A Blanketing Field of Cotton Poplin

Disegno #15 (2017)

Image by Murray Ballard.

“I’m from Sweden and I came to London to study fashion. I started off my education in Stockholm in dressmaking and tailoring. I did an internship for the theatre and eventually worked for a tailor for quite a few years. I also worked as a buyer for an interiors store and at the same time I did my own one-off pieces that I sold in a few stores in Stockholm. But I wanted to be part of a team and I wanted an education in fashion. So I went to Middlesex University for a BA then I ended up at the Royal College of Art.”

This was how my interview with Karin Gustafsson, the creative director of Cos, began and throughout the hour and a half that I spent in her company it continued in much the same vein. Staccato sentences; short statements of fact; a focus on the concrete and definite, coupled with a polite reticence about the uncertain or speculative. Gustafsson is eager to discuss her work and design process, but she is careful not to slip into hubris.

Throughout our interview she is unfailingly polite, considered and considerate – suggesting the room in which the photographs accompanying this article were taken, for instance, because she thought that I might like the decorative moulding around the windows: for the record, I did – but she would prefer that her fashion design speak for itself. In this respect, Gustafsson embodies the brand for which she has designed for 11 years, and of which she has spent the past year and a half as creative director. Gustafsson is not only the creative director of Cos, but also something akin to its patron saint – an incarnation of the values, aesthetic and design approach that have defined the brand since it premiered in 2007. “What we do here feels so close to my heart, if you know what I mean,” she says. “My private interests and my duties at work go hand in hand.”

Cos was set up by Sweden’s H&M group in 2006 with what Gustafsson describes as a clear founding identity: “H&M group saw an opportunity. A new brand offering high quality for comparably very good prices, run independently from London. We were fortunate to find out quite early what our DNA would be. It’s timeless design or a timeless aesthetic.” So far, so neutral, but the manner in which Gustafsson and her fellow designers interpreted this brief and worked it into their design process begins to unpack the concept behind Cos. For a brand whose name is an acronym for Collection of Style, the effect of Cos on high-street fashion design can curiously be best understood as an attempt at short-circuiting style – an act of abstention from its eddies and vortexes. “We really want this timeless feeling of [a Cos garment] being something you buy and keep,” says Gustafsson. “That’s very, very important.”

The Cos aesthetic is quick to summarise: it’s a tincture of white-cotton poplin. The brand creates wardrobe staples that are geometrically cut, functional in appearance, and executed in a colour palette of white, navy, tones of grey, almost black and black. There are seasonal highlights to enliven this – “Dusty pinks; then a saffron or a golden olive; dried-out colours almost like washed-out herbs[…] or clean colours such as an Yves Klein blue or a signal red” – as well as a material range that takes in jerseys, wools, laces, nylon ottomans and voiles. It is all immaculately done, with enough seasonal variation to maintain interest: autumn/winter 2017 offered exaggerated vents, lapels and cuffs, paired with press fold-like pleating, while a capsule collection released to mark the brand’s 10-year anniversary featured volumes that collapsed into one another to produce rectilinear silhouettes. Beneath these still waters, however, Cos’s design references run deep. The brand borrows the studied anonymity of its garments from the early work of Martin Margiela, while its use of geometric blocks recalls Balenciaga. Perhaps most significantly, Cos’s pattern cutting owes a dept to the Japanese tradition of Ma, which denotes the space between the body and garment. “What interests me is the ‘space’ between the person wearing the clothes and the clothes themselves – the airiness, the movement, the silhouette,” noted the designer Yohji Yamamoto in 2011, but the sentiment could equally well apply to Cos, whose clothes cosset and float, rather than bind or cling. In part, the brand’s success has been to introduce these kind of high-fashion references into a high-street context, democratising conceptual fashion for a broader public. Gustafsson, however, is demure about the brand’s achievements, stating that the core identity of Cos is both consistent and modest. “It’s the cotton poplin that we really always like to use,” says Gustafsson. “The shirt is also distinctive of Cos. We always offer the shirt in the most understated, clean, basic, essential form every season.”

