Ann-Sofie Johansson started out at H&M working on the sales floor in 1987, became a design assistant in 1990, and by 2008 was head of design. As H&M roles out its Conscious Collection, the retailer’s first major push into eco-friendly fashion, Johansson answered questions from what it's like to manage a team of over 140 designers at the company's Stockholm headquarters, to her approach to sustainable fashion.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a close team that I work with of designers. And then I work with the head of buying also. It’s teamwork. I oversee the collections, make sure that we have the right fashion level, the right colors, will everything look right when it arrives in the shops, and that the balance is right. It’s also looking forward—what might we do next season, and how can we take things further. Should we continue with this, what should we skip and what should we bring back.
H&M pioneered the idea of fast fashion, are you moving away from that at all?
I think fashion is happening a little bit slower now. There is more fashion going around at the same time, and because of that it is perfectly alright to wear a '70s inspired outfit one day, and decide the next day you want to be '60s looking. I think there are several trends living side by side, which is different than the way it used to be when there was one thing, which was the thing.
I think you should save your things of course. Save them and then take them out again and reinvent them. We want to teach out customers how to restyle their clothes and how use them in a sustainable way. I think in a way my mother knew that, we don’t know that anymore, how to take care of our garments.
How did your customers' shopping habits change, if at all, because of the recession?
We didn’t really see that much of a change. We did sell more accessories for example, because accessories are even more affordable at H&M, and its really easy to use them to update an outfit with. Fashion wise, I don’t really think it changed anything.
How has H&M evolved since you started on the sales floor in 1987?
The design department was really small. We didn’t have any computers. We were in fewer countries--we were in maybe six or seven countries when I started, and now we are in 39 countries. We still want to think that we are this small company in a big company in terms of our mindset. It’s still very much a flat organization here.
How did you manage to rise from working on the sales floor to being the head of design?
It would be hard to manage that today actually. If you want to work at H&M you have to have a proper design education. I didn’t have that—I had simply taken some classes like patternmaking. H&M was my education. We do have a lot of trainees here from the different design schools, and it's common for someone to work in one of our stores while they’re getting their education, and then to come and work in design once they’ve graduated.
What are some important trends you see coming up?
I can’t tell you too much in advance. First we will see the white collection, the Conscious Collection. White is one of the big fashion colors. And while we’ll have a lot of white on one hand, we are also going to see a lot of colors in clean styles. In high summer there is always something more exotic and tropical. And towards autumn, I think the '70s will continue.
What is it about the '70s that people are responding to?
I think it is about the silhouette. There are still skinny trousers and they won’t go away, it takes a really long time for that transition to happen. Going from bootcut to skinny took about ten years, and we will continue, I think, for ten years with the skinny. But I think in comparison, we like the silhouette of the '70s, with the wide leg trouser, higher waists, long skirts and maxi dresses. I also think the color range is appealing—the warmer colors like brown and camel.
What are you working on now?
In May we are starting on Fall 2012. It is a challenge to work that far ahead. Sometimes you have to push yourself to think forward and to be visionary. But it’s fun. We actually start very far ahead, more so than people think. We have to today. We have such high volumes and we have to have a coordinated assortment, so we have to start early.
What are your thoughts on sustainable fashion?
I don’t think of it as a trend. I think it is something that we have to do. I think in a way it starts with yourself as a person and how you act in your daily life. If you turn off your computer when you leave home, if you recycle, it’s things like that. We have started [to move towards being eco-minded at H&M]. It’s not just about the collections, it’s about the whole company.
What’s the biggest challenge for you?
To get the right fashions that our customers want, that is still the biggest challenge. Also the timing of the trends, and deciding when people are going to be ready for a particular trend. I think about that a lot.
H&M is a global brand, where a bestselling item in Tokyo is also a bestseller in New York. When do you think global fashion took hold?
I think everything’s changed since the Internet. Everyone has access more or less to the same information, at the same time. That has made fashion more global. I can’t say what it will be like in the future. Maybe we have to become more local, and there might be a little backlash to the global thing. We have, for instance, worked on a local collaboration with Swedish blogger Elin Kling [which is only available in H&M’s Swedish stores]. That is one way we have become a bit more local, and have gotten closer to our customers.