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Acne; Pioneering Swedish Minimalism

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The story of Acne Studios begins in 1996 in Stockholm. Jonny Johansson joined forces with three acolytes to found the Acne creation studio (the acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expressions - originally Associated Computer Nerd Enterprises), which combined the activities of design, advertising and digital graphics. Johansson, an autodidact, came to fashion after being involved in several bands, and wanting to expand his creative enterprises to a new industry. The opportunity came the following year, in the form of 100 pairs of jeans with red stitching, designed for friends, followed closely by a first Acne collection. "It seemed obvious to start with the five-pocket jean, which is the most emblematic garment of the twentieth century," says Johansson, "without giving it a street look or [making it] too couture, because today people do not want to be locked in. The important thing is to feel good in it, in Sweden it is said that if you feel comfortable in a garment, you are stronger." The success spread like an indigo wildfire in Sweden; the brand became immediately recognizable in its refined and functional aesthetic and its unisex philosophy.

Early red-seam Acne jeans advert contrasted with current Acne advertising

It is a saying that has been beautifully exported to the rest of Europe and the United States, especially during the mid to late 2000s, when fashion shirked the maximalism of the past years, and saw a return to minimalism inspired by Jil Sander and Donna Karan. In France, the Parisian boutique Colette became the first to distribute the brand, and the fever of Swedish denim reached a peak in 2008, when Lanvin undertook a multi-season collaboration with Acne, directly supervised by Johansson and Lanvin's legendary then-creative director, Alber Elbaz. 

It is not simply aesthetics which gives Acne their success, but the unique, multidisciplinary approach which the brand takes towards creativity. Johansson is known above all for his philosophy of creation, which permeates all of Acne's activities. Acne as a company produces furniture, clothing, hosts exhibitions, and publishes the famed magazine Acne Paper, which has seen contributors as famous as Noam Chomsky and David Lynch. The entire ethos is driven by the idea of contemporaneity - the quality of now-ness. Of his initial team, Johansson said that "We were a group of people bound by mutual admiration. The others admired me less, but I was still accepted [laughs]. We wanted to explore different creative fields, such as contemporary artists who express themselves through various mediums. We wanted to cross the music, the video, the graphic art ... The idea was to analyze our time, and the future of our culture, from our point of view. In a general way, we sought to grasp and define what is contemporary." It is especially clear how Acne defines the idea of the contemporary; stark, unfussy, androgynous, yet personal. Though constantly innovating, Acne has never strayed from it's founding ideals, instead improving upon them, as opposed to abandoning or changing them. 

Acne Paper Issue 15

Johansson's ethic and weltanschauung comes out especially in his work ethic, and his approach to clothing, as evidenced by the following story from Saturdays Magazine:

The reason we did Paris was that we had a collaboration with the biggest fashion museum in Europe. I was introduced to a man named Olivier Saillard, who was the director of Musée Galliera, which is where they have Marie Antoinette’s dress, Napoleon’s jacket, things like that. So I asked him, “Can I do something with you guys?” He took me there, and it’s very serious. They walk around there in white robes, and you have to wear white gloves, and everything is in tissue paper and it has own drawer. It looks like an old Margiela store, but it’s real. I live in the past, the now, and the future. It’s all affecting me and it’s all important to me. So if I’m working with fashion and I’m standing there in the middle of historic, French fashion—which is kind of the core of what we do—I see that and I have to digest that. So I asked Olivier Saillard if we could scan the clothing and randomly print the images on fabric. I wondered whether doing our patterns on top of those pictures would insert French fashion into the design. I wanted play with this idea, of having Marie Antoinette’s dress infused with my designs. And I wanted it to be really random, so I asked a friend, her name is Katrina, to photograph them, because she’s a photo artist. She used this super big scanner—as big as a table—and they come in with their white gloves and placed the dresses on the scanner and scanned them. Then we went to an Italian printing house and printed whatever was there onto our own design, without bothering with where the print ended up on the clothing.

While to many, Johansson is unknown, Acne's vision is the key feature in their success. With 2017 bringing the launch of Blå Konst (Acne's official denim line), and their Face Motif collection to mark their 20th anniversary, 2018 also looks bright. In a world where brands such as Vetements, Gucci, and others have championed an over-the-top maximalism, it does not seem far off to say that Acne will be ahead of the inevitable rush back to minimal design.

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