The coolest store now open in downtown L.A. is called Acne Studios. That's right. Get over it.
If you don't know, Acne (an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expression) was founded in 1996 in Stockholm by musician-turned-fashion designer Jonny Johansson. In seven years, it has grown into a $120-million brand with 40 stores around the world, men's and women's fashion collections, runway shows in Paris, as well as a publishing wing that has collaborated on projects with the likes of photographers Lord Snowden and William Wegman.
Which is why when you walk into the new 5,000-square-foot boutique in the historic Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway, it's appropriate that you first lay eyes on "Giant Triple Mushroom," a trippy toadstool of an installation by Belgian artist Carsten Holler that seems to symbolize the curious rise of a brand that is known for doing things differently.
The store opening party Tuesday night was so crowded that people spilled out onto the sidewalk. A week before Christmas, to get that kind of a draw for a purely retail affair was astounding, and suggests that the revitalization of downtown L.A. is reaching a new level.
Afterward, actress Christina Hendricks, band members from Haim and others walked across the street to the historic 1927 United Artists Theatre where the ACE Hotel is soon to open, for a traditional Swedish schnapps toast and dinner under the gilded ceiling.
Johansson started out making 100 pairs of jeans with red stitching and giving them to friends and family. "Where do you start if you make a modern brand, especially when you don't have a fashion education? Denim is the most important garment of the modern world," he says. "It's the perfect canvas. Functional, pure, clean, generic, that means cool to me."
Acne Studios now also sells ruggedly hip footwear (the cowboy-inspired Pistol and Alma booties are cult faves), leather biker jackets, slouchy suiting and simple dresses, all of which have a Scandinavian functionality but also a playfulness that rocks them slightly off center. For example, in the spring 2014 collection, utilitarian denim sailor dresses were dotted with tiny anchor charms, and the polished brass plaque buckles on webbed belts were super-sized.
"In Sweden, we have no fashion heritage," Johansson says. "We are the country of H&M and Ikea. It's about democracy. So you have to have a bit of playfulness."
As a creative director and fashion designer, Johansson seems to relish his outsider status. He's as influenced by Hollywood and American culture (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley) as as he is by Swedish utilitarianism. He lives in Stockholm in a house where director Ingmar Bergman lived in the 1960s, and his first stop after landing in L.A. this week was Venice Beach to go surfing. Also on his to-do list? The Guitar Center; he's a collector.
Johansson doesn't profess to know all that much about fashion, which has a certain charm too.
"Even though I'm not amazing, I have patience with myself," he says. "I'm developing, and I think that's why some people like us. Because we're in constant process. It's not a set menu."
Since opening the first Acne store on Norrmalmstorg square, site of the 1973 bank robbery that gave rise to the psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, the brand's approach to retail has been to find unique spaces. Although Johansson has been to downtown L.A. before, he didn't know that much about the building at 855 Broadway in the old theater district, other than the fact that the ACE Hotel was opening across the street. "I hope it's going to be great, but from a business perspective, I'm still unsure," he says. "You can be as strategic as you want, but then you become cold and calculated. We try to stay on the right side of that. Here, in downtown L.A., the building is the thing. Forget about the interior."
The turquoise-colored facade of the building designed by Claud Beelman in 1930 is a beacon all right. Inside the store, Johansson has kept the look raw, with perforated aluminum fixtures, pink terrazzo flooring and Acne Studios-designed furniture. There's also a coffee shop, ilcaffe, modeled after his favorite java joint in Stockholm.
The store stocks men's and women's clothing such as $230 high waist skinny jeans, $900 metallic gold crinkled linen blazers, $2,400 ethereal sheer printed organza dresses, $340 merino wool culottes, sunglasses, shoes and scarves, including a commemorative design featuring the Eastern Columbia Building facade rendered in sunset blues and pinks ($290).
Also for sale is Acne Paper, which serves as the brand's only advertising and marketing vehicle. "We started the magazine because we thought it was a way to express our world without talking about our own brand," Johannson explains. The latest issue is dedicated to the actress, featuring Greta Garbo on the cover, a literary portfolio of actresses writing about actresses (Diane Keaton on Audrey Hepburn, for example), a story about "greatest supporting actress" Thelma Ritter and more. The fashion spreads include only the occasional Acne garment, alongside Celine, Proenza Schouler and more.
"We're developing," Johansson says, his eyes scanning the red-carpeted VIP room, a first for the brand. "We don't have an It bag or a perfume, because we cannot do it yet. But there's no hurry. There's too much hurry in the fashion industry."
Acne Studios Eastern Columbia Building, 855 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 243-0960, acnestudios.com.