There is a permanent light installation at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, where turquoise water flows within the red ochre walls of a cavernous pyramid. A skyward oculus lets in varying degrees and intensities of light, allowing it to paint the space however Mother Nature wishes. Its creator, the American artist James Turrell, intended for it to change the way its viewer perceives light and space, but Karin Gustafsson, the creative director of COS (Collection of Style), sees so much more in Within without. “It’s almost nonphysical,” she says in her Swedish accent. “It’s nothing you can touch, everything gets very soft but still graphic, and that’s really what I like—and the colours.” In it she saw COS’s next collection.
Art and design are in fact what most inspire COS (the brand produces apparel and accessories for women, men, and children), and have for the past decade. Gustafsson would know, as she’s been with the company since before its doors opened on London’s swish Regent Street in 2007, the same year she showed her final collection at the Royal College of Art and was hand-picked to be an assistant womenswear designer for the soon-to-launch brand. “We worked very hard from the beginning to finalize a DNA,” she says, “and that’s something we’ve held on to.”
But functionality is as much a part of the discussion at the company’s headquarters as inspiration is. While colour harmonies of the Spring/Summer 2017 collection are quite obviously inspired by the subdued palette of Within without, the technical details and fabrications, too, echo its subtleties. Take, for example, a high-neck sleeveless top: produced in what Gustafsson refers to as a micro-textured “spongey knit,” it brings to mind the minutiae of Turrell’s space while its slate blue shade achieves the same sort of tranquility. When paired with a stone-coloured pencil skirt (a COS staple), whose origami waist is equal parts soft and graphic, the effect is sublime. “All the lines are slightly off,” Gustafsson says of this paper-folding technique used throughout the collection. Even the men’s collection (canvas jackets and judo trousers in dried-out greens and faded terracottas) is influenced by art—in this case, Viennese visual artist Liddy Scheffknecht’s body of work, which propelled Gustafsson to play with airy fabrics.
Soon these garments, works of art and feats of design in their own right, will be available to the denizens of Vancouver, where COS is opening its fourth Canadian outpost, its first on the West Coast. Occupying over 3,000 square-feet in Gastown, the historic building is being restored to preserve its current character, as with all other COS boutiques (see: the well on the basement floor of Manhattan’s Spring Street location). “It’s not something we look for,” Gustafsson says of pre-existing architectural flaws, “but when we come across them, we will always maintain them rather than strip them off.” In terms of the Vancouver store, that means repainting the façade the striking matte grey originally used, and allowing the cracks and “flaws” of interior wooden columns to sing. Notorious for being discriminating when it comes to choosing a location in order to be most accessible to its customers, COS can be counted on for a certain look despite what any building throws its way: a clean-lined interior punctuated with mid-century modern furniture. The structure is what makes each store unique.
For some brands, 10 years marks an entire lifetime; for others, it’s just the infancy. On the eve of its own decennium—an accomplishment no matter how you define a decade—COS has evolved as a label, and still managed to see its DNA through. This isn’t more obvious than when Gustafsson is asked which looks from the latest collection best embody the company. “This is the haaaardest!” she cries after a brief pause. “I can pick eeeeeverything!” Her response is the best testament to the philosophical and aesthetic genetics that run through her pieces, each distinctive in its characteristics and part of something lasting.