“I was born in Stockholm: the middle child with a brother, four years older and
another, nine years younger. I also have a younger half-sister. My mother is Jewish and my paternal grandfather was a Protestant priest. Dad hated Christmas and Mom loved it, which made for very interesting holidays. We were brought up with both religions, in an extremely secular way. My maternal grandfather was a military doctor during the Second World War when doctors and the military were considered the most pro-Nazi in Sweden; no one wanted new Jewish colleagues from Germany. Grandfather was Jewish: he looked Jewish, and his surname was Urwitz. But never did he speak about it.”
With a home now in Stockholm and one in New York, Mikael tends to feel a part of both cultures.
“There’s something about the Jewish-American intellect and humor that strikes a chord. I’ve always identified with the notion the only thing you can take with you is what you have in your head.”
Mikael’s parents met at law school: his mother was a prosecutor and his father, a tax lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who started a real estate business in Brussels. The whole family moved to Belgium when Mikael was 13.
“Sweden is a great country now for companies and entrepreneurs, but it wasn’t in the 1980’s. Some of Dad’s clients had to sell their businesses because of the tax system. My father wanted to leave.”
Mikael has warm memories of his childhood.
“The move was a fresh start for our family, and brought us closer. This happens when you no longer have your old friends and established structures.”
What Mikael remembers most about Belgium was how his family connected over cuisine.
“My passion for food was definitely awakened in Brussels. The restaurants had really good set menus and our au pair was a chef.”
The family stayed in Belgium almost five years where the boys attended an international school. Mikael’s mother moved the brothers back to Sweden, while Mikael’s father stayed in Belgium. Growing up with parents who are passionate about their work was inspiring.
“Mom and Dad nurtured and challenged me. There is the saying: The Jewish mother who asks, not ‘What did you learn in school today?’, but rather: ‘What questions did you ask?’ Mom prosecuted hard criminals and definitely doesn’t have any trouble asking questions! Dad taught me if you don’t understand, don’t ever be embarrassed to ask.”
Mikael finished his last two years of high school in Stockholm. His teacher was impressed by Mikael’s diligence.
“Straight A’s never came easily for me; I had to work really hard. But I got into the Stockholm School of Economics and that was a feather in my cap.”
Mikael worked for a year before starting university.
“I cold-called a brokerage firm. The manager and I had mutual friends, so I thought he could help me get a job. When none of my calls were returned, I walked into his office and introduced myself.”
He looked at Mikael in his wrinkled suit, evidence of the string of graduation parties he had just attended and said: ‘I’ve got five minutes’.
“I told him I just graduated and had an interest in business. He asked for a résumé which, of course, I didn’t have. Then he said: ‘Wash your suit, get a tie, prepare your CV; then come back to me.’”
Mikael did just that. But there was still no job. Instead, he received some valuable advice: Learn how to sell.
“I got a job: sitting with the Yellow Pages in one hand and a list of products in the other, selling to different companies. I was offered a low fixed salary with commission on each product, which I refused. I only wanted to be paid if I earned it.”
Mikael laughs when he says this resulted in no money at all. For an entire six months. But it did teach him how to pick up the phone, talk to people, and get no for an answer.
“My friend’s father was a member of the Pyrotechnical Club, so we started our own fireworks company. We researched at the library and made our own bombs. We called ourselves Fyrverkeripojkarna (Fireworks Boys). Our biggest clients included SAS, the KMK Sailing Club, and the King of Sweden.”
While most of Mikael’s friends were waiting tables, he was working for himself. After a successful summer, Mikael started at SSE.
“Honestly, I think I have a problem with authority in general. Being my own boss is the best for me. Before starting my studies, my older brother’s friends said the difficult part was not going to SSE; it was getting in.”
“So, I was fairly certain that I had already done the difficult part. This resulted in me failing all of my exams that first semester; I was devastated.”
Mikael soon learned that he needed to discover things for himself.
“SSE gave me a whole new measuring stick of what it means to work hard. For that, I am grateful: the idea of pushing me to perform on a much higher level.”
During the first weeks of school, Mikael learned about how joining clubs enhances his CV. “But I didn’t want to be part of any club. So, we started our own. Some friends and I founded Minyen Agenda, which staged polarized debates.”
