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Behind The Brand

The Secret To COS's Inspired Minimalism

H&M's chic, minimalist brand brings the permanence of architecture to the ephemeral world of fashion.

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The latest magazine for the British-Swedish fashion brand COS is unusual. It features stories about Chris Downey, a blind architect in San Francisco who designs structures with touch in mind; musician Nils Frahm, who builds sonically complex compositions; and Lizzie Ostrom, who choreographs "scent adventures." What do they have to do with fashion? Nothing. And that's exactly the point. They're a glimpse at the architecture and design concepts that COS—a 10-year-old company beloved for its inexpensive, minimalist clothes—mines for inspiration.

COS is an abbreviation of "Collection of Style." It is owned by fast-fashion giant H&M but operates independently. Since opening its first store in 2007 in London, COS has grown to 167 locations and 30 markets worldwide; online shopping is available in 19 of those markets. According to a Business of Fashion report, COS grew from 1% to 3% of H&M's total revenue between 2009 and 2014, which represents an increase of $132 million to $625 million in sales. 2015 was a period of major expansion for the brand, as it opened 39 stores and moved in to four new markets. (The first COS stateside opened in L.A. in 2014, and now there are nine stores total in Southern California, Houston, New York, Boston, Greenwich, and Atlanta.) In a time of fast-fashion backlash, COS aspires for longevity and its minimalist silhouettes, use of natural textiles, and restrained color palette have staying power—an antidote to fashion's inherent ephemerality.

We spoke with Karin Gustafsson, head of womenswear design, and Martin Andersson, head of menswear design, about what fuels the architecturally minded brand.

The Best For The Most

Like high-end fashion brands, COS releases two collections every year, one for spring and summer and one for autumn and winter. Its prices, however, are significantly lower. (But higher than its parent company, H&M.) Women's dresses hover around $80 to $150, depending on the cut and material; coats fall between $150 and $250; pants are mostly about $100, though there are $450 splurges (all-leather trousers, for example). A standard men's button-down is $90 and pants are around $125. The styles are understated, but not lowest-common denominator. There's often a small flourish in the silhouette, the material, or detailing around a seam, which gives a garment a balance between feeling current and long lasting—a quality has that earned COS commendations from the notoriously picky fashion bible Vogue.

"We're democratic and like to include rather than exclude," Gustafsson says. "[COS is about] a good-quality product and stylistic language that lasts. We believe everyone should have the opportunity to wear quality design." Originally from Sweden, Gustafsson got her start in tailoring and dressmaking before launching her own line in Stockholm. She decided to close up shop and focus on her education and enrolled in a master's program at the Royal College of Art. COS discovered her there and hired her 10 years ago.

Though COS has retail stores all around the world—from Europe to Asia to the United States and Middle East—it views its customers as sharing what it calls an international, "big-city" mindset. "It doesn't mean you have to live in a big city, but you enjoy the things you find there," Andersson says. A native of Sweden, Andersson has been living in London for 20 years and studied menswear design at Central Saint Martins. Like Gustafsson, he had his own small business before joining COS eight years ago. "This mindset is culturally aware," he continues. "Our customers have a keen interest in art, in architecture, in design. They know about good design, they read blogs, they go to galleries, and it's very important in their life."

Building A Collection

The starting point for COS's collections is typically industrial design or architecture, but it could be anything stemming from the creative fields, such as film or music.

"We're into the timeless aspect of fashion, focusing on a fashion sense and quality of design that lasts for many, many years," Gustafsson says. "It's the same as architecture, which is always created with the long-term in mind. It has to look appealing for many, many years. Similar to that, when we create our garments, we always want them to feel like it's something you still want to wear a couple of seasons away."

