Quick Question

H&M's Creative Advisor Started Off Folding T-Shirts There 37 Years Ago

Now, Ann-Sofie Johansson is dressing stars in the brand for the Met Gala.

In Quick Question, Bustle asks women leaders all about advice, from the best guidance they’ve gotten to how they deal with demanding hours. This week, Ann-Sofie Johansson, the creative advisor and head of design at H&M, talks about her career path and her favorite collab.

In 1987, Ann-Sofie Johansson got a job at an H&M store in her home city of Stockholm, Sweden, not just to earn some cash, but also because she hoped to become a designer for the brand.

“Whenever I wanted to have something, whatever it was, I could find it at H&M. It felt like they could read my mind, like, ‘OK, if you are a fashionista, you want to have this,’” she tells Bustle. “I thought that it had to be a really good company to work for if you're a creative soul.”

Her goal was to get a feel for the brand inside and out. “During that time I also went to a lot of evening classes in design, and pattern-making, and art, and so on,” she says. “I put a portfolio together, and then I called Margareta van den Bosch, who was then [H&M’s] head of design, which was a little scary, of course. It took a couple of weeks to be able to collect the courage to be able to phone her.”

Once she got an appointment with van den Bosch, Johansson got bold and asked if she could work as a design assistant. The rest is history. Throughout her 37-year tenure with the brand, she has been head of design, the brand’s creative advisor — a role she took on in 2015 — and she’s also been the driving force behind the company’s designer collaborations.

Most recently, Johansson dressed Quannah Chasinghorse, Paloma Elsesser, Adwoa Aboah, Awkwafina, Hari Nef, and Stefon Diggs for the 2024 Met Gala. Below, she shares more about life at the Swedish fashion giant, how she stays creative, and the best advice she ever received.

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How did you feel when the top design position was offered to you?

To be honest, I don't know if you're ever ready for such a role. It was super exciting but a little bit scary. There were so many people to get to know, because it was a big design team.

What would you say is the most challenging thing about your position right now?

How can we continue making fashion in a more sustainable way? It's fun, but it's also challenging.

It can also be challenging to stay on trend, but we have different tools for doing that. We might try out a certain garment, or a certain color, or a silhouette in a smaller volume and in fewer stores to see if there's a demand for it. If the timing is right, we can go ahead and make it for all our stores.

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What was the process of designing Met Gala looks for the stars?

We had a super talented designer and product manager working on this, and then we worked with seamstresses and tailors in New York. The theme was Sleeping Beauties.

We brainstormed a bit about what that would look like for H&M, and then we realized that we’re quite an old company — we were founded in 1947 — so the team went to our archives on the outskirts of Stockholm and looked at ‘40s and ‘50s dresses that had been saved.

They found little features, decorations, and certain shapes that are now part of the dresses. We talked a lot about flowers, and buds, and petals, and blooming. I was also thinking a lot about pinks and periwinkle — those kinds of soft hues. We were aiming for striking dresses that photograph well. It was quite the process, but we had beautiful results.

How do you like to relax?

Reading and art [exhibitions are] very much part of my research in a way. But at the same time, I find it kind of relaxing as well. It gives me a lot of energy and inspiration.

You've been with H&M a long time. What have been the benefits of staying loyal to one company?

I ask myself, "Am I a loser or is it good?" But I find that it's been good to be able to stay this long. I think the benefits are that you get so much experience from the company, and knowledge within it. Because I have that heritage, it means I know that there have been challenges. I can then be a support to younger designers, and I say, “We've been through this problem before.”

As someone who has climbed the corporate ladder, what’s your advice when it comes to negotiating salaries?

It’s important to sit down and to go through what you have done throughout the year. What have you achieved? What do you do well? What can you change? Because there are always things you can do better. Get really clear with that so that your boss doesn’t have to bring it up for you.

Also, don't push it too hard. Sometimes, of course, you have to speak up for yourself, but at the same time sometimes you just have to wait a little bit. For me, nothing has ever come from pushing or shouting or screaming about my salary. It's better to just be self-aware and speak your point. Be nice because you never know when you’ll meet someone again.

Be nice because you never know when you’ll meet someone again.

Do you have a go-to outfit that boosts your confidence?

A black tuxedo blazer with a white shirt and my big rings.

How do you get ready for big meetings?

My biggest thing is to be prepared. I ask myself what kind of meeting it is, what’s the agenda, and what’s the outcome I want to have, and what I want to walk away with.

I’ll also breathe and pump myself up, and then I think about how the meeting is going to be fun. That takes away the pressure.

What’s in your hype playlist?

I love [Beyoncé’s] duet with Miley Cyrus, “II MOST WANTED.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from someone in the industry?

Be nice because you never know when you’ll meet someone again.

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What advice would you give young designers who are having a hard time developing their point of view?

It's very difficult to shield yourself from what is going on in the fashion industry. So take that in, look around, and then you have to step away. Be self-aware again. What is your thing? Your voice? Listen to yourself.

You’ve done a lot of H&M designer collaborations, which are always highly anticipated. Could you tell us your favorite?

Rokh was here just a couple of weeks ago, and it was a really fun, creative experience. We had really good teamwork. He was super happy with the collection. And so were we.

He came to Stockholm many times. We treated him to so many Swedish sweets and Swedish food — and he had to try every one. He was such a good sport. Even if you could tell that he didn’t like something, he’d say, “Hmm, now this is good.” Usually we travel to the designer’s country, so it was special to have him here.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.