It’s November in New York, and I’m waiting for the elevator in the plush lobby of The Carlyle hotel. In the corner an opulent Christmas tree, covered in silver baubles, all perfectly aligned, twinkles in the corner, while stereotypical Upper East side ladies who lunch donned in fur totter towards the restaurant. I’m on my way to a suite on 40th floor to meet with Karin Gustafsson, the creative director of COS who is in NY with her team to host a dinner at the Guggenheim museum to celebrate their support of an exhibition of Agnes Martin’s work. I’m also there for a sneak peek of ’10,’ a limited collection from the brand to celebrate their 10 year anniversary which launches in stores on the 24th of March – 10 years to the date since they opened the doors of their very first store. I’m greeted by Karin, whose appearance in head-to-toe all black COS, with a sharp blonde bob is in complete antithesis to the lavish surroundings. I get the impression she’d be more comfortable sitting on a mid century chair rather than the squashy velvet sofa we find ourselves upon. ‘There was 15 people when I started and now we have 200,’ Karin says of her UK based team. ‘A lot of people think it’s a Swedish brand but our first ever store was on London’s Regent Street.’ COS or Collection Of Style was created by the H&M group who also own Cheap Monday, Monki and & Other Stories as a bit of a retail experiment but quickly went to become a some what surprising hit. Although based on the high street, it feels much more high end with a focus on timeless, quality pieces rather than just churning out trends. It also cleverly appeals to a wide range of people with its minimalist aesthetic. Pop into any store and you’ll find a mix of art loving mothers shopping alongside their uni going daughters and corporate business women browsing next to hipsters in search of yet another oversized black jumper. In a world of shouty campaigns dominated by the same faces, COS feels like a much more grown up and calmer older sister. A quick browse through the ‘10’ collection further emphasizes its clever appeal. Drawing on its heritage of clever pattern cutting, each piece in the collection is created like a puzzle Karin explains. ‘We used the full width of the fabric. There is no waste. So it’s sustainable which is really important to us but we also really liked the idea of a challenge of reinventing the classics.’ Here Karin talks Scandi style, fast fashion and how to avoid having a separate week and weekend wardrobe…
Do you come from a creative family?
Growing up my parents were both creative and still are but they didn’t work in that field. My dad does a lot of woodwork but not as a profession and my mum would always make all our clothes. I got into that quite early too. I used scrap bits and leftovers to make things for my dolls and then eventually myself.
What was your style like as a teenager?
It was more experimental and more about what you could get hold of. I grew up in a really small city called Linkoping. So it was about looking at the potential in what you had around you.
Why did you make the move from Sweden to London?
I took some education in tailoring and dressmaking in Stockholm and I worked in a theatre. Then I worked for a tailor in Stockholm and I made some one off pieces that I sold but then I really felt like I wanted to take further education in fashion so I moved to London.
Nowadays lots of people aspire towards a Scandi style. How does that compare to when you first moved to London?
The Swedish fashion scene hadn’t exploded like it has now. But, I think when I came to London it was interesting to see the diversity. In Stockholm and in Scandinavia its more of a uniform I would say. Everyone goes for the same while in London and in bigger cities there tends to be more options.
What was your own design aesthetic like at that time?
I think as a designer I found myself in London because I wanted to focus on the dress stand and create that way rather than sitting and drawing. The Royal College push you to push yourself to be as creative as possible. It’s tough but it’s good because it’s all about finding your aesthetic and your identity as a designer and I think I really did that there.
You were spotted by COS at your final show. Was it scary to join what was then a totally unknown brand?
Yes but something about that also appealed to me. At the time it was a small team and the head of design’s assistant approached me. They couldn’t say much about the project because it was still at a kind of a starting point. It was all confidential. But obviously they told me enough to make me want to come onboard. It was really exciting.
They said they were really impressed by your draping technique. Tell me more?
Well, I think it’s really purely because I wasn’t very good at drawing so I had to find a way to communicate my ideas and for me it was working with cloth straight on the dress stand. Folding, pleating, draping and cutting shapes. I also feel when you design on paper you already know, it’s like your brain makes you think you’re going to draw this certain thing but while you work on a dress stand it’s more on your own intuition and things just happen. Suddenly, you just have a shape and that shape can then become a sleeve or a skirt so for me I feel it’s more open minded and more creative.
Do you have a particular idea of the ‘COS woman’ when designing?
We don’t really think about it as one particular person, it’s more a group of friends that share a mindset. It’s a very ageless customer. They have this big city mindset but they’re not necessarily living in a big city. But they’re into cultural life like shows and they’re into quality of design and they are expecting high quality when they come to COS.
Even in the busiest shopping districts it always feels so calm when you walk into a COS store. Do you oversee all elements of the brand?
Yes in my current role I do. From the beginning though we have had a sort of DNA that is really strong and all the different departments work with that same vision. The shopping experience and that feeling that you get in-store is really important to us. That’s why we have the lounge area so people can take a break and it also works for the whole family.
The high street where you are positioned is very fast fashion. Is that difficult to compete with?
We do two directions per year, so one direction per season. It’s a big collection so we have new pieces introduced to stores every week. We do it by story and by colours. Someone in the past said we were like the missing link between high street and high fashion and I think there is something about that. We don’t do conventional trend research and we don’t base the collection on the catwalk. Instead we always start with art and look at architecture and design too.
So do you look at runway trends at all?
I mean we look at it, everyone looks at it now because it’s just there. But when we build our concepts and our stories for the season we never use that as a base. It always comes back to art.
Do you moodboard digitally?
No our approach to that is very hands on and tactile. We look at books, films, architecture and music. We go to exhibitions. And think about what we have seen throughout the years from our own travels as well. At the end we make a big mood board, then a Powerpoint and then a handout to the team so everyone can see the end result.
What are the best selling pieces for COS?
Our customer really likes our wardrobe essentials, so like the white shirt is a successful piece that the customer keeps on coming back for, both men and women actually.
Is it hard to keep redesigning pieces like that?
No, there are so many different ways. We will always offer the most understated white shirt that is clean and can compliment any outfit. And then we also like to reinvent it like the shirt dress in the 10 year capsule collection . What we do depends on our work method too. So one season we could work a lot on collaging, another season we go a lot on draping. We try to use different methods when we create to renew ourselves.
What are your tips on dressing for work but still retaining a sense of self?
I think it’s best to build up a base of essentials. I like to go for an oversized men’s trouser, and then team it with a lean fitted t-shirt. I’ll have options from a round neck, to a v-neck. I like to mix understated essentials with more modern proportions. So then you have a balance and you can vary your look for the different needs of the day, but you will also look considered. It depends on what job you have and its up to you as an individual but I believe if you are considered and understated then it will look effortless.
How do you think the fashion world is going to change over the next 10 years?
That’s a hard one isn’t it? I think from looking back over the past 10 years we’ve seen that people shop with the long term in mind. We’ve seen that the customer likes a more timeless aesthetic because they like to buy things that they know they will keep so therefore quality and design is extremely important. When we started there was nothing at that price point like us either in quality or aesthetic, so we were I guess lucky in that way. The timing was right.