overlaps include: Cos (which produces an in-house magazine); Colors (the 1990s title backed by Benetton); Nowness (the online video channel funded by lvmh); and, on a smaller scale, Intelligence Magazine, an excellent title from the founders of Canadian menswear label Maple.