It’s an approach that is frequently labelled as minimalist, but that seems a somewhat uneasy fit for what actually hangs on the brand’s racks. Cos garments have little of the starkness of arch-minimalist works such as Dieter Rams’s designs for Braun, nor do they engender the kind of heightened focus sought after by the artist Donald Judd, who noted in a 1965 interview the discomfort caused by seeing an object and realising that “certain familiar things aren’t there”. Cos’s clothing is never uncanny in the manner of a Judd sculpture because there is no sense of conceptual challenge in Gustafsson and team’s act of reduction. The anniversary capsule collection, for instance, is angular and sharply silhouetted, but is cut so that the fabric wraps gently around the wearer’s body in a cocoon-like form. Rather than aggressively reductionist, Cos’s design approach is geared towards the holotypical – the stripping away of non-essentials so as to produce archetypes. It is design intended to work for any and all. If it’s a form of minimalism, then it’s a particularly Scandinavian one, at least by stereotype anyway – an act of reduction served up with the cosiness of fika. “We want to be accessible and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Gustafsson. “We really feel that’s a good thing. Less is more. Often, we work very crazily and big in the design process and then reduce from there to create something where form follows function. We want functionality in our customer’s wardrobe and for them to feel they can come to us for any occasion.” A Cos sweater, for instance, doesn’t prompt radical revaluation of what a sweater might be, in part because all of a sweater’s familiar features are unfailingly present and correct: a Cos sweater aspires to the quintessence of sweater. Indeed, the brand has something about it of the same totalising ethos evinced by architecture’s international style, the 20th century’s grand projet in paving over any notion of style with a thick, numbing layer of rationalisation and design thinking. One of the modern discipline’s high priests, the Bauhaus’s Walter Gropius, captured the idea in pleasingly-cum-paradoxically mystical fashion: “The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form.” The inevitable degradation of this project – the end of style’s end of history – prompted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner to rhapsodise over “my international modern” in ‘The Anti-Pioneers’, a radio broadcast (1966) in which he bemoaned modern design’s fall to post-modernism and its ilk. “Here was the one and only style which fitted all those aspects which mattered, aspects of economics and sociology, of materials and function,” said Pevsner. “It seems folly to think that anybody would wish to abandon it.”

Pevsner’s lament contains elements that seem to describe Cos’s attitude towards design, or at least a heightened version of it. “Our customers appreciate this more timeless type of fashion that is long-lasting and of good quality,” says Gustafsson. “You can buy them and wear them in many different ways. They’re a blank canvas. The shirts can be dressed up or dressed down; you can wear them to an event or to work. I think it’s part of the success that it lends itself to many different personalities and backgrounds.” Gustafsson is not as proselytising as the modernists,11 however, and she has broad tastes. “I love Boudicca,” she says excitedly when I mention the avant-garde design studio that has created couture from card, cogs and golden saw blades, and whose design references have included Étienne- Jules Marey, Jacobean costume and John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (my point being, Boudicca are not functionalists). Ditto, she is pleased by different interpretations of Cos garments. “When you travel you can see, for instance, that Japanese customers have a really nice way of wearing Cos,” she says. “They layer it and create quite a lot of volume. In another country it might be different.” But a desire for functional, universal design nonetheless resonates with her work for Cos. It is a point of pride, for instance, that the brand’s collection is identical between regions: “We don’t target different countries in different ways.” In fact, Cos’s perception of a garment is, at times, somewhat reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in” – a highly calibrated cotton-poplin vessel, executed according to rational principles, designed to facilitate all avenues of life inside its geometric folds.

In spite of this spirit of universalisation, Cos is the product of a specific moment. Gustafsson was hired by the brand in 2006, when she was headhunted from the Royal College of Art on the basis of her graduate collection. “It was very focused around wardrobe staples and, I would say, classics,” she says. “Trench coats, men’s pants, shirts. Then I worked a lot with deconstructing and redraping them. I did a pencil skirt in a silk chiffon. I did wool-like classic wide-leg pants. I did a trench coat in latex. And a lot of cotton-poplin pieces.” Gustafsson joined a design team of 15 people, initially working as a design assistant as the company established itself within the H&M group. “We knew we had the infrastructure from H&M,” she says. “But we wanted to teach them how to make our garments and work on our blocks. So we couldn’t just lean on them. We had the capacity but we needed to set up this framework of how we wanted to make. What was our block? How were our classic pants going to be made on the inside? What buttons? Every single little detail. But the more the prototypes come back and are wow, the more you get people on board.” The brand succeeded in this respect: 10 years on from its premiere, Cos has 199 stores in 34 countries, with H&M group having been emboldened by the experiment to expand to further brands: Weekday, Cheap Monday and Monki were all acquired in 2008, while & Other Stories was launched in 2013. Cos has also broadened its remit, becoming a prolific and generous commissioner of art and design. The brand is a long-term supporter of the Serpentine Galleries and its pavilion programme, as well as a patron of smaller, independent design and architecture studios. Much of its success, however, may still be attributed to the first fact of its foundation: Cos is a child of the 2007-08 financial crisis.