The first topic: “Should Freedom of Speech be Absolute?” sparked a bustling discussion.
“The debaters each spoke twice for five minutes at a time; then there were questions. At the end you had to choose sides by exiting through the ‘Yes’ door or the ‘No’ door. Students, staff, industry people, and even the media got involved. There was always standing room only.”
Mikael remembers one debate that was particularly controversial at the time:
“Should homosexuals have the right to adopt children?” This coincidentally coincided with the Stockholm School of Economics Association’s Annual General Meeting.
The President of SSE automatically cancelled the debate. Mikael was furious.
“I walked into his office and said this was wrong and that we had already invited everyone. The debate was ultimately allowed, but on one condition: that we only use the back door of the school. This says a lot about how times have changed.”
Mikael’s vigorous debates were more than simply a social gathering; these vibrant discussions were an opportunity for students to hone their critical thinking as well as problem solving and public speaking skills.
“Then I ran into my former headmaster who mentioned his lack of teachers. I suggested he could call me if he needed a substitute. A week later, he did. The next thing I know I’m agreeing to teach six high school classes psychology for an entire semester! I believe there is a difference between men and women: Men more often say they can do things, which they can’t.”
Mikael laughs. Then he waxes philosophic again, saying the challenge pushed him under deep water.
“It’s like preparing for a presentation each week. I needed to be an authority, so I really had to study. I retook the SSE courses and did really well.”
“When I was almost finished, some of my friends started working at Spray Ventures. Goldman Sachs didn’t want me; McKinsey didn’t want me. But Spray did; it was great fun. I worked as an assistant.”
Mikael was the “luma”: the first guy to turn on the lights in the morning and the last to turn them off at night.
“I did everything: from getting their dry cleaning to booking their meetings to reading the reports. Then the dot com bubble burst, Spray dismantled, and I was fired: by Daniel Sachs, who is now one of my closest friends. But I did learn how to lead, delegate, and give extremely clear feedback.”
In 1996, four creative people – three from the advertising world and a musician who worked with Diesel – started a company that worked with many creative disciplines: music, architecture, art, fashion, advertising, and film.
Their mission was to be consultants as well as launch their own products under the brand name ACNE (Ambition to Create Novel Expressions). In the spring of 2001, they gave Mikael a call.
“The Acne Studios’ creative collective’s first product was a hundred pairs of jeans with red stitches. This was the birth of the fashion company. When they called me some years later; they wanted to raise money and asked me to write an investment memorandum.”
What ensued was non-stop working for three weeks. The team was impressed by Mikael’s dedication and business acumen.
“They were making progressive and interesting products and marketed them in sophisticated ways. Acne Studios had garnered long articles in edgy magazines and were selling to cool stores. They needed help with some business steering and were cash squeezed at the time.”
On September 1, 2001, Mikael became Acne Studios’ Managing Director.
“My first task was to raise 1 million euros. Ten days later, the Twin Towers fell in New York, and everything just stopped. No one wanted to invest in anything.”
Mikael told the owners he could not save the company unless they gave him 200,000 euros to pay overdue invoices.
“Jonny Johansson and I started working together. He wanted to combine denim with prêt-à-porter.”
After an inspiration trip to Japan, Jonny started designing what came to revolutionize the denim world: super tight stretchy jeans. These catapulted Acne Studios into the spotlight.
“Fashion is a bit like the art world; it’s very important in which stores you sell. We wanted our products in high-end stores and next to sophisticated brands.”
Mikael went with a few colleagues to Colette in Paris. They sat in the boutique’s Water Bar and showed their collections to owner, Sarah Andelman.
“Sarah wasn’t interested in our collection, but she loved our jeans. Sofia Coppola had just filmed “Lost in Translation” and was going to be on the cover of French Vogue; so her stylist showed Sofia our jeans, and she loved them.”
Sofia wore the jeans on the cover, and the magazine decided to do a feature on Acne Studios. Mikael says these organic coincidences made the company grow. The first store opened in Stockholm, and the next in Copenhagen. Today, Acne Studios has flagship stores in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm, Sydney, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.
“In 2006, I took my experience from Spray and went online. We were very early as a fashion brand to launch our own e-commerce.”
