Without even trying (that hard, at least), this low-key Swedish luxury label has built a EUR300 million ($429 million) mini-fashion empire — up from EUR270 million in 2021 — retailing apparel that is the true definition of Scandi-cool and sold in stores that look like art galleries. Its evolution has been swift and striking, but rather than rest on its laurels, Acne Studios is now aiming for a yearly revenue of EUR500 million, says CEO Mattias Magnusson in an exclusive interview with Options.
The long-haired blonde joined the company in 2004, right out of university and became CEO in 2010. A self-professed non-fashion person, his style is understated and individualistic, just like the company he works for, which has been an industry disruptor long before the word even became trendy. We are blessed to be on his radar as Magnusson infamously only gives two to three interviews yearly.
Having been at the helm for over a decade, Magnusson has been instrumental in Acne Studios’ explosive growth with over 60 global stores and growing, including its first Singapore outlet at Marina Bay Sands, which opened on Dec 15. This new outpost marks the brand’s first-ever expansion into Southeast Asia as its international demand continues to grow. It also has three stores in Tokyo, two in Osaka, two in Sydney, two in Melbourne, four in Shanghai, three in Beijing, two in Shenzhen, and one in Chengdu, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Tianjin, respectively.
“It's always been a dream for us to be in Singapore. It's a melting pot of different cultures, and we are fascinated by the market and the country. We would have opened way earlier had it not been for the pandemic. This was long overdue,” says Magnusson.
This launch comes right after the high-end brand celebrated its 10th anniversary last year of doing shows at Paris Fashion Week — an essential platform for the cult label to showcase its highly creative clothes and conceptual shows. Runway events like this not only elevate the brand’s profile as a serious designer label but also connect it with the media, influential style sleuths and celebrities, many of whom are true fans of the brand.
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Founded in 1996 in Stockholm, Sweden, Acne Studios was part of a creative collective called ACNE that focused on graphic design, film, production and advertising. The current acronym for the brand is Ambition to Create Novel Expressions.
Co-founder and creative director Jonny Johannson's interest in photography, art, architecture and contemporary culture is reflected in the brand's clothing, publications, furniture, exhibitions and unique collaborations. In 1997, he created 100 pairs of raw denim jeans with red stitching for friends and family. Somehow, the jeans found their way into the editorial pages of Wallpaper and Vogue Paris, which then inspired Johannson to expand the line into other fashion staples.
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A multidisciplinary luxury fashion house, Acne Studios broke away in 2006 to become a subsidiary. At the same time, it launched its e-commerce operation — one of the first fashion brands to do so.
Although jeans became a starting point for Johannson, he envisioned the label as a global couture house with runway shows. Today, the brand churns out seasonal ready-to-wear apparel and accessories for men and women with an emphasis on tailoring and an eclectic use of materials and custom-developed fabrics. Acne Studios also publishes a bi-annual Acne Paper covering all aspects of art, design, film, music and fashion.
Like other celebrated Swedish exports like Ikea and H&M, Acne Studios' style is minimalist and maximal. “People often think we are minimalist, maybe in our concepts and interiors, but Acne Studios is fun and unconventional. We like playing with colours and textures. It’s gender fluid with no boundaries. Ultimately, a great design is great; we don’t need a label beyond that,” he adds.
Magnusson believes part of why the fashion house can push the envelope with its cutting-edge styles in a world of traditional fashion powerhouses is that it is independently owned. But it is open to stakeholder support from other external parties. In December 2018, Johansson and co-founder and executive chairman Mikael Schiller sold a 41% minority stake to Chinese private equity firm IDG Capital and Hong Kong retailer IT Group. The pair still retain control of the brand. “We are very fortunate to have great long-term partners who allow us to reach the full potential of this brand, both creatively and in terms of growth,” says Magnusson.
The art of store
The new Singapore flagship store marks the company’s current plans to boost brand awareness with flashier store locations and “louder” communications. “People who know us generally like what we do. But most people barely know that we exist. It's a very Swedish trait not to stand out, but I think we can be a bit more vocal about it,” he admits.
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He adds that this year, the brand will attempt to challenge itself to “come out of the cold” into warmer climates with expansion into Miami in 1Q, and Las Vegas and Taiwan later in the year. To strengthen its presence in Europe, it is also opening a new office, showroom and design studio in Paris on rue Saint Honoré.
Acne Studios has partnered with Bluebell Group, Asia’s most prominent brand distributor, to handle business operations in Singapore and expand into Southeast Asia. This store remains Acne-owned but will be managed by Bluebell. “We’ve had an ongoing conversation for many years. Once we decided to open in Singapore, they were a natural choice. We are drawn to their professionalism,” says Magnusson.
Without clothes hanging off its racks, the Marina Bay Sands store looks like an art gallery encased entirely in clear glass sheets with white-washed walls and stark lighting. The space was imagined by Swedish design studio Halleröd who worked in close collaboration with Acne Studios on developing the transformative vision of a transparent room with visible construction. The key feature of the store is its modular system of glass panels which was assembled in the style of Meccano, the famous model construction system that exposes its structure to the spectator.
The “minimalist tech aesthetic”, Halleröd says, unravels in the fine details. This includes the speckled grayscale rug by Knut, high-gloss Marmorino walls, an industrial Radiator light system designed by Benoit Lalloz, and custom “dancing” mannequins from British Sculptor Daniel Silver. For soft furnishings, the brand engaged long-time collaborator and furniture designer Max Lamb to fill the stark space with colour in the form of tie-dyed pouffe seats to reference silhouettes and hues from the current Spring-Summer collection.
We ask Magnusson if there are plans to hold art exhibitions in this space. He replies: “Yes, absolutely. We always like to offer the customer something different and unique. We recently did a capsule collection and exhibition to celebrate the works of artist Larry Stanton at our Tokyo store. Similar projects will happen in Singapore. We also have our magazine, Acne Paper, which we always draw much inspiration from. We can do special Acne Paper installations and bring together the full creative universe of Acne Studios.”
Magnusson is confident that the brand will be well-received in Singapore, just as it has been in the rest of Asia. While North America represents roughly 20% of sales, Asia and Europe account for 40% each. “We have many clients from Singapore and worldwide who have expressed that they want us to open here. I've been to Singapore many times, and I know there is a genuine appreciation for good design.”
“It's always interesting when you open in a new market. There’s a bit of a dance in getting to know each other. We are rolling out things organically and should see many more events when we are up and running. It’s exciting, and I am curious to see how people respond to it.”
On the transparent racks and shelves, fans can expect to see staples like its bestselling scarves and iconic Musubi bag, inspired by traditional Japanese obi sashes. The men’s and women’s seasonal offerings will also be refreshed every other week to showcase the collection in batches. During its opening, I noticed more jackets and knits. Once we hit March, we should see many more lightweight fabrics in silks and tulle with shorter hemlines to usher in the summer.
This season is inspired by a wedding party celebrating its 10th year at Paris Fashion Week. The colour palette is a contrast study, where sickly-sweet pastels meet cardinal red, chocolate brown and inky black. Romantic lace, tulle, georgette, and satin-crepe are juxtaposed with harder, more utilitarian fabrics such as hand-painted leather trimmed with studs and garment-dyed cotton organza. Of course, in true Acne fashion, most pieces allow cross-gender shopping. Some men’s tops look deceivingly feminine, while the women’s oversized jackets and pants are as androgynous as they come.
Acne Studios makes it a point at every fashion show to have male models don its womenswear to showcase versatility. Not a new concept in Scandinavia, according to Magnusson, Acne was probably one of the pioneering high-fashion labels to push the gender diversity card with its apparel. In 2015, Johannson put his son on a campaign wearing womenswear when he was just 12 years old at the time. Today, the brand is almost expected to create styles and looks that transcend typical gender stereotypes.
“I don't know if maybe coming out of Scandinavia; this always came very naturally to us. People are not so interested in putting labels on things. Our customers generally tend to appreciate really good design, creativity and quality above anything else,” he says.
A thoughtful approach
Growing up with the company these past 18 years, Magnusson has been very fortunate to see the company through different phases, from being close to bankruptcy to becoming a half-a-billion-dollar brand that remains relevant and desirable in an ever-more crowded marketplace. “We were tiny when I joined. Today, we're a mid-sized company with great ambition and supportive partners. It’s been a special journey for me, and I’m very fortunate to work in a creative environment with inspiring individuals. It’s our goal to become the most inspirational progressive luxury fashion house.”
He continues: “Coming out of Sweden and as a creative collective, we have a slightly different outlook on fashion than other brands. What sets us apart is always this crossbreeding of different creative disciplines. We are increasingly learning more about how desirability and quality are what need to rule the industry. It's not about the number of things you make. It's about making and creating exciting projects, products and designs. At least for us, we always come back to the core of creativity.
“Today, we're even more thoughtful in how we approach things. We do fewer things, and we try to do them even better. I think the consumers or clients are much more deliberate and thoughtful today, which I find is a great evolution. It also makes it much more interesting but difficult to navigate sometimes. But ultimately, a great thing.”
A stalwart of the Fair Wear Foundation — an independent organisation that vets companies for their sustainable practices — Acne Studios has consistently ranked as one of the top sustainable-forward fashion brands. “As Swedes, we try to be very considerate in the way we do things and in the way we consume. We are working on hundreds of initiatives, such as repurposing old designs and fabrics into new designs and material choices to find even more sustainable options. There's a lot of work going into traceability and transparency at the moment, which is also exciting,” he adds.
“Sometimes, we've been a bit too silent. We want people to see the products we create more than before. It's a fascinating time for us. 2023 is going to be the year for Acne Studios.”