“So: a huge, unregulated boom in which almost all the upside went directly into private hands, followed by a gigantic bust in which the losses were socialised. That is literally nobody’s idea of how the world is supposed to work.” The novelist John Lanchester’s 2010 book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay does a good job of capturing the sense of moral outrage prompted by the crash, while two earlier texts, ‘Cityphobia’ (2008) and ‘It’s Finished’ (2009) for the London Review of Books, set out precisely who this outrage was directed at: “chaotic and wild-westish” bankers and city executives who seemed to be “bathing in Cristal at our expense”. People were worse off and in no doubt that it was the banking industry’s extravagance, recklessness and short-sightedness that was to blame. It seems unsurprising, then, that a new brand preaching sobriety, rationality and longevity as its core design principles – and which presented these qualities as not only sensible, but desirable – might find this fertile soil in which to grow. But when I put this idea to Gustafsson her answer is somewhat hedged: “You think more long term as a consumer perhaps. We were set on creating this type of aesthetic, but I think it had to be launched in a time when that was what the customer appreciated. We’re really happy with that.” I take this to mean that I am onto something.

Roughly concurrent with the financial crisis and the rise of Cos was a general upswing across design disciplines in Scandinavian minimalism of the kind that Cos practices, particularly within the sphere of furniture and product design. Existing brands like Hay gained traction rapidly, while new companies such as Muuto sprang up, quickly leading to a market saturated with the New Nordics – a clutch of design brands manufacturing clean, simple furniture and products in an assortment of natural-wood finishes and tasteful pastel shades, all of which are largely indistinguishable: “if you took away the logos from their trade-show booths you wouldn’t be able to see the difference,” noted the designer Johannes Torpe in Disegno #8. These design brands were calculated to meet a need, however: the emergence of an aesthetic sensibility for pure forms, with design seeking expressions that sat outside the ostentatious, personality-driven work created by practitioners such as Jaime Hayon and Studio Job that had come to define the mid-2000s. What was desired post-crash was a form of design that was not only prudent in appearance, but which appeared prudent in conception and outlook too, and which acknowledged this form of visual austerity as a necessary – and welcome – counter to years of aesthetic excess.

There are multiple reasons for the success of the New Nordics, but one perhaps lies in the manner in which they were able to tie an aesthetic tradition of Scandinavian minimalism (the mid-century designs of which had undergone a popular resurgence in the late 1990s) to a post-crash desire for sociological forms not girded by the greed and expansiveness of neoliberalism, and of which postwar Scandinavian social democracy had come to be seen as a rebuttal.2 As noted by the researchers Anders V. Munch and Niels Peter Skou in their 2016 paper ‘New Nordic and Scandinavian Retro’, the ascendancy of Scandinavian minimalism is as much a socio-political phenomenon as it is a design imperative. “New Nordic Design seems foremost to be tokens of a dream picture of the Nordic countries as harmonious societies in balance with nature and history; the lucky peoples who are one with both their own culture and environment and on the top of the world,” wrote Munch and Skou. “What is actually at play is exactly the positioning of Scandinavian Design as the ‘middle way’ between the fast superficiality of capitalist pop culture and the ‘cold inhumanity’ of Central European modernism that was established in the 1950s during the Golden Age of Scandinavian Design.”

Is this what’s going on with Cos? Despite being London-based, the brand is Scandinavian-owned and Nordic in its design inflections. Its pattern-cutting favours geometric forms that are suggestive of rationality and generally dismissive of the baubles and gewgaws of fast fashion, but with enough joie de vivre and consideration for the wearer to head off any suggestion that Cos garments might be austerity wear. Gustafsson, for instance, speaks glowingly of experimenting to reach even the most minor of new forms: “It’s important you explore in a creative way. Maybe it’s only the pocket that stays [from an initial idea], but if you don’t do that development process, you don’t have a new pocket.” Embedded in Cos’s approach is the middle path of which Munch and Skou wrote, as well as a coded ethical proposition that the aesthetic judiciousness of the designs somehow amounts to a fitting uniform for a society seeking to rebalance its social obligations and priorities. In part, this perception of a balancing act is encouraged through the manner in which Gustafsson and her team go about their work. The studio places less focus on sketching (“I’m not good at drawing. I cannot draw at all actually. I’m rubbish.”) and instead shifts the spotlight onto designing through drapery and repeated fittings. “The process is so important. Really take time to explore the best ability for that cloth,” says Gustafsson. “We do a lot of fittings. First in calico, then back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, to perfect it[…] I know there are not many high-end fashion brands which take as much pride in fitting their garments as we do.” It’s a human-centric process, albeit one that nonetheless speaks of a sense of calibration and rational fine-tuning. But when the New Nordic connection is put to Gustafsson, she equivocates. “I know what you’re saying and you’re not the only one saying that for sure,” she says. “I think what it is is that Cos has a very diverse team, but what we all have in common is we like Scandinavian mid-century modern furniture, art and architecture.”

