Here is our interview with Ann-Sofie Johansson, the Head of Design at H&M. I met her on my trip to Stockholm and immediately liked her simplicity, taste, and dedication to her work – and that Scandinavian tact that’s hard to define – but you’ll see what I mean.
She’s been at H&M throughout her entire career – she started out as a saleswoman there…
And since the H&M show was on Wednesdaynight, I thought it was the right time to publish this interview!
What is your job title?
I am the head of design for the New Development Department of H&M.
When you were growing up what was your dream job?
I actually wanted to become a vet. I was a horse girl, you could say, so I spent all my time in the stables riding and taking care of horses.
From that, how did you find fashion in your life?
I blame Barbie a little bit. I played so much with Barbie and would always want to make new outfits for her and try new things on her. My mom was really good with sewing and knitting so she did a lot of my Barbie clothes. Also my mom for making the clothes for herself and for me, we were mini-me’s sometimes during my childhood.
What did your parents do?
My mother was actually a housewife and she did a lot of sewing from home for different customers as well. And my father worked in the forest with nature reservations.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the south part of Sweden, in a small town, so we didn’t have much fashion going on.
When I was a little bit older I would take the train to bigger cities and see and explore the H&M stores! I found that H&M was the most exciting store for me as a teenager because I thought they had everything I had always wanted to have and wished for. That was my first experience with H&M.
What was H&M like then?
It was the dream destination for fashion, of course. I always told my parents I wanted to go into town to visit the local store and see what was new.
When did H&M first open?
The first H&M store opened in 1947.
Did you go to university?
I went to university and I studied history of art and archaeology, I took a detour before getting to fashion. After my childhood dreams of becoming a vet, I realized that you had to study for a very long time and my grades weren’t good enough to be accepted at a school. And I had always been interested in art so I started to study History of Art at the university.
So what was your first job in fashion?
My first job was actually in H&M at one of the stores in Stockholm in 1987.
How did you move from working in a store to where you are today?
Well I had an idea that I wanted to work as a designer for H&M, and I thought it was a good idea to start working in one of the stores to get to know the company and to get to know the customers.
After a year I contacted Margareta van den Bosch (currently the Creative Advisor of H&M, previously the Head of Design), and I put a portfolio together and showed it to her. I started as a designer assistant for her part-time, so I still worked in the stores, and what we called The White Room, which was the design department at H&M. At that time we were around 12 designers so it was really small, today we are 160, so it has really grown a lot.
Why did you want to design for H&M as opposed to working for another brand?
I think it was because of when I was younger and would travel to bigger cities, and H&M had everything. For me, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to work for H&M. They had such great advertisements– they had illustrations from a very well known fashion illustrator. I felt the brand had so much passion.
As head of design now, what does your job sort of entail? What do you actually do as the head of design for your department?
The New Development Department is the department where we make a lot of the special collections, like the collections we show in Paris, and our Conscious Collections, where we can be a little bit more innovative and a little bit more daring than the rest of the collections that we make at H&M.
So I have a design team there, and we work closely together, and with the collections of course I oversee and see what we have missed and what we can develop for next time.
I also try to be a visionary of where we see H&M going in the future and what our customers might expect of us. It is a really fun job; it is very creative. There are also so many great people working at H&M, which is, I think, one of the reasons why I stayed on longer, not just because I love fashion, but because the people are great. Very skilled. We have a lot of fun together.
And out of the 160 designers working at H&M, how many are working specifically on your team?
Today we are around 20.
We get to work close together, they get to see how we can do things and many times it is a surprise for them that we can work with the same type of qualities and detailing, but to a much lower price for the customer.
How many different departments does H&M have?
We offer fashion for ladies, kids, men, youth and cosmetics, for some markets also home. But within these departments we have collections for many different occasions – everyday wear, sport, party etc.
Are you still on a day-to-day designing? Or is it more of a review process with your team?
More reviewing. I don’t do any of the design myself so to speak but more of the reviewing, and more about giving guidelines. We talk about teamwork, that is definitely one of the values of H&M. Everyone has their say, so to speak—it is a very democratic process.
Do you miss being more hands-on with design?
Sometimes I miss that. But there are so many other really good designers, so I don’t really have to.
Do you feel that in your role your creative dreams are being fulfilled? Do you feel like it is more a work of restraint because you are with a team designing for the mass market?
I think what I do now is so fun.
I worked as a designer during my years at H&M on the Divided department, which is the young department in trending fashion, and I loved that also. Then I worked for Ladies, and then I was head of design for everything. Now I am responsible for the team that’s so innovative and visionary.
I think that it is such a great way to move because I tried a little bit of everything. I made fashion for many people, and now we can do something a little bit more edgy. I really love what I’m doing now.
But I still believe I am curious, on the lookout for the next thing. Fashion moves forward, finding new ways – and so should we.
I usually love Chloe Sevigny. She is an old favorite of mine, I love her style.
