The influence of Jonny Johansson's work at Acne is pervasive - according to various industry sources as per Business of Fashion, Acne's revenue exceeds 200 million euros, and is valued at somewhere approaching half a billion. The brand has produced everything from it's signature and lauded magazine, Acne Paper, to bicycles and sofas. But what has lead to the success of Acne? What is the philosophy which operates behind the brand, and why has it made such an impact the world over?
Acne's new face motif, which does not include a name or backstory, thus rendering it as blank as the expression it wears
In the 1950s, design trends across the Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway) emphasizing minimalism, functionality, and largely reacting to Googie, Mid-century modern, and other design trends within the popular milieu. Danish and Norwegian design was characterized by the idea of hygge - a word describing a coziness and conviviality. However, in Sweden, design is much more tied to the idea of lagom - "in moderation", "enoughness". The idea is central in explaining why historically Sweden has shied away from decadence in design and aesthetics. In some senses, this informs the work of Johansson at Acne, yet in some ways his work is also a rejection of this. In an interview with GQ, the designer said the following of his relationship to the history of Swedish design, and giants such as Ingvar Kamprad, Gudrun Sjödén, and others;
"[...] when we got our first press recognition, I was asked, like in every interview if we were doing Scandinavian design, and I never really understood how to answer the question. I did a big project on a Scandinavian architect, it took like one year, to see if I have some relationship to Scandinavian design, trying to figure out what it is. My big conclusion was that I’m a maximalist, unfortunately. And the thing is, I think maximalism is more important and democratic than minimalism. Minimalism is very restricted. We’re more related to nature in terms of colors, and textures, how things are produced or whatever it is, and then at the same time very functional."
Acne founder Jonny Johansson
It is precisely this unique take on the idea of maximalism, or perhaps merely rejection of minimalism, which makes Acne stand out. He is a far cry from those normally labelled "maximalist", designers such as Alessandro Michele of Gucci. It is precisely this blurring of lines between categories which has made Acne into such a force in a world of fashion whose focus is one of increasing archiving and categorization. It is this cloud of "archive fever" - to borrow Derrida's term - which has cast fashion in a tricky spot. Even the destruction of barriers and traditional categories (male, female, etc.) creates categories; clothing is advertised still as unisex. It is not simply presented, it is still defined extrinsically. As Derrida goes on to say; "[T]he technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event." Yet, in the frenzy of archivism which has ensnared the work of Raf Simons, Martin Margiela, and so on, Acne remains somewhat impervious. This is precisely because of Acne's timelessness, and it's ability to supersede categories which other designers relish. Minimalism, maximalism, deconstruction, and so on, simultaneously do and do not apply to the work done at Acne. Indeed, unlike brands such as Helmut Lang or Stone Island, there is no archive of Acne's output.
Nowhere is Acne's vision more clear than in it's latest major venture - it's "face motif". Johansson described the face thusly;
"This straightface, for me, really captures the Swedish man—not too happy, not too sad. Lagom [...] We were just joking around, but people liked it, and we thought of how Comme des Garçons had their Play character; something cartoonish and pop. Some people thought it was a Swedish version of that, but the Face was actually born from another mother, and motivation. So we worked with him a lot, and he appeared on other things and became bigger and bigger, and rather than let it get out of hand, I thought we should take control of this dude. Everybody loves him, so I thought he has to officially belong in the Acne family."
Wilson and Tilberg at their home in Canada
For the launch of the collection, Acne used gay parents Kordale Lewis and Kaleb Anthony, alongside their four children. Their second, current collection used lesbian couple Tasha Tilberg and Laura Wilson. The face in a sense relates to the family; obviously in the campaign, shot by Inez and Vinoodh, though also in a more subtle way. Indeed, as Johansson mentioned, the face now constitutes a member in the "Acne family" - this is to say that the universe of Acne, the story which it tells, now includes a new icon, a new signifier. But what exactly does this rather 8-bit rendition of a face tell us? What does it signify? It's power comes from it's neutrality. The face may mean anything and everything - it is an empty signifier which can be masculine, feminine, androgyne... but, importantly, it isn't necessarily any of these. Acne's collection and face motif are designed to be unisex, and though most cuts are traditionally masculine patterns, we cannot say that the clothes themselves are. Following Acne's 2015 "feminist" collection, largely worn by male models, Acne's face motif is a more subtle nod to the philosophy, as within the neutrality, there is a certain equality in malleability.
It is with this that we consider the runaway success of the collection and of the icon. In an industry constantly under fire for controversies of ethics and representation, Acne's face motif could not be more prescient. It is capable of representing everything, yet it lets it's wearer chose what it does. It is a blank slate, a tabula rasa. It is hardly 'beautiful' in the traditional sense, yet it speaks volumes.
Shop Acne Studios at Common, coming very soon in store and online.