What do Scandinavian fashion label and Japanese architect have in common? Well ...

When Japan’s Sou Fujimoto and designers for minimalist high street fashion brand COS collaborated on an art installation, they found a shared passion for timelessness and simplicity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 2016, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 10:18am

In a dark, cavernous former cinema in the centre of Milan is an art installation by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto that, inspired by fashion, is barely there. Conical beams of light shine and pulse down into the dark, with slivers of smoke visible under each one. The lights move gently, some of them in response to the movements of people walking below, as sounds hum from speakers overhead.

The installation, called Forest of Light and a collaboration with minimalist, high street brand COS, was shown during Milan’s Salone del Mobile furniture fair earlier this month. COS collaborates with a different architect or architecture practice each year to produce artwork coinciding with the fair; in 2014 it was the turn of another Japanese studio, Nendo; American firm Snarkitecture has also taken part.

Milan has been full of such projects this month, part of a growing trend of creative collaboration between the worlds of fashion and design. By working with artists, architects, even interior and industrial designers, fashion labels earn kudos for creativity and elevating the perception of their products.

One had only to walk down shopping streets Via A. Manzoni and Via Della Spiga to see art installations, collaborations and events involving brands such as Tod’s, Hogan, Salvatore Ferragamo and Rolex.

“Fashion and architecture are so different ... but they both relate to our daily lives and to how our bodies behave,” says Fujimoto, which is why his installation included lights that reacted to motion to create a feedback loop.

“Fashion is really direct bodily feedback. Architecture is not really direct, but there’s still feedback and it’s something that I always think about,” he says. “In making something between architecture and fashion, we thought that bringing any kind of architectural materials might make the project too architectural, so we brought in light as our ‘material’ because it’s not a physical material but it’s still quite important in terms of creating the space, environment and interaction.”

It all sounds a bit abstract for a work that is supposed to be inspired by COS’ latest autumn-winter collection; but those familiar with Fujimoto’s work know that he’s full of surprises. The forest is a recurring theme in his work, and Forest of Light takes it to the next level by being almost immaterial – “the most pure form of the forest, only made by light,” he explains – and inspired by COS’ simplicity of design, “a fundamental something” as Fujimoto describes it.

The brand is known for cool, functional day wear. Its fans include design lovers – and architects – who don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a well-cut sweater or sleek tuxedo trousers. COS has thus managed to carve out a covetable niche making high-quality, functional clothing with an intellectual edge and creative twists.

Fujimoto and COS designers Martin Andersson (menswear) and Karin Gustafsson (womenswear) see aesthetic links between their work.

“It was quite surprising to share the basic philosophy in a sense, like timelessness, simplicity,” says Fujimoto. “There was a nice integration that we reached, that is quite inspiring and in my architecture I also like to think about such integration, of the city and nature etc.”

Andersson says: “When we approach these types of collaboration, we give our collaborators a free rein, carte blanche if you like, so its important we work with people with whom we share aesthetic and design values.”

He and Gustafsson had been aware of Hokkaido-born Fujimoto’s work for some time, and got to experience it in 2013 when he built a pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London. Pictures of his work made it onto their collection mood boards and informed their designs.

Gustafsson says: “Both architecture and fashion are all about shapes and building shapes, [and about] materials and composing. We look at architecture a lot when designing, like the lines and textures.”

These collaborations serve as tools to share their own inspirations with their customers, they say. Gustafsson and Andersson both want to design clothes that are timeless in the materials they use and their functionality, and of a style that always feels modern. COS customers range from young to old, its wallet-friendly price point attracting people from all walks of life. What they share, says Andersson is “a culturally aware mindset”; COS customers are keen on architecture, interior design and the arts, he says, and these collaborations are a clever way to their hearts.

While COS is owned by a Swedish company (the H&M group), its headquarters is in London and the team is very international; they share a love of mid-century modernism, architecture and design, which informs the clothes they design.

For Fujimoto, this was his first collaboration with a fashion chain on an installation. As an innovator known for pushing the boundaries of minimalism and negative space, it is easy to see why COS saw him as a compelling candidate. The Tokyo University graduate founded his company, Sou Fujimoto, in 2000 and has since won numerous prizes. He has designed private homes, medical and cultural centres, including the Musashino Art University Museum & Library in Japan, and won an international competition to design the Taiwan Tower (whose construction was temporarily halted by Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung over safety and structural concerns). Soon, he says, he’ll be completing a project in Hong Kong.

Fashion is at a point now where sustainability and its impact on nature is a mainstream issue. It is, perhaps, no wonder this collaboration seemed to fit, with Fujimoto’s work being so much about the juxtaposition between nature and the artificial. Ultimately, is he looking for harmony between the two or an elegant way to portray discord?

“Wow,” says Fujimoto, pausing for a few seconds to think. “I’m still looking for how to do this. Sometimes I bring natural things into a space but sometimes I create man-made architectural experiences to be like natural environments. I’m still finding out how to balance, how to integrate, and how to mix them together.”