In a sea of publications that have come to prominence since the 2000’s, Acne Paper stands head and shoulders above any other post-millennial fashion periodical. Why? Simply because of the fact that it didn’t really cover fashion, or Acne for that matter, and instead dedicated luxuriously long features and editorials to ‘museum quality’ content – doing so by digging past the pretty surface and delving deep into the history of culture.
I meet Thomas Persson, who was the magazine’s editor-in-chief from its inaugural issue until its final 15th issue, on a rainy day in Dalston’s Route Cafe. Before we meet, he’s been flying back and forth from Milan, where he works as Armani’s artistic director across the Italian brand’s various advertising campaigns.
Acne and Armani may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, but the two are united by Persson’s taste for elegance and subtlety. The blonde-haired Norwegian speaks gently (never without a smile) and is very humble —a virtue that he says is understated. We order a smoothie and start talking.
How do you feel about the success Acne Paper has had?
Well, that is very personal, because they gave me so much freedom. Jonny [Johansson, Creative Director of Acne] just said, “Make the best magazine in the world.” I’ve worked with magazines for many years — since I was seventeen – so it was a chance for me to do my dream magazine. It was just about the things that I was interested in, and people who I thought were worthwhile to feature. I guess it’s a matter of taste.
How did you first get in touch with Jonny Johansson?
When I was a student at St Martins, in first year I lived with the designer Ann-Sofie Back and Mattias Karlsson. Ann-Sofie used to design jeans for ACNE; so at the kitchen table, the conversation of Jonny and Acne was there. I didn’t meet him until later, when I moved to Stockholm. I was writing for Self Service, which was one of Jonny’s favourite magazines, and I guess he thought, “Let’s use this guy to write our press releases.” Acne didn’t really have a vocabulary at that time. That’s how it started; and when they wanted to do the magazine, it was sort of on the cards that they wanted me to be the editor.
What did you do prior to your MA in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins?
First I was freelancing, then I worked for Norwegian ELLE. Before I moved to London, I was an editor of a big magazine in Oslo, Norway, which was a young women’s glossy. It was with a large publishing house with whom I stayed for three years.
Did you study to become a writer?
No, I sort of dropped out of school, and then started to work for a gay newspaper, so that was that. And that was fun, because I learned about journalism and a bit of photography and layout: everything. This was the time of the floppy disk, so it was a very long time ago.
Do you believe that education is important? I guess it depends on what you study – it might make more sense to study medicine, engineering or design, as opposed to writing or photography.
Totally. Well, you mention photography and I think you definitely need to have some training, because it’s very technical. It’s something you can learn by assisting, but I think it’s good to just have some kind of general historical knowledge. I can’t answer for everybody. Education is good. For me, the combination of gaining professional experience, in addition to education, was great.
Central Saint Martins was extremely useful because it opened up all the doors to all sorts of culture. I didn’t really like school until I went to St Martins. Having said that, I don’t think I would have been a great student if I hadn’t been working before I went there. I was so motivated when I went to college, I was really ready to use the college for everything it was worth — and I did, which was great. In that sense, I think education can be fantastic, but self-education is key to getting the most out of it.
Do you think that you appreciate education more once you’ve been working?
Yes, I think so. First of all because you know what it is like to work (the professional pressure), especially if you’ve been in a high position. If you choose to go back to college, it’s because you want to deepen your knowledge. I think you are perhaps a better student somehow because you use your time differently.
What were your initial thoughts and plans of how to make Acne Paper? What did you look at?
When I was in Stockholm, they asked, ‘What should this magazine be about?’ I think it’s good not to answer questions like that immediately, but to go and do some soul searching. I went to Central Saint Martins and I looked at all the magazines: all the Vogues, the independent magazines, and the more avant-garde magazines. When you start looking, you don’t really know what you’re looking for, but I just sort of marked what I liked uncritically, not asking any questions about why I liked it. It was a huge pile of research, which I then sort of edited down.
What remained in the end was a good idea of a magazine that was very different from any other that was around at the time, which I think was an important thing to consider. But again, it was that sort of research process: being uncritical, narrowing it down and then ending up with something that was translated into something very different from the original research. It was important to do that, so you don’t copy anything, but you can find something there. There’s a way of thinking — a way of approaching material — that I was inspired by for the magazine.
Is there a particular image that’s stayed in your mind?
I think it was typography, like the bold use of the font Didot. I felt that the elegance of typography had become completely forgotten. All magazines looked so edgy and rough, and kind of un-beautiful, so I think what appealed to me most were the things that were classical, beautiful, and timeless in terms of typography, in terms of pictures, but also subject matters. Things that weren’t cool, but sort of elegant, rather than shocking. It’s the antidote to sex and violence.
Essentially, did you set out to create something timeless?
Yes, something that is not necessarily of-the-moment.
Do you think that it was a big challenge to make something of that quality since people’s attention spans are so short and they’re always looking for ‘the next big thing’?
In a way, I find it easier to work like that because it sort of filters out so much. If you think of it within the context of the art world, you’d say it’s ‘museum quality’. I think that sort of sums it up. I’m most interested in those things that have that quality. Of course I look at things, I look at Instagram (I’m not blind!), but it’s just that the timeless part is a choice of things that I find particularly beautiful. It’s things that stand the test of time; things that mean something to us now, or meant something to people then. It’s those things I’m interested in. It’s kind of like a play that deals with the human condition, which has not changed one bit: the love and the pain – all of those issues are completely timeless.
If making a timeless piece wasn’t the challenge, then what was?
