COS: the rise and rise of Scandinavian fashion house
Designers Karin Gustafsson and Martin Andersson talk about the rapid growth of the brand and the all-pervasive popularity of Scandinavian design
In a little under eight years, COS has become one of the fastest-growing fashion brands on the high street. Last week, H&M Group, which owns COS, announced strong first-quarter results, and further expansion looks on the cards for the label.
COS opened its first store on London's Regent Street in 2007; since then, the brand has opened more than 120 around the world, including three in Hong Kong. It debuted in New York stores last autumn, and plans on opening in Luxembourg and Prague by autumn. Having quietly entered Hong Kong almost three years ago, eschewing the high-fashion pomp and circumstance of launch events and celebrity associations, the brand has struck a chord with consumers looking for a chic, sophisticated alternative to the usual high street fare, at affordable prices.
The success of the London-based, yet very Scandinavian, fashion house has shaken up established rules for growth in the industry by celebrating consistency, function dictating form and sustainability. Moreover, COS has been one of the chief beneficiaries of consumers around the world seeking designer quality clothing at High Street prices.
"It's incredible how fast we've grown," says COS womenswear designer Karin Gustafsson, who began at the company in 2006 when it was merely a concept. "You know back then we were 15 people in the office and now I think we are more than 150," says Gustafsson.
Gustafsson and COS menswear designer Martin Andersson were in Hong Kong this month for the presentation of the brand's autumn-winter 2015 collection, which took place on the upper deck of Central Pier Four with a specially constructed stage and installations by architect Andre Fu. Now that the brand is firmly established in Hong Kong, Gustafsson and Andersson feel the city is ready to see a bit more of COS, encompasses more than just fashion. "We like art, design and architecture, they inspire our designs and our stores. We really believe in sharing that interest with our customers," says Gustafsson.
COS, or Collection of Style to give its full name, began life as a retail experiment dreamed up by the H&M Group, the Swedish fashion giant that owns H&M as well as smaller brands Cheap Monday, Monki and another rising star, & Other Stories. The idea was to create modern yet classic clothing that played on the growing trend for minimalist, trans-seasonal, workwear designs housed in a retail concept that was almost the opposite of H&M - fewer lines, fewer products on show and less clutter.
Although the H&M brand, with more than 3,500 stores globally, is still the driver of the company's revenues, the H&M Group has taken a strategic bet that the future of fashion retail lies with its higher-priced brands COS and & Other Stories, and the company announced in its first quarter financial report that the two brands are set for big expansion this year, with COS to add 26 new stores and & Other Stories 12 stores.
COS has been the leading edge of a general growth of Scandinavian fashion, or "Scandi fashion" as it some call it. Brands such as Acne, Sand and Tiger of Sweden have found favour with the high fashion crowd but it is COS that has taken the spirit of Scandinavian design and brought it into the mainstream, making it more accessible and spreading its reach around the world.
Although careful not to attribute the global success of Scandinavian fashion solely to COS, Andersson and Gustafsson say Scandinavian design has never been so popular or influential as it is now. "Scandinavian fashion tends to be more timeless and maybe people are now thinking long term," says Gustafsson, adding: "People appreciate design that has a longer lifespan."
Asked to define the aesthetic, Andersson, who joined the company in 2009, says that both he and Gustafsson are "modernists at heart". "It's modern classics, and we try and reinvent them with a little twist. The functional element becomes super important for us, both in regards to how we design the details but also how you wear it. You should have something for every occasion. And garments should be multifunctional in the way that you wear them," says Andersson adding: "You know we follow those mantras 'less is more' and 'form follows function'."
It's clear Andersson and Gustafsson design with set rules in mind, but they reject the notion that this restricts creativity. "I think that's good," says Gustafsson, "... because then you have a frame, and you can be creative within that frame." Andersson reveals that commercial imperatives come into their design thinking.
"We are a commercial brand and positioned, I guess, on the High Street. But while being there, we also have these parameters that we know who we are. We have a very strong brand identity. That's a kind of box, if you like. So we don't have to chase the latest trends," he says.
A fashion backlash against fickle, fast trends, COS is well placed to capitalise on a growing gloabal interest in this versatile, professional yet slightly quirky modern aesthetic. To the untrained eye, COS could be seen as fetishising basic wardrobe essentials such as the white shirt or the navy blazer, but for Andersson and Gustafsson these offer a blank canvas for a wealth of ideas. "The basic white shirt can be worn in many different ways. We want to reinvent it constantly and there are so many different ways you can reinvent the white shirt," says Gustafsson.
Despite working to defined parameters, Andersson and Gustafsson are not unwilling to embrace theatricality in both how COS shows itself to the world and in its collections.
"This presentation we are showing for our autumn-winter collection, I think there will be a great sense of drama in that," says Andersson, talking about the show itself. Gustafsson likewise feels their aesthetic has broadened and the autumn-winter collection, which is inspired by outdoor activities, shows "a side of COS you've never seen before".