H&M really launched the designer collaboration trend. How involved are you with these collaborations?
I haven’t done them before, but now that Margareta is 70 years old and retiring, I am doing that as well. So that is also a new experience and very exciting to do.
And it depends on whether we continue to do them. We have done them for a few years now so there is always “should we do that again?” Other companies are doing it, but at the same time there are so many designers that we would love to collaborate with. So I guess we will continue with them!
And how have those collaborations changed H&M and the perception, because it has become such a big thing.
I think it has built the brand and been very good for it. It is kind of a win-win situation I think because for H&M it builds the brand and gives us inspiration, and also design-wise to work with a designer, a high-end designer. We get to work close together, they get to see how we can do things and many times it is a surprise for them that we can work with the same type of qualities and detailing, but to a much lower price for the customer.
They reach out to so many more people when we do a collaboration than they usually do, so I think it is very mutual.
Speaking of inspiration, what inspires you as a designer?
A lot of things. I think as a designer you have to be really open-minded and you have to be really interested in what is going around in society and in culture overall. I think you have to have big ears and big eyes because you have to see and feel things and grasp a lot of things, and you can find inspiration today everywhere.
For me, I think the best is looking at people. Whether that is in Stockholm, here in our stocking and buying office, young people, just going down in our restaurant and looking around… but also traveling of course and exhibitions and movies.
We show on the runway ourselves at the same time at Paris Fashion Week. That says something: that everyone comes more or less to the same conclusions regarding trends
And how has the Internet changed the way that you work? Do you find more inspiration online than you did before?
Absolutely. A whole new world I would say. When I started in fashion 25 years ago, it wasn’t around; it was magazines more or less. Today a lot of the information and inspiration you get is on the Internet. All those street photographers, all those bloggers. It is a lot to keep track of also, but it is a great source of inspiration.
We’ve been using Pinterest a lot here at the office.
We do that as well, I love it.
How do you take inspiration from what you are seeing in fashion and interpret it in a way in which it pulls in from the trends and what you are seeing, but doesn’t cross that line of being too close to something?
I think we follow the same trends everyone does in a way; they are kind of universal. We have have to make them fit our customers. We always think about our customers and what they want from us.
And now we show on the runway ourselves at the same time at Paris Fashion Week. That says something: that everyone comes more or less to the same conclusions regarding trends. But then I also think there are certain designers that are more avant-garde that are kind of designers’ designers. I think Céline did that a few years back when Phoebe Philo started there.
Where did the decision to do a runway show come from?
Well we always do a collection that we show really early in the season, what we call a press collection, to show to you and to editors and so on. We did have shows before, but they were more like a bigger event and now we want to show as everyone else does and put more focus on our own design. There is a lot of focus when we do our collaborations, but we are so many skilled people working here. And then, why not in Paris!? It is the fashion capital, whether you want it or not. That is why we chose Paris.
But I still believe I am curious, on the lookout for the next thing. Fashion moves forward, finding new ways – and so should we.
What kind of press does that bring the brand?
I think it clearly shows that we are a global fashion brand, working well in advance with the seasons. We are very proud to be able to show our own design in this way.
Can you tell me about your involvement in the conscious collection and how H&M approaches sustainability?
I think to be sustainable means a lot today. And we have to be producing our products in a sustainable way. I think our customers expect that from us, and I think we have to take responsibility.
We want to be at the forefront, and I think we are as well. Today we are the biggest buyer of organic cotton for example. And you can always find garments of organic cotton in our stores, and then we have our special collections.
One collection is called Conscious Exclusive, and here we want to show that sustainable fashion can be high fashion. It doesn’t have to look unfashionable, it can be really fashionable and sustainable at the same time. So there we make really beautiful clothes that are made of organic cotton, organic silk, recycled fabrics.
Why is that something that is so important to you?
Well I think it is important for us as a company because we are big and I think that we can make an impact. This is becoming more and more important, and people are becoming more and more aware today. We should be the best alternative I think, and we should produce our products in a sustainable way, taking care of nature and the people working with the products as well. And I do think that doing things in a sustainable way is very economical also, and we are an economical company.
How does the fast pace of fashion affect all of the work that you are doing?
We always have had big collections, something new every week in our stores. That has always been one of the things with H&M, so for us, I think that hasn’t really changed.
I also think that fashion doesn’t move so quickly, it is everything around it. It is almost impossible to say that something is in fashion now. So there are a lot of trends going on at the same time and a lot of fashion going on at the same time, and I think fashion becomes more fun when it is like that. More liberating, and freer, it is more about dressing a personality rather than following a lot of different trends.
Fashion and the tendencies around me is my great interest, I feel my brain is always tuned in for inspiration.
It’s so interesting to hear you say that because I think a lot of people, especially lately, have expressed a very different point of view. That we need to slow down and take a step back.
But I think it is about refining things, you know. A lot of products are following from season to season and I feel like we are refining them.
Do you yourself have a style icon that you look to?