Mikael modestly chooses his words. He gently downplays the breakneck speed at which Acne Studios went from innovative concept to international phenomenon.
“Jonny and I wanted to have veto rights and control of the Acne Studios’ fashion brand. The board refused but then said: If you can get the money, you can buy the business.”
“I don’t think they thought we could do it, but we went to the bank and borrowed it all. In 2006, Jonny and I became Acne Studios’ sole owners. We then got a listed Swedish investment firm to buy 20 percent.”
In 2008, the financial crisis hit, and Mikael started feeling bad. Acne Studios was not doing well, and he took it very personally.
“As with 9/11, I started feeling very anxious. There were many sleepless nights. But we cut down, focused on the core and got through to the other side, probably stronger. In 2011, I asked my long-time colleague and fellow SSE graduate, Mattias Magnusson to take over as CEO. Mattias is extremely talented and a better operator. My role as chairman has been much freer.”
Mikael’s unabashed brand of honesty is refreshing. There is power in his vulnerability. Perhaps this authenticity is the true key to his success.
“I’m very passionate about making Acne Studios grow. But if I’m not working full-time with the company, what else should I be doing? The natural answer is to invest and sit on boards. But there are other things I’d rather do, so I’ve begun organizing Gertrude Stein-inspired Salons at my apartment with presentations, live music, food, and drinks. Here people can freely exchange ideas or engage in debate. With Acne Studios, I worked and travelled so much for so many years; living in different cities made it difficult to settle down. This is the paradox of choice. Of course there is this dream of having a really big Ralph Lauren family. But when that doesn’t happen, it just doesn’t happen.”
Mikael got married in 2019. Nine weeks later, divorce papers were filed. The best part, he says, is they are still good friends and share the raising of their 5-year-old daughter.
“Before I had Ruby, I thought I wanted to find someone to settle down with so I could have kids. That did not work out; but now that I have a child, I am not actively searching in the same way anymore. Being an every-second week parent has its benefits: I am super focused on my daughter the weeks I have her then very free the weeks I don’t.”
Mikael says that, when it came to running a business, SSE was really good for him.
“That whole idea of having a goal and working towards it – and not giving up until it’s achieved. But if you apply that too much to life, you can miss out. You’re so focused on the
goal that, even if you reach it, you have still missed things along the way. I’m now trying to be more open and relaxed. I understand that, however cliché it may sound, the journey is the goal. I’m obviously kicking in open doors...”
Many who have gone to SSE say they were the best years of their lives, but Mikael opens up about how, for him, it was not always the case.
“There was a lot of anxiety for me. Although I came from Stockholm, I still felt like a bit of an outsider. I didn’t pass the exams at first, and it was difficult academically. Then there were all these clubs I was supposed to join. It just didn’t feel like a natural fit. I remember hearing about so many who loved SSE; then, when I heard about someone who didn’t, it was reassuring because I felt like maybe I wasn’t the only one. At that time, everyone wanted to have summer jobs at Goldman Sachs or at McKinsey. Since everyone wanted it, I thought I wanted it too. But I never got those jobs. I always felt I had to prove something, so we started our own thing instead: ‘I’m going to show the bastards!’ became very motivational for me.”
Mikael says there is strength in being underestimated. This has always inspired him to, not only reach his full potential, but push himself even farther.
“My hope is that SSE will start offering other subjects like philosophy, psychology, literature, and art history. These classical subjects are timeless. In combination with accounting, finance, economics and so on, it could be very powerful. For Acne Studios, it would be very interesting to employ people with that kind of eclectic background.”
Mikael is very convincing, and his words are empowering. His manner of speaking begs a stage, a platform, or a lecture hall.
“There was one course at SSE that I found really interesting: Economic Psychology. I remember one quote in particular: Quality equals delivered value minus expected value.”
“For Acne Studios, it’s very simple: if we think our delivery time for our e-commerce is three days, say it will be six; then, get it there in two. Managing expectations is so important: with investors, the bank, or even the people you employ. Try to make the workplace even better than what you say it will be.”
And, with that, Mikael offers us up a philosophy on not only how to do business, but also on how to live life:
Under commit. Over deliver. Always. To everyone.
“On second thought... Sometimes it’s better not to commit at all.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan