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Acne Studio’s Jonny Johansson on Getting Out of the Denim Box, the Globalization of Style, and Innovation Versus Appearance

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acne-01The denim business today is nearly as fast-paced as ready-to-wear. Boyfriends have been replaced by mom jeans. Printed denim? So 2012. And flares go in and out almost too often for even die-hard jeans lovers to keep track. Acne Studios is a label that survives and thrives not by rushing in to grab its share of the trend pie, but by staying true to the simple principle that it launched with back in 1997. The Swedish brand’s denim philosophy is best summed up by founder Jonny Johansson: “I’m not into fancy stuff.” For Johansson, cool anonymity is a virtue, and over time it’s that very quality that has become Acne denim’s signature. Johansson called in from his vacation in the Stockholm archipelago to talk about the company’s origins, the competition, and where Acne is headed.

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Acne Studios’ entrance into the denim market has been told often enough that the story has made it onto the brand’s Wikipedia page. Can you tell it again?
Acne was built on the Warholian Factory idea. I thought it would be so cool to be a film director and a fashion designer and maybe a musician. We had these big round-table discussions: How do we enter the fashion thing? What the discussion came down to basically was that five-pocket jeans are the Coca-Cola of fashion. It was never about doing some new denim approach. That was never the idea. We had success with the first 100 pairs we gave to fans and friends and photographers we knew, and forced them to wear. It was a very good start but also a very shocking start. Everything happened really fast. We wanted to be a fashion brand, not just a denim brand, but we got placed in the denim box. It was a bit of a struggle to try to make people interested in the other stuff we wanted to do. We were scared to be this one-product project where you’re hip for a certain moment because you have a new name.

In hindsight, how do you account for the quick success of Acne’s jeans?
Today if you enter the fashion denim space, it’s a race that’s much more complex. It’s much more layered, it’s much more about the finishing, about the weaving. At the time [Acne got into the business], it was just about your approach to fashion. It was about your attitude. Today, it’s a super-big, complex industry where the race is much, much tighter. Your approach might be a good idea, but a good idea is not enough.

Talk about the “idea” behind Acne jeans.
I’m very focused about the word generic. It’s not really about the silhouette [for me]. You could say, “You should have a pair of ’70s-cut, flared jeans today because the ’70s [are trending].” Yes, that may be so, but I think it’s more about the fabric and how to circle around it. I don’t like what you call the stereotypes of fashion, which would be the flare, the super-skinny. I like a five-pocket [style], and I’m not too much into fancy stuff. And I don’t like vintage. It has to be very straightforward for both men and women; I’m very [into the idea of] unisex.

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But silhouette is so important to girls. I have a pair of high-waisted, straight-legged Acne jeans from eight years ago that I adored, but I can’t wear them now. The fit isn’t quite right.
For women it’s about finding something that will make you feel confident. It’s about the body. That’s what I find quite interesting with women and denim—it’s about trying to present yourself in a good way. It’s about pocket sizes and things like that. I think for women it is about being contemporary, but more so it’s about being flattering. Women are not so conforming about what to wear, so I like women’s fashion more for that respect.

Back to the fabric. Where do you source yours?
I’m not too much into the whole selvedge Japanese denim phenomenon. I do like Japanese fabrics, but when it comes to heritage, re-creating a complete heritage never interested me. That has never been the core for me. We work with a factory, which we’ve worked with for many, many years. They do a plain denim that I really like, it’s a twill denim. Another reason I love denim, it’s also very sustainable, it’s not a garment that you throw away every season. I envy sometimes friends who have one pair that they’ve had for a long time. I’ve always been into that.

Do you remember your first pair of jeans?
I try to forget the first ones my mother forced me into in the ’70s, but, yeah, I do remember the first pair I decided to have. It was a pair of Levi’s 501s, a straightforward American import. I was 12, maybe 11. Everything else that was available [in Sweden] were copies of Levi’s. It was Levi’s or nothing, for me at least. Our parents were quite heavily influenced by American pop culture, and they channeled it down to us. When I discovered my own aesthetic in terms of design, I remember changing the 501s. I’ve done everything, from changing silhouettes to dyeing. But I still wanted 501s to play with.

Where do you stand on washing or not washing your jeans?
Oh, I wash. My mother told me to take a shower every day.

When you look around, are there brands you think are doing interesting things in the denim sphere?
I always like A.P.C. They’ve carved out this timeless zone. They’re never really in and they’re never really out, which I kind of like. And they sort of sprung up in the same period as we did. Not maybe in everything, but regarding the jeans, they’re the brand I like.