I am a little bit of a tomboy, and I love quirky style and looks. I usually love Chloe Sevigny. She is an old favorite of mine, I love her style.
What is an average day like for you?
A little bit different every day. Sometimes it is a lot of interviews with authors and journalists; telling them about how we work at H&M and so on, and then it’s also a lot of research.
Trying to keep up with what is going on, research to see what we are going to do next, and then also meeting with the design team, talking about the collections, a lot of traveling too. A little bit of this and that.
How do you find balance between your work and your family?
It is important to have a balance. I try to be disciplined, and leave work on time and focus when I am with my family and friends. But fashion and the tendencies around me is my great interest, I feel my brain is always tuned in for inspiration.
What do you do to relax?
I visit art exhibitions or go to a restaurant with friends. And I really do enjoy tea and cookies.
What do you find the most challenging about your job?
I think it is to be right on fashion. To make our customers happy. That is still the most challenging thing I think, and usually the timing. I don’t think it is so hard to foresee what is coming, but I think a crucial thing is timing: when are people ready for this new color or shape or whatever it is.
How would you describe your customer? Who is the H&M consumer?
I think anyone that is interested in fashion actually. Usually I would say a fashion-conscious woman.
You were saying that you do a lot of press interviews, how has it been being sort of the face of the brand and the division that you work with? Is that something that you enjoy doing?
I think it is really fun to do that. It is fun to explain how we work, and it is fun to talk about fashion and it’s good to get into a little bit of depth about the fashion business. It is not just about the daily outfit. It is something more, because I think that fashion is something more than all of that. It has an impact on us as human beings in a greater way than we actually think.
We need to dress every day, and we make choices when it comes to how we put our look together, even if we think about it or not. Also, looking back historically, you can always tell about a certain age by looking at what people were wearing.
What is the most rewarding thing for you about your job?
I think it is when we receive beautiful samples and you see a really good collection in our stores that customers appreciate. That is so rewarding. Or a good photo shoot, something like that, is super rewarding. A fashion show in Paris, of course, that was something really good. A lot of work went into that and then it was over in a couple of minutes.
How does H&M’s Swedish origins affect your work in the design process? Does it play a big role in the way that you work?
Maybe a little. I think Swedes are quite practical, so I think our clothes are quite practical in the sense that you can wash almost everything in the washing machine.
We are thirty different nationalities today in the design team so it is an international design team, so even though the biggest part is of Swedes we are still international. The Swedish things might have disappeared a little bit more since I started, we might have actually felt more Swedish then than now.
What is your relationship like now with the stores? Do you feel very responsible when you walk into an H&M?
Oh I go to our stores almost every day. On the way home, I always take a little tour of the store. We have the office on the top of one of our stores here so it is really easy to get there and have a look. And I think it is super important to talk to customers and maybe sneak behind a teenage girl, who are the harshest reviewers, it is always good to hear what they are saying.
Who would you consider to be your biggest competition in the market?
I think when we started there wasn’t much competition at all, and now today it is fierce and we have to keep track of them. For us it is really important to see what is H&M and what we stand for and also, not to look too much at others, keep the focus on our own work and our own collections.
But of course, we have to keep track of them as well. I don’t think there is one of them, I think there is a lot of competition.
We need to dress every day, and we make choices when it comes to how we put our look together, even if we think about it or not.
Do you have a mentor?
I think Margareta has been my mentor. She is a great mentor and has so much experience.
What’s the best piece of advice that she has given you?
I think to continue to be creative, to fight for creativity, and not to spend too much time on admin or office work. You have to be creative, and listen to people, but also believe in your own ideas.
So when you are hiring, what is it that you are looking for in a young designer?
I think that they have to be very creative, we are looking for creative people. But also they have to be able to make fashion for many people, because H&M is about fashion for many people.
We have to have that desire to dress a lot of people, and to be able to work in a team I think, which can be very hard for people straight out of design school when there is a lot of focus on you. Then you come to H&M and you work in a team in a big group that decides things together. That can be a tricky way to work but a lot of people also love to work in teams.
So it’s really creative young people that want to make fashion for a lot of people.
And what about working in a big team at a big company do you enjoy? Why do you like that kind of atmosphere?
I mean I enjoy it because I think it makes me better. It is really rewarding to have a team that has the same goal and is working towards the same goal. It is a lot of discussion and a lot of give and take, but it is really rewarding and really fun to work like this. To have a good team spirit, that is great.
And you are never alone with a decision, so there is a little bit of security there, which is nice.
What would be your advice for someone who is looking to break into the design world?
I think to be creative and to follow your heart. Don’t be too strategic. It can take some time to find your way and to know exactly what you want to do, but let it take time, you learn things during the way and you find your path and your goal.
For you, what is your dream for your career? What do you see being next for you?
I love what I am doing now, so I see myself doing this for many years hopefully. Maybe develop H&M for the future with new concepts and new lines. I am happy where I am right now, so no big dreams really. I feel very satisfied!
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