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Interview with Jonas Åkerlund

Film director Jonas Åkerlund is known for his pioneering music videos with Madonna and Lady Gaga, two of the world’s most colourful style icons. Yet he himself has rocked the same style almost his entire life: hat, long black hair, T-shirt, leather jacket, jeans and sneakers. He has an impressive collection of fashion wear, puts his heart and soul into the interior design of his two homes and seeks the company of his favourite costume designer Bea Åkerlund as often as he can. He turns fifty this autumn, but this is not something that worries him. He is, however, infuriated that the Pharrell Williams stole the hat.

– The second I saw him turn up at the Grammy Awards in that Westwood hat, I knew it was all over. I’ve been wearing hats for years, but not anymore. As soon as I put on a hat someone says ‘Aha Pharrell Williams …’”

You found your style early on. What were your role models?

– That was how my idols looked. I come from the hard rock world. Though they were far younger then than I am now.

Has it changed over the years?

– No, not really. I still look the same today as I did when I was fourteen. Black leather jacket, tight jeans and sneakers. But there’s a totally different price tag on the clothes now. More luxury!

Black is your colour. What’s the deal with that?

– It’s a bit like when you’ve worn a woolen cap for a whole year – you feel naked if you take it off. When you’ve been wearing black all your life and put on a colour, it feels as if the whole world is looking at you. It feels so wrong. But I try it out every now and then. Maybe a pair of light blue underpants sticking up a bit, so that people react.

You must have quite the collection of leather jackets in your wardrobe?

– Yes, at least 50, 60 of them, maybe more. But I only wear a few at a time. Right now, I have a favourite from Burberry, which looks like a real greaser jacket. I’ve got a lot of good stuff in my collection, including several of Rick Owens’ first garments before he moved to Paris. And around 300 pairs of shoes.

Impressive, how do you keep track of them all?

– I have different systems. The shoes, for example, are all in their own box with a number and a photo, and that same number and photo are in a folder. But the collection could have been even bigger. I had a problem with a water leak which meant that I had to throw a lot out. I also lost a whole box of hard rock T-shirts from the 80s. I often think about that.

You clearly have a good grasp of fashion. Where do you shop?

– When you have found your style and identity, you tend to look for things like the ones you already have. L’Eclaireur in Paris and Maxfield in LA are a couple of my favourite stores. They usually contact me and put clothes to one side if they get something in that they know I like. I have recently lost weight, so I can finally wear all my favourites again, such as Boris and MA+. I also like Saint Laurent.

Why Saint Laurent?

– I think, above all, that it’s fun to identify all the 80s references, which I know inside and out. My son recently bought a Saint Laurent jacket, which I recognised instantly. I checked my files and found a leather jacket that I bought in London in the 80s. The shop was called La Rocka and was situated near SEX, the shop owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the World’s End. The jackets are identical. I was going to start wearing it again, but it feels a little bit too puffy.

When we meet at a photo studio in Stockholm, Jonas Åkerlund has just posed for the cover of the premiere issue of BOY. His wife, star stylist Bea Åkerlund, has persuaded him to wear a pair of platform shoes with the long black shirt he has picked from his own wardrobe.

– It’s one of those shirts they have in the Middle East, by the designer Thamanyah. It looks amazing!

­Do you normally get Bea’s advice when it comes to your personal look?

– Well, I usually go on about getting styling tips, but it hardly ever happens. If I ask her ‘Can I go out like this?’, she always goes ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and looks the other way.

But you work together?

– I always try to involve her in my projects. Unfortunately, she is really busy so it doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Our lives are complicated, but it always works best when we work together. When we are in sync with each other’s time and travel. And she’s a good person to work with.

What is her strength?

– She has a unique quality. It is normal to work either as costume designer or fashion stylist. Costume designers often have difficulty picking up references from Paris and Milan. While fashion stylists are rarely able to think in character. Bea has one foot in fashion and the other in costumes, and is really good at bringing out characters, which is what I do all the time as a director. I knew from the first time I worked with her that I was stepping up to a new level when it came to fashion.

Is one of you more driven than the other when it comes to the interior design of your home?

– I really love it. I usually say that if I hadn’t become a director, I would have devoted myself to interior design. I spend a lot of time on our home, and think it’s fun planning how it will look. We both work all over the world, and love buying weird and wonderful things when we’re out travelling. We like old, unique things. In Los Angeles, we live in a house from 1926, which is old by their standards. In Stockholm, we live in an 18th century house with lots of character which was in really bad shape when we bought it.

What does it look like? I’ve heard it described as a glamorous goth palace.

– You could say that it is overall gothic, with very old, dark things. But we also have one of Svensk Tenn’s most colourful Josef Frank sofas. It’s a mix. We have collected a lot of fine art over the years. The last thing I bought was a couple of prints by Lennart Nilsson. Actually, it was my dream for a long time to give a sperm sample so that he could take a picture. But it wasn’t to be.

What kind of art do you collect?

– I love photography most of all. I have very old rock’n’roll photos on the walls. Fortunately, I have space for sculptures, too. The idea for my look on the cover of BOY comes from a sculpture we have at home by the Danish artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen. It is absolutely fantastic. It’s just long black hair all the way down to the floor. It was Daniel Birnbaum, director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, who contacted me and advised me to have a look at it. I bought it there and then!

If you were to do a costume drama, what era would it be?

– I like costume dramas and there are several different eras I could think about doing. The older I get the more important it feels to take the time to do longer projects. Telling stories that I feel I can really tell, right from the heart. I recently started a new feature film project which I had been thinking about for a long time and that really interests me.

You turn 50 this autumn, how does that feel?

– No crisis as yet, but it will come! Right now it feels as if life is just getting better and better. I still have a childlike desire to make music videos. Only a few of my generation are still active. Every time I say yes, I question my decision. I’ve already made 200 videos and it’s difficult to outdo yourself. But I rise to the challenge and it usually turns out well. Today, you are rated directly on how it works. If you get 20 million hits in the first week, it still feels worth it.

Interviewed by Susanna Strömquist