In April, an installation by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto during Salone del Mobile in Milan was a welcome respite from the ensuing bedlam. Decidedly noncommercial, the presentation was unlike anything on display during the frenetic weeklong design fair, which this year drew nearly 375,000 attendees and saw large projects throughout the city from corporate giants such as PepsiCo, Lexus, and Nike.
Whereas other installations seemed to scream out for attention, Fujimoto’s spoke louder in a whisper. Called “Forest of Light” and situated inside the Cinema Arti in the city’s San Babila district, the showcase combined motion-responsive light cones, ambient sound, fog, and mirrored walls, creating a Zen-like moment. It was not a splashy, sales-driven exercise. In fact, the presentation had nary a logo in sight. Nobody was making a sales pitch to buy a chair or sofa, let alone a T-shirt or a pair of trousers. The intent was for visitors to simply enjoy it. All this despite that fact that it was organized by a fashion label: the burgeoning Swedish brand COS.
“It’s a conceptual collaboration,” said Fujimoto in an upstairs space at the venue on opening day. “It’s a way of creating something that relates to COS’s background and thinking: simplicity and timelessness and softness.”
Approaching its 10th year, COS—which is owned by the H&M Group and known for its clean and pared-down collections—has quickly proven its success in the United States market. Since its arrival in 2014, the company has opened 10 stores across the country, with more slated to come. Over the past few years, it has also made a name for itself as a major supporter of arts and culture in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. It has helped organize or support projects and exhibitions with and for organizations like London’s Serpentine Galleries, New York City’s Judd Foundation, and the Tokyo Art Book Fair. To date, the brand has collaborated with artists and designers including Nendo, Michael Sailstorfer, and Carsten Nicolai. The Fujimoto project was the brand’s fifth annual installation to take place during Salone.
This fall, COS is sponsoring the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin exhibition—the first retrospective of the artist’s work since her death in 2004—on display in New York from Oct. 7 to Jan. 11. To coincide, the brand has created a 12-piece capsule collection inspired by Martin’s subtle, grid-patterned canvases. Within the line for men and women are structural collared jackets, simple navy trousers, and robe-like tops. “We didn’t want to go too literal,” says Karin Gustaffson, COS’s creative director. “We didn’t want to just take her work and put it on a T-shirt.”
For the Guggenheim, which has previously partnered with fashion houses like Dior and Hugo Boss, COS’s unusual and distinct take on patronage is proving to be a win-win for both the brand and the museum. “Their approach is remarkably focused and disciplined,” says Scott McDonald, the museum’s director of corporate, institutional, and global partners. “They know who they want to collaborate with, and concentrate squarely on reinforcing brand attributes.”
COS has supported the Serpentine Galleries since 2013 on the institution’s Park Night series of live art, dance, poetry, film, and more. It goes beyond just a straight sponsorship: The company has been directly involved on a programming level from the start. Artist George Henry Longly’s 2013 performance, for example, included a set of garments that COS lent to the performance, which Longly then modified into artworks.
For Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, COS’s position on brand patronage is, in the end, not so much about funding but rather about creating a platform for experimentation. “This is a principle that, we feel, COS has really taken to heart,” says Obrist, who adds that another pivotal part of the program has been establishing a sense of unity: “This is a young century that has already seen too many crises, and in the face of this, the arts can respond with the strongest argument it has, which is that of togetherness in multiplicity.”
“Sharing” is at the core of COS. The word came up again and again in three different interviews with the top brass: head of menswear Martin Anderson; brand director Marie Honda; and Gustaffson. As Honda describes it, “We share a lot internally. We share a lot externally. It’s very important when we find these ways of working with different designers or artists.” Which is where the Salone installations and other similar projects come in. Says Gustaffson: “These projects are a way for us to introduce ourselves a bit and get to know the customers, and share the collection with them and what inspires the collection. It’s a quiet communication.”
Central to the philosophical identity of COS—which is based out of a head office in London with a staff of 150—is the idea of utility and, connected to this, Scandinavian design heritage. “When you grow up in Sweden,” Andersson says, “you have a certain typical brand of modernism called functionalism. It fits in your backbone, whether it’s interior design or fashion. Every object there is designed with function in mind.” Adds Honda, who has a Swedish-Japanese background: “I think functionality is the key if you talk about Sweden and Japan.”
Also essential to the brand is quality and affordability. While it could be called a “fast fashion” label, COS doesn’t embrace a throwaway culture—an idea it pushes through its art and architecture partnerships, as well as the clothes it produces. Honda says that, depending on the season, roughly half of each collection is produced in China, with the other half done in Europe, mostly in factories in Italy, Portugal, and Turkey. This balancing act of high-demand commerce, creativity, quality, and cultural awareness is where the company thrives. For an affordable label like COS to be compared to high-end brands like Céline and Jil Sander in the press speaks volumes.
Deciding which artists and designers COS commissions and brands they partner with comes down to Gustaffson and Andersson. The two look for people who inspire both of them and the brand, and then, either independently or with partners, search for a way to collaborate. Their goal: to create deep connections, and to communicate the COS brand subtly, in a way that doesn’t seem obvious or superficial.
Full disclosure: COS provided transport and accommodations for the writer during some of the reporting of this story. Surface retained 100 percent editorial control.
Header Photo: Scenes from the Nendo installation in Milan. (Photo: Courtesy COS)