If the post-crash climate is a dominant reason for Cos’s success, the brand would hardly be likely to acknowledge it anyway. Socio-political and historical roots are the stuff of styles – the reason why we end up with one -ism over another – while Cos’s whole identity seems premised on the idea that functionalist design might be used to break out of style’s successional procession. Again, there is a sense of social yearning here. One of the most shocking aspects of the financial crash was the manner in which it exposed the human-made fluctuations of the banking system. The lesson of the crisis, as Lanchester noted in ‘Cityphobia’, is that banking isn’t quite the world of cool rationality it might previously have seemed; rather it’s an arena of loosely managed risk takers, operating using subjective or algorithmic judgment in a manner that can easily go wrong. “To make more money, and earn more bonuses[…] it’s simple: you just take on more risk,” writes Lanchester. “The upside is the upside, and the downside – well, it increasingly seems that for the bankers themselves[…] thereisn’t one.” Banking, it emerged, is worryingly dependent upon human error and calculation. The Cos aesthetic, by comparison, is positioned as a form of isolationism from the messiness around it: in a world that’s barely functioning, functionalism becomes compelling. Its stores are architectural oases: blonde-wood floors, geometric metal racks and white walls, replete with small in-store installations of highly mannered Hay furniture and product design. In addition, the Cos ethos is carried beyond its product range through Cos magazine, which is now on its 20th edition – a “whole issue[…] devoted to the vast creative potential of the material world” – and which expands the business beyond pure commerce and into the sphere of lifestyle. For three years, Cos has also displayed large-scale installations at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, with Snarkitecture (2015), Sou Fujimoto (2016) and Studio Swine (2017) all having turned their hand to executing environments in purest white: a sedimentary cavern carved from dangling ribbons; a coniferous forest grown from cones of light; a steel pussy willow blowing milk-white bubbles like catkins. The use of white as the dominant colour in Cos’s palette is shrewdly emblematic of the brand’s desire to transform itself into a world unto its self: white is blanketing, white is cosseting, white is an act of dislocation, and white is a shield against the vagaries of the world. “We have a clear DNA and often people ask if that’s not boring and whether we don’t feel restricted,” says Gustafsson. “But it’s not restrictive and we don’t feel it’s boring. We see the DNA as a frame we’re all inside; a bubble we’re all in and deliver from.”

Cos has been a partner of the Serpentine Galleries for a number of years. From within its bubble, the White Zone, Cos has been configured to transmit a stream of suggestive dispatches out into the maelstrom – rational, functional clothing for a more rational, functional world. Whether that claim is true or not is of course beside the point. This kind of world-building is a familiar brand exercise. It’s what Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, identified as the basic tenet of brand management in a 2010 article for The Guardian: “find your message, trademark and protect it and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as possible.” What seems particular to Cos’s case, however, is the commitment that Gustafsson – and no doubt her colleagues – have to their message, alongside the air of moral imperative that seems to surround it. “We want good quality to be for everyone,” says Gustafsson. “Everyone should wear good quality and that’s the main focus. I think and I hope that it comes across as a quality product, and I think and I hope that people understand a lot of work has gone into it.” In comparison to the inequity and variability of the crash years, Cos represents itself as a clean slate; a company whose clothing is somehow supposed to sit beyond matters of changeable and unpredictable style, accessing instead a realm of design whose values (and value) are invariable. Cos, the brand’s reputation would have you believe, are the adults in the room: the designers creating garments fitted for the age we live in, because they’re creating garments fitted to any age.

Or so the story runs. In reality, the chain of -isms seems no more escapable now than it was during the days of the international style. Just as capitalism is adept at omnivorous commodification of its challengers, so too is style calculated to co-opt and incorporate any and all efforts to put paid to its hegemony: functionalism has become a style like any other, and one that is by now laden with its own vagaries, subjectivities and absurdities. Moreover, it’s a style under threat, with the New Nordics appearing increasingly antiquated in their home countries in the face of a younger generation of Scandinavian designers such as Hilda Hellström, Fredrik Paulsen and Anton Alvarez who have opted to pursue more naive forms of expression. Even within mainstream discourse, there are further causes for doubt. Swedish Design Moves, a Swedish government-sponsored design-outreach programme, chose to launch in February 2017 with the slogan, “There is more to Swedish design than the cool contemporary minimalism it is known for.” Is the same fate likely to befall Cos? Here, Gustafsson inadvertently sounds a warning. “I really believe [design tendencies] don’t start with fashion,” she says. “They start with art, architecture and design, which are well ahead of fashion, if you see what I mean. When you’re a fashion student and can do anything you like, you wouldn’t go and look at what a certain fashion brand has done. You would look towards different disciplines that can make you think and feel something.” But for now, Cos remains a loyal disciple to Pevsner’s “one and only style”. As research for this article, the brand sent me an access code to a password-protected archive of press materials. My allotted password was “timeless”.

  1. It would be hard to be as proselytising as the modernists.

  2. More accurately, the memory of a postwar social democracy that has, in actuality, long since undergone a process of governmental dismantlement.