As a Levi’s fan from your earliest days, when you look at Levi’s now, what do you think?
Confused. It makes me confused. I’m sorry, that’s the first word that comes to my mind. I think it’s about scale. It’s really a super-big machine that supplies everyone everything. That’s difficult always.

Acne itself is now a global business. Are jeans tastes the same in New York versus Stockholm versus Tokyo?
No, I think it’s going more opposite, I think it’s becoming more unified. I think it’s maybe the World Wide Web. [laughs] It’s becoming so unified it’s almost scary. [I compare it with] when you go out in Stockholm, [where] everyone looks the same. If one thing is right, everyone is on it, and if it’s not right, no one’s doing it anymore.

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Is Acne’s denim design team separate from its ready-to-wear team?
It’s always been a big challenge to make it one. The cycles in denim are not six months or four months or one month, or whatever it is [in ready-to-wear] now. Denim kind of has its own life. But our developer for denim is always in every meeting about what we’re doing, how we’re progressing, about the look or whatever it is. He’s in the mix. That’s very important.

How big a part of the brand is denim, and is it important to align the personality of the jeans and the ready-to-wear?
Denim is 25 percent of our business, a figure that’s been quite stable for the last five, seven years. It’s never in, it’s never out, that’s the beauty of it. But the five-pocket jean is a classic thing, which is why it’s so difficult for a fashion show. Because you want to stay in the realistic field, but you still want to try to do something [on the runway]. So you don’t see much denim at Acne shows.

Acne stores are popping up everywhere now—on Paris’ Left Bank, in downtown L.A. Where to next?
We’re opening in Hong Kong in September, a very small, little cute store. Our New York store is due for a rethink. We’d like more space, or else we’ll have to split men’s and women’s.

What do you see as the future of denim? How important are technological innovations, in terms of stretch, say, to the Acne brand?
We had success at the start because I developed a denim fabric with a supplier that had stretch. So I’m interested, but I’ve become more and more about the visual, less about the technical. I’m not smart enough. I’m so much about appearance and first impression. I think the technical aspects are very difficult. I’d rather like to be the Hermès of jeans than the North Face.

Asger Juel Larsen Heats Up the Copenhagen Fashion Scene

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asger-blogJustin O’Shea, the buying director at online luxury store MyTheresa, recently told Reuters that Copenhagen was one of only a few cities that inspired him. “It’s exotic minimalism. Beautiful simplicity is in their DNA. It is not based around high heels and miniskirts,” he said in the article.

It’s that simple elegance that’s starting to turn the heads of fashion insiders, like O’Shea, and consumers alike. (Denmark’s fashion exports have reportedly grown by 16 percent since 2009.) One of the most promising talents of them all is Danish designer Asger Juel Larsen, who won the inaugural menswear award in the Woolmark Europe competition last month, beating out designers like Pavel Ivancic, Vladimir Karaleev, and Cedric Jacquemyn. His judges included Style.com’s Tim Blanks, Colette’s Sarah Andelman, and Hermès’ Véronique Nichanian. “It was a unanimous decision. We were all in agreement about the choice,” Nichanian told WWD of their menswear choice.

On the heels of Larsen’s Spring 2015 “Interrupt Me” runway show in Copenhagen (as part of Copenhagen fashion week, which has just wrapped up), we checked in with the London College of Fashion grad to talk about the changing fashion scene in the Danish capital right now, his decision to leave London for Copenhagen, and more.

ajl-sizedOn the Copenhagen fashion climate right now…“Copenhagen fashion week is one of the biggest in northern Europe—it’s the most interesting in Scandinavia. We have some really strong designers who have been showing for many years, and then some new ones coming from places like London and Amsterdam who are trying a new thing and alternative way of presenting. There’s a very fun energy here right now.”

London vs. Copenhagen aesthetics…“They are definitely the total opposite look. The whole London scene—I think that makes up the craziness of what I do. Obviously, tailoring is a huge part of what I like to do. But I also have my Danish heritage—I used to embroider things with my mom and grandma, and that makes up a big part of who I am as a designer.”

On growing his business…
“I showed at London fashion week when I graduated—I had sponsored shows—then I was either going to do shows for press or go back to Copenhagen and build a company. When I moved from London, I really didn’t want to leave, it’s such an epicenter of fashion. But we are doing it at our own pace, and I’m really glad I did it that way. Eventually, I would also like to have a base in NYC. We are sold at VFiles in New York, H. Lorenzo in L.A., Henrik Vibskov, and lots of places in Scandinavia (obviously). Our biggest business right now is coming from Japan and the U.S. Our diffusion line of basics, A.J.L. Madhouse, is way more affordable, and that’s doing quite well.”