To begin with, it was a big challenge getting people on board, because everybody thought it was like a catalogue for this brand – but then we got some really good people on board and people eventually just realised, OK, this is a different magazine; it’s not a catalogue or ‘mag-alogue’ as they call it. The challenging thing is to make it as perfect as possible: trying to avoid any kind of spelling mistakes; making sure that everybody who has contributed is completely happy; being able to motivate everybody that is working with me to have the same level of enthusiasm for the magazine. Now — we haven’t done an issue for a long time — it really isn’t difficult. It’s not difficult for me to make that kind of publication; there are other things that are much more difficult.
Making campaigns, for example, is much more complex. Although it’s just a series of a few photographs, the process is much more rigid and much more intense. I think the pressure is really on because it costs such an enormous amount to make and advertising is about selling something. It needs to be spot-on and needs to really communicate the image of the brand and the style of the new collection. All of those things are so subtle that you don’t really think about it. It’s more of a seduction, and I think that’s more complicated.
Seduction is more complicated than making the best magazine in the world?
I think so, yes. For me anyway, but then again I’m much more experienced working in magazines than advertising.
How did you initially start out with Acne Paper’s first issue? Did you give a brief to contributors and commission, or did you mainly work with submissions?
I was sitting in an office with ACNE. There were many different companies under the same umbrella, so I was sort of placed in the department of ‘ACNE creative’ (which was an advertising company, basically). They put me together with one of their art directors, so he worked on the typography and I handled all the research. We worked from that, and then I just started calling people I knew saying ‘Hey, we’re working on this magazine, I would love to interview you!’ That’s how it started. In Sweden, ACNE was already well-established. We already had amazing photographers who worked there, so we just built it from there. It’s like building blocks, isn’t it? You take what you have, you put those two together, then you put something else in the mix and from there you just build. Eventually, you have a beautiful house.
If you reflect and look back, what do you think was the most amazing thing you’ve made?
One thing that was really beautiful was the shoot we did with Guinevere van Seenus for the seventh issue. The theme was ‘tradition’ and she’s naked, sitting on a wooden floor. There’s a kind of medieval quality to the whole look. I’m really proud of that shoot because I think we really nailed it. It was when the financial crisis just hit and there we were with this cover of a very famous model, without any clothes, sitting on a wooden floor, touching wood and looking over her shoulder. Somehow, that became a very symbolic image of that time. I thought that was amazing. It wasn’t something we had just planned; it was just a beautiful coincidence.
“What appealed to me most, were things that were classical, beautiful, and timeless in terms of typography, in terms of pictures, but also subject matters. Things that weren’t cool, but sort of elegant rather than shocking. It’s the antidote of sex and violence.”
Is that your favourite colour? *points at green pen*
I read in Style Council that you would love to have a bottle-green Jaguar.
Yes, and this is the only thing I can afford!
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this week?
If you would have to choose one person to have dinner with, who would it be?
You know, I’d rather not. I would get so anxious and nervous, I’d probably make a fool out of myself during dinner.
What would you order?
Nothing to do with lobster, or anything else that I would have to crack. I would avoid a whole fish, because then I would have to pick out the bones — I would probably get a bone in my throat! Things like that.
What is your biggest fear?
Having an injury that would disable me to do my work… I wouldn’t go parachuting or anything like that.
That was actually a question I wanted to ask: skinny dipping or skydiving?
Oh, skinny dipping! That is just a joy.
What would you say is your greatest extravagance?
Restaurants and hotels.
Which do you like best in London?
They are all timeless.
I love a good cocktail bar.
What is your favourite cocktail?
It depends. This summer it was very much a Negroni and a vodka martini.
Do you change your drinks every season?
No. I don’t like fruity drinks.
I get that, you need a real drink.
A real — a man’s — drink.
Not necessarily a man’s drink, I’d go for the whiskey as well.
Yeah? But you are Dutch!
Does that really have anything to do with it?
I think so. Not necessarily.
Which philosophers do you admire?
Philosophers? I’m not very strong on philosophy. Now, I’m reading a lot of Tennessee Williams. It’s so old-fashioned of me, but I really like him. I mean, philosophy… I’m not an intellectual, I’m more aesthetical.
Would you call yourself an aesthete?
I think I fall into that category, yes.
The way you work is very visual…
It has become that. I mean, I like stories too, but the writing part is sort of… I’m not a very good writer. I have to force it out.
Did you want to become a writer?
No, I wanted to become a fashion designer but I thought that the school I had to go to, in Norway, was just so dull. So I went and started writing for this newspaper instead. I just fell into it.
What do you like best about other peoples’ writing? What excites you most about reading?
Well, it needs to grab you somehow; it needs to be quite frank. I love it when there are amazing character studies, because when you read about all of these amazing characters, it shows an understanding of the human spirit. They might not exist, but they are fragmented from all of these different characters put together in one person. I find that really fascinating — people who can elaborate on a scenario, on a landscape, or a room, or someone who can really make you feel that you are there.
Do you have any obsessions?
Yes, many. Rooms, furniture, my books … I am obsessed with throwing parties as well. It’s completely ridiculous. It costs so much money, you are absolutely exhausted by it and you always end up making ‘unfriends’ with people you have forgotten, or things like that. But somehow, I just keep on doing it.
What do you like best about throwing parties, then?
I think all of the preparations; imagining what the party is going to be like before anyone arrives.
Quite like making a magazine, actually.
In a way, it’s sort of curatorial. You need to think about who goes well together, what would be interesting to throw into the mix and what sort of ambience you want. It is a similar sort of thing. I think people who make magazines also love to throw parties.
Words by Jorinde Croese
All images courtesy of Acne Paper
This feature originally appeared in our third issue