Some of the designers' preoccupations are published on the brand's Things blog. If the designers really admire a specific architect and share his or her values and aesthetic, they'll invite the practitioner to collaborate on installations. This year, COS invited Sou Fujimoto to design an installation for Milan Design Week that expressed the brand's identity. Last year, COS collaborated with the New York firm Snarkitecture on a pop-up shop in L.A. as well as a Milan Design Week project. Nendo, creative studio Bonsoir Paris, and set designer Gary Card also designed projects for COS at Milan Design Week.

"We pretty much lock ourselves away in a room, put what we've seen in the last six months and what we're inspired by on a table, and show each other," Andersson says. "We start building stories from that, color harmonies, ideas, and sort of map out the season. Say we're looking at a particular artist. That artist might have a particular work process that we then apply to the design as well."

For the spring-summer 2012 collection, the work of contemporary German designer Werner Aisslinger sparked an idea for producing a garment. He created a biodegradable hemp chair that was molded into shape with heat and pressure. COS's designers riffed on that process by using raw, unfinished felt cloth to create sculptural items that looked like they were bent into shape. This season, the designers fell in love with the line drawings of Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven (1914–1994), which were exhibited in a retrospective at David Zwirner. They created artworks in the manner of Schoonhoven that were then printed onto garments. They also created textural jacquard weaves based on the artist's method. And the soft, organic tone of visual artists Renate Aller and Alex Hanna inspired the current collection's color palette.

To COS one of the links between fashion and architecture—aside from conceptual inspiration—is how people use and perceive the two: It's about experience. Buildings are meant to be inhabited, to be walked through, and to exist within. Gustafsson thinks about fashion similarly. "We talk a lot about how things feel in our collection," she says. "How they feel to wear and how the fabric is to touch, the sound it makes—we really think so much more about the experience and the function of things than just the garment [itself]."

Cut From The Cloth

COS's team is composed of about 20 designers and 20 pattern makers, each with their own specialty. The designers hail from all around the world, but typically come from a fashion background. What Gustafsson and Andersson look for in designers on their teams are people who share a certain thought process: They can take research and turn it into a product. One person's expertise might be crisp tailoring whereas another might work on draping fine knits over dress forms; some designers prefer to sketch ideas whereas others assemble collages. The team works in all sorts of mediums as they hone concepts and ideas.

"Our team is very technical and interested in the technical aspect of making garments," Gustafsson says. "We're all creative but we're also into the small details, so we always try to come up with new ways of making and pushing construction."

Just as architects experiment with materiality, COS tries to find unconventional textiles that balance visual and tactile characteristics with performance. For example, they often lean toward natural fibers, such as silk, wool, linen, and cotton, but don't shy away from technical fabrics. "Hand" is the term designers use to talk about the way a fabric feels when it's touched—coarse or smooth, plush or stiff. The meat of a garment is the fabric from which it's made, and COS recognizes textiles as a linchpin. "We spend a lot of time on fabric research, new finishes on cottons or just to kind of get the hand feel we want, or maybe for [the garment] to last a bit longer," Andersson says. "That's always in the development process."

The designers conceive of the garments very structurally and achieve that through fabric. Some garments hug the body, but many of them hang and have their own somewhat rigid silhouette. For example, you'll find pieces made from neoprene, the stiff material wetsuits are made from. Gustaffson experimented with a type of nylon that has a "memory" to it so wearers could shape it into whatever volume they'd like.

COS's experimentation also jumps disciplines. This year, it collaborated with the Danish brand Hay on a line of housewares. Considering the gallery-like retail stores outfitted with modern furniture and the designers' emphasis on infusing its products with architecture, art, and culture influences, it's easy to think of COS as a lifestyle brand. But Gustafsson says the clothes are the main event. "We just focus on our focus and that's to create products that really last," she says. "I think that is something sustainable and that we really like. On the street, we see people wearing pieces that are four years old. We really like the idea of people buying something and then keeping it. They might not wear it season after season, but it should have a quality so that you don't want to get rid of it." Just like a beloved old building.

Correction: An earlier edition of the story incorrectly referred to the Senses, COS's magazine, as an ad campaign. This version as been updated with the change.

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