Ann-Sofie Johansson has risen from shop assistant to design boss at H&M, picking up some luxury friends along the way
Earlier this month, at a catwalk show at the Grand Palais during Paris Fashion Week, Drapers took its seat alongside A-list celebrities and international journalists. As the spectacular production kicked in, models took to the runway bedecked in a polished autumn 15 collection featuring embellished roll-neck knits, après-ski padded jackets and swishy wide trousers in rust and deep green.
A luxury fashion house staging its latest catwalk extravaganza? No, this was Swedish high street giant H&M taking over fashion week with its Studio collection.
Back at H&M’s head office in Stockholm, we caught up with the woman who spearheaded this collection, Ann-Sofie Johansson. With her long, grey-flecked black hair, simple but stylish clothes and handful of eccentric, sculptural rings, this unassuming 52-year-old Swede started her career as an H&M shop assistant and rose through the ranks to the company’s head of design. Now holding the title creative adviser, she welcomes us into her H&M world with a wide smile.
“I had a plan. I always thought I wanted to be a designer at H&M,” admits Johansson of her early career plans. “For me [as a teenager], H&M had the coolest fashion, it was like heaven. I wanted to have a pair of big gold earrings because [the singer] Sade had them. I went into H&M and they had everything,” she says, wide-eyed. “I just thought it would be a clever thing to start in the store and work my way in.”
And so after starting on the shop floor in Stockholm in 1987 she joined the small 10-person design team as the company’s first ever design assistant three years later. Steady promotions followed until she landed the head of design job in 2008, overseeing all H&M collections globally. “The company has been growing and I’ve just been growing with it,” she says, humbly.
“For me [as a teenager], H&M had the coolest fashion, it was like heaven”
Originally founded as a womenswear store called Hennes in the Swedish city of Västerås in 1947, today H&M has around 3,500 stores in 55 territories. It opened its first store outside of Scandinavia in London in 1976, and now has 235 stores in the UK, to which it delivers fresh product every day. The wider H&M Group also comprises smaller contemporary retailer Cos and young fashion chains Monki, Weekday, & Other Stories and Cheap Monday. In the first quarter to February 28, total group sales including VAT were SEK46.8bn (£3.6bn), an increase of 25% year on year.
Having made the move from the shop floor, Johansson now works from H&M HQ with 160 designers in a sleek multi-storey, two-building complex in central Stockholm. The main building is pristine and white, with a vast glass and marble atrium. Groups of casually dressed staff hold informal meetings on quirky Scandinavian furniture, clutching magazine cuttings and complex-looking spreadsheets. A large inspiration library is filled with books and magazines, a vintage archive stocked with rails of rare clothing and a dedicated colour room with more than 3,000 swatches, in which Drapers overhears two designers debating the pros and cons of several similar shades of green. The corridor walls are plastered with mood boards, some divided by titles such as ‘gut feelings’ and ‘best sellers’.
The teams are tidying away their spring 16 inspiration displays on the day Drapers visits. “We’re often working a whole year ahead, because we’re so big today, and we place big volumes, so you have to start planning and designing really early,” explains Johansson of the design process. “But sometimes [the process] can go quite quickly, particularly if it’s a repeated item or something that’s just slightly updated. Maybe eight weeks [from design to store].”
Although she no longer sketches designs on a day-to-day basis, Johansson’s creative advisory role means she oversees what she calls H&M’s “brand building” collections. These include special projects such as the more directional and limited edition Studio range that was unveiled during Paris Fashion Week and the famous designer collaborations, the most recent of which was a sell-out collection that Johansson worked on with US designer and Balenciaga creative director Alexander Wang in November 2014. “Day to day my job involves doing a lot of research and keeping up to date with what’s happening, so that we’re always full of new ideas,” she says.
But why does a high street chain want be part of the opulent spectacle that is Paris Fashion Week, alongside brands like Chanel and Lanvin? And why does it want to collaborate with such brands? Johansson is diplomatic about the motives behind the special projects, referring to them as brand-building exercises intended to delight H&M shoppers by borrowing some of that high-fashion sparkle. “With the Paris Fashion Week show it’s a way of developing the company. We want to demonstrate what we can really do in terms of design,” she says of the Studio collection, which will drop into selected stores this September. “And the high-end brands are showing there so it’s about being part of that. It creates a buzz around H&M that sets it in a good light. And maybe we can attract new customers, as well as keep the ones we have,” she adds pragmatically.