The immediate effects of the Woolmark win…
“I think the show went really well. I think there were a lot more international magazines at the show because of my Woolmark win. Also, lots of buyers have been contacting me. All in all, the news has been everywhere and all the media outlets have covered it. My Google alerts are going mad right now. It looks like the future is going to be hectic.”

On the art of winning a fashion prize…
“I had a really good, but very short, dialogue with the judges. I think they thought the fabrics and the garments I did were unique. I wanted to make a human sheep with the merino wool—we all laughed about that. I didn’t have much schooling on doing a fashion competition, they just selected me and Anne Sofie Madsen to do it. It was just me and my team, trying to make something really pure. You know?”

His dream fashion prize to win…
“To me, Woolmark is everything. There is nothing bigger.”

Photos: Courtesy of Asger Juel Larsen; Copenhagen Fashion Week

Dressing for Fame: A Queen Latifah Video, a Never-Ending Cher Shoot, and More Styling Experiences From Maryam and Marjan Malakpour

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If celebrity status is conferred in red-carpet appearances, then no actress today can compete without the help of just the right stylist. As Kerry Washington once told Glamour after she noticeably upped the sartorial ante, “There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand careerwise—because they knew how to work that red carpet.” A carefully crafted collaboration between stylist and client, the perfect look can create an indelible impact on agents, casting directors, and those of us watching from the sidelines. Straight from the epicenter of all things celebrity, we’ve asked some of the industry’s top stylists to share their experiences and impressions from their perch above Tinseltown. With our Dressing for Fame series, we bring you an exclusive, insider look at everything it takes to create those iconic moments captured by a million photo flashes.

Maryam and Marjan Malakpour

Maryam and Marjan Malakpour

With a client roster that reads like a who’s who of music’s living legends (think Cher, David Bowie, and Keith Richards), Maryam and Marjan Malakpour have mastered the rock god(dess) aesthetic. When they’re not busy with NewbarK, their line of impeccable flats, the two spend their time on the set of music videos and photo shoots, keeping the likes of Heidi Klum and Julian Casablancas ahead of the trends—Maryam even lends her magic Malakpour touch to Angelina Jolie on special projects. Here, the sisters talk to Style.com about how Queen Latifah played a role in their journey, why styling on set is better than the red carpet, and a Cher shoot that took a cool 22 hours to complete.

How did you get your starts styling?
Marjan Malakpour: For me, it was kind of by surprise. At the time I was living in San Francisco and came here to L.A. to help Maryam, who had been styling a Queen Latifah video shoot. I never left.

Maryam Malakpour: Styling for me was not a planned thing. I didn’t even know that stylists existed until I met a Japanese stylist and she asked me if I would assist her on a few projects. I never interned at a magazine or with a huge stylist to really know how they do it. I would say if I could take time back, I would have done that, interned at Vogue or for Carine Roitfeld—she is my hero!

As designers of the brand NewbarK, how do you maintain a balance between life as stylists and designers?
Marjan: Sometimes it’s very challenging because they are both very full-on projects. But I feel like by now Maryam and I have figured out how to give each area its time. Somehow it works out between the two of us.

Maryam: I do most of the designing for NewbarK, and then present them to my sister. Then together we make edits and comments and changes. I have to get up very early to give time to styling and e-mails and sometimes research for the next inspiration. Most of the time it’s all happening simultaneously when I’m alone in my studio office at home and everyone is sleeping.

Do you think being a designer informs your work as a stylist or vice versa?

Marjan: Definitely. Maryam does the design for NewbarK. Because of styling, every season we know what is missing out there or how to make the design better. Basically, this is how NewbarK started. At the time there really weren’t any cool flats besides ballerinas and we wanted something that was more rock ‘n’ roll.

Maryam: For the kind of brand that we have, it’s all about what people need and want and can’t find. So being a stylist really helps us know that. I am shopping all the time and see great things and not-so-great things and pretty much know what works and what doesn’t work for a certain type of person. Also, most brands hire stylists to consult and gather information and ideas for them. In our case, we are all in-house, designing, styling, researching ideas and inspiration—we’re doing it all.

What was your “made it” moment?
Marjan: I think when I met David Bowie for “The Next Day” music video I shot with him—that was pretty amazing.

Maryam: When I got my first gig with the Rolling Stones.

