Words by tamsin blanchard Photography by emma svensson
It’s snowing as I land in Stockholm, but there is no fuss. Snowploughs are clearing the runway and everything is running smoothly. Sweden, it seems, has everything under control. And the next day, when I arrive at H&M’s headquarters, just off the main shopping street, I sense the gentle hum of a business that works as efficiently as the airport.
The main entrance leads you into a warm canteen area – all Scandinavian blond wood – with the offices set around a cool, modern atrium. Meetings happen at the “Coffice”, which is part coffee bar, part office, and the perfect place for a catch-up or to exchange ideas over fika (the very civilised Swedish custom of having morning or afternoon coffee and cake). The Coffice leads into the light, sun-filled library – used primarily for research and inspiration meetings – whose shelves are packed with an eclectic array of books and magazines.
I’m here to meet Ann-Sofie Johansson, who, as Creative Adviser of H&M, stands at the helm of the second-biggest clothing retailer in the world. It is only a matter of weeks until the brand presents its AW16 H&M Studio collection in a catwalk show at Paris Fashion Week on 2 March, and I am here for an exclusive preview of the fourth such H&M Studio show.
Johansson is a busy woman, but as we visit the White Room – H&M’s design hub – I am struck by her calmness. She is dressed in a white H&M blouse and black trousers that, she says, are about four years old and also from H&M; a pair of embellished Marni shoes; and a sleeveless jacket in cream from Danish label By Malene Birger. She also wears some big chunky rings, and has a slightly bohemian air.
“The White Room is where you can get inspiration and be more creative,” she tells me. “You need big eyes and ears to take in a lot of things and be open-minded, because everything can have an impact on fashion.” Only once you have processed it and analysed it, she says, will you know what to do for the following season.
I wasn’t expecting this. Leading players of high- street brands are usually more interested in numbers than in keeping their minds open to popular culture, but Johansson is clearly doing something right – just take the phenomenon that was the Balmain x H&M collaboration in November.
While she doesn’t oversee the brand’s entire output (“We have a big organisation”), the hugely successful designer collaborations are her responsibility. And no, she won’t be drawn on who’s next, but Marni and Margiela were among her personal favourites.
To maintain the excitement of these annual collaborations is a key challenge, alongside two other high-profile collections: H&M Studio, and the sustainability-focused H&M Conscious Exclusive. The latter arrives in store with its own fanfare in April: it is being launched with an event at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, to coincide with an H&M-sponsored exhibition, Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Fashion (1715-2015).
With all this activity, the public’s expectations have been raised, and H&M has created some of the most highly sought-after collaborations of the past decade. “People just fall in love with a piece that is well-made and beautiful – like the Balmain limited-edition beaded dress,” says Johansson.
So have the designer collaborations set the bar for the brand’s much-lauded H&M Studio collection? “We started to show H&M Studio because we wanted to put more focus on our own fashion and design,” she says. “We have so many skilled designers here, and with H&M Studio they get the chance to really make a statement and show our most important trends. It’s about our love of fashion being at the heart of everything we do – and we hope customers will find their own personal favourites within the collection.”
There are two H&M Studio collections a year, and Autumn/Winter is shown on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week with all the glamour of a designer show. Last year, models included Gigi, Edie and Kendall. H&M is on great terms with all the big girls, who often feature in the brand’s glossy campaigns.
The collection has its own dedicated design team (as does H&M Conscious Exclusive), who have access to impressive resources: a colour library with 3,000 custom-mixed hues; sample machinists; fabric technicians; print designers; and vintage clothing, which is now a major source of inspiration. “We have always been inspired by archives and vintage, but it’s getting more and more important,” says Johansson, who adds that she finds the best items in LA, and even rents the rarest pieces.
For AW16, however, says Johansson, “It’s not about a period, but a different feeling. We looked to Sweden, to our own heritage. We are a global company and our fashion is global, so we try not to push the Swedishness too much.” But this time the inspiration came from Ingrid Bergman films (“She was such an icon; a beautiful, strong woman”), Swedish folklore, and the local flora and fauna. “There is craft: embroidery, handmade things, embellishment. Craft gives a really worked appearance,” says Johansson. “It’s easy to fall for that as a customer.”
But don’t think it’s all Pippi Longstocking and coat-hanger plaits. “At the same time, you have to mix that up with tailored things, so there’s some 80s and 90s in there, too,” she adds.
It is a departure from H&M Studio SS16, which takes the customer on an adventure, seeing what she can pack into her rucksack, be it a swimsuit, a beach kaftan, a party dress or sportswear. “There are a lot of stripes; they are very important for spring,” says Johansson.
Ultimately though, she believes trends are not what drive sales. “Trends are universal, more or less, as we have access to the same information at the same time. Because of that, fashion is global and trends are global. Everyone looks at the same things, listens to the same music, sees the same movies and celebrities.”
What sets H&M apart from its competitors – and there are many – is that it seems to be so in sync with its customer. As a teenager, Johansson remembers wanting to buy a pair of hoop earrings like Sade’s, and being amazed to find that the H&M store, an hour’s drive from where she grew up in the small town of Ronneby, southern Sweden, had them for sale. “For me, it was like magic: they could read my mind, they knew what I wanted.” That, she says, is why she chose to work for H&M.
Although Johansson had studied art, fashion and pattern cutting, she famously started her career on the H&M shop floor. She won the coveted position of Head of Design in 2008 before adding Creative Adviser to her titles. Career progression is part of the culture at H&M. It’s all very straightforward and grounded; very Scandinavian. “We try to be as close to our customers as possible; we listen to them to see what they want for the coming season,” says Johansson.
Every season, she returns to the shop floor. “All the designers, everyone at H&M, is supposed to do that,” she says. “It’s reality!” And that, perhaps more than the research, the White Room and the famous models on the catwalk, is what makes Ann-Sofie Johansson tick. She understands the magic of finding what you really want.
H&M’s Studio AW16 collection will be shown at Paris Fashion Week on 2 March at 8.20pm. Live stream the show at hm.com
Tamsin Blanchard is a freelance fashion writer