“It is very much a true collaboration with the designers, otherwise we wouldn’t do them. It has to feel real”
Similarly, Johansson refers to H&M’s successful designer collaborations as “win win” collections, where both the brand and H&M benefit. Launched in 2004, the ranges see H&M team up with well-known brands and designers to sell dual-branded low-price designs in limited runs. Hype and hysteria ensures crowds of customers queue for hours and collections sell out in days. Past collaborators have included brands like Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Comme des Garçons, as well as Lanvin, Versace and Marni. “It is very much a true collaboration with the designers, otherwise we wouldn’t do them. It has to feel real,” explains Johansson. “We create a buzz around H&M and it creates a buzz around the designer brand also. It’s mutual and both parts are happy. People always love something that is a little more limited and to get a designer item at a very good price is of course good, everyone loves a good bargain,” she smiles.
According to Jessica Fioriti, associate retail analyst at research firm Verdict, the magic of such projects is all about introducing “value perception and quality perception” by connecting H&M with the catwalk and designer labels in customer’s minds. “When people buy a £100 coat [from H&M], they feel like they’re getting more value for their money because of these associations with fashion week and luxury brands,” she says. “By showing on a catwalk at fashion week, H&M is creating a brand in itself, which creates value perception. Psychologically [customers] like it. Topshop and Whistles are doing it and I think more retailers will.”
It does seem to be working. According to Verdict’s research, H&M has a 2.5% share of the UK clothing market by value, up from 1.8% in 2010. Fioriti believes this is largely thanks to the designer collaborations. Among clothing specialists in the UK, H&M holds the eighth-largest market share, behind New Look at 2.9% and above River Island at 1.6%. Marks & Spencer leads the way with 9%.
In her 28 years in the company, Johansson has seen these brand-building elements grow, as well as witnessing - and influencing – other shifts and evolutions within the industry. “The biggest change was when we received the computers. When I started we did everything by hand,” she says. “So there’s online [shopping] now, that’s been the biggest change. It’s so easy to shop online now. Even things that I think are hard to shop online, like shoes, are popular.” She adds: “Menswear is totally different too. For us we see a much bigger interest in men’s fashion today. We started a men’s trend department a few years ago because we felt a proper demand for it, and menswear is growing at H&M, which is really exciting.” H&M opened its first dedicated menswear store in Cologne, Germany, in 2006 and now has 30 in nine markets including Belgium and Bahrain.
“People think that fashion is going so fast nowadays, but I don’t believe that it’s going very fast at all”
As for the concept of ‘fast fashion’ and the growth of trends, Johansson says: “People think fashion is going so fast nowadays but I don’t believe it’s going very fast at all, there’s a lot more fashion going on all at the same time. Trends are lingering on for much longer today. We’ve seen sports-inspired looks for years now and it’s still here, and I think it will continue. When I started fashion was much more dictated by the catwalks and there was only ever one thing that was the big thing of the season. It’s not like that anymore, there’s more freedom and it’s more liberating and more fun.
“I think the interesting thing now is the genderless fashion we’ve seen bubbling for several seasons. Before it was women just borrowing things from menswear, but now it really is becoming more unisex.”
But will genderless clothing really catch on at H&M? “There are always the more difficult trends, or trends that are too new,” she replies, slightly hesitantly. “I don’t want to say this really, but sometimes we have to be persistent and try to make our customers like a new silhouette, for example. I always take the example of the skinny trouser. It’s boring now but that took forever to make everyone like it and now it’s really hard to get rid of. And I remember the three quarter-length sleeve took ages for everyone to like, but that’s another thing we kept going with.” As often seems to be the case, Johansson’s predictions may well prove correct.
Although she has spent her entire career there, she is still the young girl who wanted be a designer at H&M. “I do sometimes [miss the hands-on designing], because you’re always a designer at heart. And you need to have big ears and big eyes and be really curious and open-minded. But in my job I get to pick the raisins out of the cake, so to speak,” she says with a wink. “You never learn fashion though, it’s always moving forward so you also have to. You’re never finished and that’s what’s fun. It keeps you young.”