What do you find more challenging, photo shoots or red carpets?
Marjan: It really depends on whom you are working with. I can tell you the last photo shoot I did with Cher, who is a great client of mine, went over 22 hours. My alarm clock went off for the next day in my pocket.

Maryam: I prefer photo shoots. It’s more that I love to create a moment that’s about storytelling rather than just a look on a red carpet.

How do you challenge yourselves to keep things fresh, even after working with some of the same clients for years?
Marjan: Always looking for and keeping up with cool and upcoming designers.

Maryam: It never gets old, as long as you keep dreaming and being inspired and love what you do.

Photo: Roger Davies

Daria Werbowy Braves the Elements for AG

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Ah, Daria Werbowy. The supe has a chic sprezzatura that defies logic—and that has made her Céline campaigns the stuff of legend. Now she’s teamed up with AG to parlay that effortlessness into a dreamy new video for the brand’s Fall collection. (It was recently announced that she’ll be the face of its next four campaigns.) Art-directed by Magnus Berger and Tenzin Wild’s Berger & Wild and shot at a private residence on Amagansett by videographer Jacques Naude, the film features Werbowy (sporting a perfectly washed-out denim jacket) alongside her fetching counterpart, Mathias Lauridsen. But for the luxury denim stalwarts, the springtime shoot wasn’t all beachside romps. Per AG creative director Sam Ku: “As a brand from L.A., we thought going to an East Coast beach like Montauk would be exciting and fun. However, when we got there, the day of the shoot, it was 45 degrees; very, very windy; and sporadically raining. We were kind of all asking ourselves, What are we doing here? We all had our disposable plastic ponchos, and the umbrellas were doing the flip-inside-out thing. But we all went for dinner after and commiserated together. And we had a few extra drinks just to kind of say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

We can fairly feel the salt of the surf from here. For a bit of beach sans gale-force winds, watch the video, which makes its exclusive debut here.

Dressing for Fame: Versace, J.Lo, RiRi Gone Rogue, and More Career Tidbits from Stylists Mariel Haenn and Rob Zangardi

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If celebrity status is conferred in red-carpet appearances, then no actress today can compete without the help of just the right stylist. As Kerry Washington once told Glamour after she noticeably upped the sartorial ante, “There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand careerwise—because they knew how to work that red carpet.” A carefully crafted collaboration between stylist and client, the perfect look can create an indelible impact on agents, casting directors, and those of us watching from the sidelines. Straight from the epicenter of all things celebrity, we’ve asked some of the industry’s top stylists to share their experiences and impressions from their perch above Tinseltown. With our Dressing for Fame series, we bring you an exclusive, insider look at everything it takes to create those iconic moments captured by a million photo flashes.

Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn

Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn

It takes quite the fashion force to dress J.Lo for the stage, Rachel McAdams for the Cannes red carpet, and Pharrell for his many (sartorially daring) public outings, but the powerhouse styling duo of Mariel Haenn and Rob Zangardi have proved they’re nothing if not up to the task. Whether they’re commissioning original pieces to bring an idea to life, going back to their roots on music video sets, or forging relationships with up-and-coming talent, their scene-stealing tastes draw a uniquely diverse client mix that includes the abovementioned stars and beyond. Here, the duo talks exclusively to Style.com about going rogue with RiRi (they worked with the songstress for four years), being equal-opportunity stylists, and why women are more complex to style than men.

How did you both begin styling?
Rob Zangardi: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated with a fashion merchandising degree from Ohio University. After college, my twin brother was working in NYC as a casting director, casting the audience for the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards. He knew I would love it, so I stood in the pit to watch the show and ended up meeting a stylist who worked at MTV. I had no idea what a stylist was until then, but it sounded like my dream job. Because of her, I ended up getting hired at MTV to help with their New Year’s Eve show, which turned into a full-time job—right place, right time. And the rest is history.

Mariel Haenn: I was in school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for fashion design and I met someone who introduced me to the music video world. I started as a seamstress on videos, and then was assistant-styling while still in college. Once I graduated, I was fortunate enough to keep getting called to assist, but in the back of my mind, I was focusing on working at a design studio. I considered styling my means of making a living until I found the job I really wanted. Cut to 13 years later, turns out this is the job I wanted.

RihannaWhat’s the most memorable moment you’ve created thus far?

RZ: Rachel McAdams in the red Marchesa at the Cannes Film Festival was pretty memorable. She just looked like a movie star—you couldn’t take your eyes off of her. That train added the perfect amount of glamour and drama but didn’t overpower the woman wearing it. It was definitely a moment.

MH: Rihanna in the Dolce & Gabbana tux at the [2009] Met Gala. That was a special moment because we went completely rogue. It was a Marc Jacobs year and we got a call 30 minutes prior that so-and-so was wearing the same boots we’d planned on putting Ri in. So last minute, we went for plan B, and plan B ended up being this complete outlaw moment for both Rihanna and in Met history. It was something special.

RZ: Working with Versace to re-create Jennifer Lopez’s iconic Grammys dress for her most recent performances was also huge. It was pretty unbelievable to see her in the print that started it all.

How do you find working in New York different from working in L.A.?
MH: Styling-wise, New York tends to be much more avant-garde and fashion-forward. L.A. is a bit more risk averse and tends to focus on glamour more so than experimentation. There’s also a different level of polish. In L.A., you never want to look like you’re trying too hard—it’s almost as if people put even more effort into looking “effortless” than anything else—while in New York, there’s a broader range in dressing up and down.

RZ: It might sound cliché, but New York’s pace and tone also feels a lot quicker and has this undeniable sense of purpose. The way people walk in New York is representative of how they are. There’s a bigger hustle. It feels more natural for us, honestly, since we are always on the move and juggling multiple projects. The collaborations in L.A. tend to also be more commercial. New York is a greater creative playground. We get to be more forward-thinking and innovative.

What’s your favorite event to dress clients for and why?
RZ: Working on tours and music videos is definitely something we both really enjoy because there is more storytelling involved. There’s an entire arc that goes beyond a broad theme, so to speak. The looks have to work together with different elements to communicate so much. It’s not simply a supplement or continuation of the story, it’s a significant part of it.

MH: Collaborating with designers on custom pieces is a big thrill for us, too. Red carpet is fun, but there’s something to be said for bringing an idea to life rather than plucking from what already exists. A great example is having had the honor of working with Versace for Jen [Lopez]‘s stage looks in NYC. The experience itself was pretty surreal and the end result was nothing short of exceptional.

How do you manage to juggle multiple clients with multiple obligations and aesthetics all at once?
RZ: This is where it’s great to have two people rather than one. We like to joke that we are carbon copies of each other, so it’s like being in two places at once.

MH: The reason we started working together to begin with is because Rob was the only one I trusted to hand my clients over to if I wasn’t available for a job. The partnership was very organic. In terms of balancing the different aesthetics, you sort of train your mind to understand each client and their personality. There’s a lot of relationship-building there. After that, it’s almost impossible to mix aesthetics because you associate the person with the look so instantly.

How do you think working as a pair strengthens your styling? What has this relationship been like?
RZ: Our taste is practically the same, yet we complement each other well in terms of workflow and personality. The relationship is like an old married couple meets brother and sister, if that makes sense.

MH: For lack of a better phrase, two heads are truly better than one. It’s great to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, especially when in a more risk-taking scenario. It’s also great to have someone challenge you or ask the right questions when you’re dead set that something might look great but it could actually be better.

How do you balance dressing clients in looks by emerging designers as well as clothes by respected, longstanding favorites?
RZ: We try to be “equal opportunity” stylists and simply pull what we think will work best for the client in that particular scenario, despite notoriety. The designers we have relationships with always end up in that mix because we sincerely admire their work. That relationship is built from using their pieces over and over as opposed to an obligation.

MH: Plus, we know which clients love which designers and will want to try their pieces no matter what, like Jen with Zuhair Murad, for example.

Do you approach styling men and women differently?
MH: Men usually go one of two ways: very classic or completely modern. You have someone like Will Smith, who is just dapper Old Hollywood movie star head to toe, and then on the flip side, somebody like Pharrell, who loves to play with fashion and sees it as an extension of his art. Styling women has a much greater spectrum, and there are many more shades of gray. It’s equally important to understand the client’s personality and experiences, regardless of gender, and women, by nature, tend to have more complexity. This reflects in how many different ways you can go with a look.

What do you think of the “stylist as celebrity” trend?
RZ: In a more open, share-friendly, social-media-driven world, anyone can be a “celebrity” for their craft or, in some cases, their lifestyle. The definition of celebrity has shifted in that regard. From a creative standpoint, that’s a great thing, because regardless of what you do, you can be found and your work can be followed, admired, and act as inspiration for somebody else. This creates an elevated benchmark for everybody and their work, and in turn, much more interesting, provocative, and creative end products.

Photos: Courtesy Photo; Wireimage