Imagine dreaming, breathing, designing, creating and, of course, eating chocolate for a living. It sounds like a job made in heaven. A team of people sit down every Wednesday and gorge themselves on the weird and wonderful taste of chocolate, just to come up with a design or vision for the luxury UK brand Hotel Chocolat.
On meeting the lucky guy who holds the role of executive creative director at Hotel Chocolat, straight away you know he is someone who likes the finer things in life. Fredrik Ahlin wears a sleek black suit and Marc Jacobs sunglasses, and exudes gentlemanly charm. As a visionary, designer and creator who craves a luxurious lifestyle, it is no surprise that he was head-hunted three years ago by Hotel Chocolat co-founders Angus Thirwell, chief executive, and Peter Klauber, finance director.
Ahlin’s impressive career kicked off in the editorial and advertising world of fashion, beauty and lifestyle. He studied advertising and art direction, and having worked as a designer for Vogue magazine in London, Moscow and Munich and freelanced as an art director, he has gained expertise in graphic design and photography, and thrives on brand development.
Ahlin works with an in-house team of five designers, andcollaborates with chocolatiers and Thirwell, who, says Ahlin, ‘is more knowledgeable than most chocolatiers’. Ahlin’s job is to design the products as well as the packaging, promotions and interiors, and he has complete freedom and support to give Hotel Chocolat a mystical quality. ‘Design has such an important role in making chocolate – the whole experience is as much about the vision and texture as it is the taste,’ he says.
Hotel Chocolat was born in 1993 as Choc Express. Rebranded in 2003, the new name is derived from the idea of escapism. While it is a British brand, it pays homage to the romantic idea of European ‘chocolat’. The hotel concept is about creating a metaphorical place where people go to have an experience/ for love, passion and seduction. There is an element of tongue-in-cheek in the name, but, ultimately it is about fun and enjoyment.
Ahlin believes chocolate should be prestigious and the experience should come with a clean conscience. ‘We make chocolate as good as it possibly can be,’ he says. Engage Ethics is Hotel Chocolat’s own version of Fairtrade. It involves growing its own crops in St Lucia and Ghana, controlling the quality and paying local people above market rates.
Drawing on Ahlin’s background in fashion and beauty, the packaging looks distinctly familiar. The packs are disguised as perfume boxes, laid out like a cosmetics counter or a treasure chest of jewels. ‘I like to make things look beautiful,’ he explains.
Designing packaging for Hotel Chocolat is about the ‘art of reveal’, as the intricate details of the new Christmas range, from a ‘chocolate reef’ to novel cracker boxes, shows. ‘There should be different layers and many levels, as luxury is about depth,’ says Ahlin.
Ahlin takes his inspiration from books, films, music and photographs, but mainly, he says, it comes from women. ‘I love women, their beauty, attraction and allure,’ he says. Recently, Hotel Chocolat created the Barbie Box to celebrate the Mattel doll’s 50th year. Another idea is the Forever Jack collection, which acknowledges British heritage and was showcased at London Fashion Week in February. ‘Britishness is about being quirky and pushing boundaries,’ says Swedish-born Ahlin. ‘We wanted to show that Hotel Chocolat is British, so we created a Union Jack-mould to display this.’
Ahlin believes chocolate is just ‘another pen’, a medium that you can mould, develop and have fun with. As a brand, Hotel Chocolat is growing and confident in its future, with restaurants, coffee shops, clubs, bars and even the novelty idea of an actual hotel on the agenda.
‘There are so many things you can do with chocolate, we’ve only just scratched the surface,’ he concludes.