We traveled to Stockholm to speak with film, design and advertising firm ACNE about its history, relationship with clothing label Acne Studios, and key philosophies behind the brand.
ACNE founders Tomas Skoging and Jonny Johansson filed all the necessary papers in July 1996, and the firm's first office was opened by Christmas the same year. It was the beginning of a journey that would ultimately lead two of ACNE's four principals Johansson and Skoging on very different paths. In the early days, small design projects kept the heat on, and the founders modestly viewed the company as a starting point to develop their own products and projects. When speaking about ACNE's company philosophies, the term “democratic” keeps coming up in discussion, and I can't help but relate this to the fact I'm actually interviewing three different people.
At ACNE, there are no talking heads, instead I'm able to engage in an open discussion with Tomas Skoging, David Olsson and Victor Press. Sitting directly across from Skoging, one of my first questions is whether or not the acronym Ambition to Create Novel Expression was taken to heart in the beginning. Unexpectedly, Tomas replies "The funny thing is, from the beginning it was 'Associated Computer Nerd Enterprises.'"
Tomas has to ponder a moment when I inquire about the first jobs that ACNE worked on. The earliest commissions came from fellow Swedish imprints like Whyred and J. Lindeberg, the latter of which called upon ACNE to create a starting package, which included branding, slogans and preliminary brand concepts. Many of the first ACNE employees were rooted in graphic design backgrounds, except for one: Jonny Johansson of Acne Studios, who first cut his teeth at Diesel. As the course of ACNE would show, Jonny's strengths were based in clothing design, and as David Olsson declares “We just grew apart, and it was time for us to let it go, and it was time for Acne Studios to sail away.”
The widely circulated story is now embedded within fashion folklore, and ACNE's limited run of 100 pairs of jeans amounted to an unprecedented success in the European fashion community. Given out to friends and family within the circle of Stockholm creatives, the relatively plain, straight-legged denim with distinctive red stitching was just another small project in the grand scheme of ACNE's beginnings, yet retrospectively it was a pivotal crossroads. Tomas mentions he still has one of the original pairs in his apartment. Throughout our conversation, it becomes increasingly evident how Acne Studios was truly started as a quiet initiative undertaken by the greater ACNE brand. Acne Studios produced its first full collection in 1998, and became a separate entity in 2006.
Since then, ACNE has been steered into to a broad range of ventures thanks to a passion for design, coupled with childlike curiosity, and today the company is involved in creative advertising, short films, publishing, mobile apps and much more. Skoging states about the brand’s origins "We were driven by creativity and we were unprofessional."
At ACNE, the intuition as to which project is right and which project is wrong could only be described as humanistic. The underscored goal is to produce content that matters, independent of any restrictions or traditional frameworks. It doesn't take an incredible amount of scrutiny to tell that the conventional TV model is becoming more obsolete by the day, and companies like Netflix are filling in the gap. However, ACNE's approach to concepts extends beyond the act of predicting trends.
The Curater project is a perfect example of this, as the idea entails a live stream through which subscribers can connect with and view various art exhibitions around the world. One proposal entailed working alongside an online gambling platform, when clients were able to stake money on the result of a pair of 6-foot-tall dice roll, dropped from a helicopter and rolled down a mountain in Greenland. For another project, a Super Mario-esque video game was imagined titled "Pizza Boy" where the object is to collect all the slices through each level while launching bottles of soda at your enemies.
ACNE even provided consulting work for Sweden's Social Democratic Party, furnishing visuals, tag lines, and film content. There is hardly any sense of where to draw the line. Looking around, the many shelves, cabinets and mantels filled with trinkets, toys, books, gadgets, models and miscellaneous nicknacks filling the office all testify to this.
As much as Tomas, Victor and David are colleagues, it's also very evident that they are friends as well. While other consulting agencies simply sit at their desks, negotiating deals and sending out invoices, ACNE strives for something more fun. This ambition is owed to more than just the particular collective of minds that started the brand, it's about Scandinavian DNA, and about the culture of trying things out, being open to making mistakes, starting small and seeing how everything works. As an example, Victor notes "Looking at Swedes, we want to be early adopters. When the hybrid car came, everyone was running in that direction. No one asks 'Is it smarter to keep my current car, or should I have a hybrid?' Everyone wants a hybrid, everyone wants the new thing."
The company's momentum is derived from the desire to tell stories, to engage people, to make them think or feel something.
While corporations grow larger and larger, and data-driven solutions are the key talking point for companies to understand their customers, ACNE still relies on instinct. To this day, no sector of the company is measuring effectiveness or metrics, rather the company's momentum is derived from the desire to tell stories, to engage people, to make them think or feel something. On that subject, Tomas summarizes in stating "When we started everything, we didn't analyze anything. If we love it, then people will love it. This was the core idea." while David continues "We have a saying 'See how far you can go', it's like our motto."
With primary office spaces in Stockholm, Los Angeles, Berlin and London, supplemented by offices in Paris and Amsterdam that are set to open shortly, ACNE added names names like BMW, Evian, Magasin III, Audi and Ikea to its resume in 2014, culminating in an impressive film reel. The brand operates within two circles, one is art and the other is industry, this is the sweet spot that names like Nike or Apple have successfully honed in on. Projects must be both creative and profitable, and this strategy equally applies to the independently run Acne Studios, as a balance is sought between commercial realism and creativity.
Bringing up a commercial for Burger King that I thought was particularly hilarious, I ask Victor to describe how ACNE leaves its mark on each project, to which he pointedly responds "Everyone that works here is ACNE. It's a shared voice. For us, we want to work together. It's important to share and try to understand each other."
ACNE's vision is perhaps best elucidated by one comparison. If you look at the standard model of TV advertisements, the entertainment is interrupted and the commercial break begins. With ACNE products, the commercial is the entertainment. That is the shift in the market, and that is what ACNE is.