How Cos Creative Director Karin Gustafsson Developed the Brand's Minimalist Aesthetic

The Royal College of Art-trained designer has been with Cos since its inception 10 years ago.
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Karin Gustafsson. Photo: courtesy of Cos

Karin Gustafsson. Photo: courtesy of Cos

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Cos earned a massive fashion industry fan base long before it even became available stateside in 2014; the London-based label's stores were a must-hit pit stop on many editors' trips to Europe. Of course, the minimalist brand isn't only appreciated by fashion people: Cos now has 195 stores in 32 countries, in addition to e-commerce that ships to the U.S. and 18 European markets. The modern, unfussy and gently priced clothing and accessories for both men and women are cool and distinctive, but also possess the mass appeal necessary for a rapidly expanding label owned by H&M. 

That instantly recognizable aesthetic is almost entirely thanks to Cos's Royal College of Art-trained Creative Director Karin Gustafsson, who has been with the 10-year-old brand since its inception in 2006, and whose own signature technique of designing through draping informed Cos's time-honored look. Though with new items arriving in stores every week, she and her team are under constant pressure to keep things fresh while still giving fans what they want.

Gustaffson was in New York last month to celebrate Cos's 10-year anniversary and partnership with the Guggenheim on a collection inspired by its Agnes Martin exhibit. We sat down to chat about her career path, design process, the early days of Cos, finding inspiration in art and much more. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

Were you always interested in fashion?

I think that was something that I knew from a very young age — not necessarily fashion but that I wanted to create garments, and I liked the idea of creating by making. I started off my education in tailoring and dress-making. I did some internships in the theater; I ended up working for one of the most prestigious tailors in Stockholm.

And then I started to make pieces that I sold on commission in a few stores in Stockholm. This was before my education in London. But I just really felt that I wanted to work in a team and that I wanted to take education in fashion. I ended up at the Royal College of Art in the end, which I think was an amazing school because it was very much about finalizing who you were as a designer. All the facilities were there, so you could really explore. Then you have all the industry connections.

The designer and the assistant from Cos came [to my graduate show] and they called me up after that, and this was 2006. They couldn't say much because it was honestly a secret project. But they said enough to make it sound interesting and I came on board. I think there were about 15 people on the team [back then]. And now I think we're 170.

Can you tell me a bit about what that initial process was like, coming up with the aesthetic Cos wanted to create and conceptualizing the brand?

We worked on finding a DNA. But we sort of knew that we wanted to deliver a product that was accessible — that would be something that many people could appreciate. Therefore, we really wanted to work with this timeless aesthetic [while] aiming to find quality in design and a good price for our customer.

We also always came back to the wardrobe staples: five-pockets, a little black dress, the blazer jacket. We worked a lot with reinventing and giving them a new, modern feel.

An image from the Cos x Agnes Martin collection look book shot on location at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Cos

An image from the Cos x Agnes Martin collection look book shot on location at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Cos

How did your role evolve from when you started as assistant designer?

My first job was very much working with that ground of the garments I would say — really finding the blocks, creating rules for how to make the garments. Achieving a quality product means not only expensive fabric, but it means it has to be made in the right way. So we spent a lot of time finding finishes. But quite quickly I had the opportunity to become a designer. I was a designer for one of the "concepts," which is a more classy [high-fashion] concept that also eventually became 90 percent of the press collection. So I did a lot of the press, but also obviously the same stuff goes to stores. 

And then, I think it was 2011, I got the opportunity to be head of womenswear design. Me and Martin [Anderson, head of men's design] worked closely; we work closely still to make sure that men's and women's are aligned. Since a year back, I've had the new role of creative director, which means that now I work more on the vision... still obviously with Martin on the seasonal directions, but also work with all departments with our directors, and the visual team and the online stylists, together with the head of women's design, head of accessories, and head of menswear.

In the beginning was it a challenge to figure out how to create the quality you wanted but still make things accessible price-wise?

Yeah that was a challenge. We had to educate production. We created these rule books on how to make the garments, which we still have. Also obviously working a lot with finding the right materials and exploring how they wash and how they last for a long time together with the coating of the garments.

Cos has such a strong brand identity and aesthetic that people associate with it. What do you think about when creating new collections to make sure that it fits within that? And then how do you evolve season after season?

We always want to create a collection that is timeless as I've touched on before. Functionality is very important. Modernity is important to me, to take those wardrobe staples, reinvent them, give them new finishes, [use] new materials to give them a modern feel and explore new proportions. Tactility is also very important, the way fabric feels to touch, how they perform when you wear them. Even in the shopping experience for the customer, we like the idea of our shopping bag for example. It has this mix between ribbon and heavy paper. It is the way these sort of materials feel and look together. That is very important in everything we deliver.

We're not so trend based... we do two "directions" per season. And we tend to base them off art, design, architecture, film; we believe that art is well ahead of fashion. That is what helps us evolve I think. We get inspiration from art. 

How involved are you with the business and retail side of things? Do you take feedback in terms of what you should be designing?

It's all about the needs of your customer and we have been so lucky that we have customers that appreciate our collection. As a brand, we don't feel that we have to reinvent the wheel every season. We see the white shirt being like a blank canvas in everyone's wardrobe.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge in your career, and how did you overcome it?

I'm not the loudest person. I'm not the most "center of attention" type of person. So at one point I thought that would maybe make it difficult to be noticed. That is something that I had to work on a little bit — to sort of come out of my shell.

What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?

You should just work hard in finding your aesthetic. Because even if you work in the end for another designer, then I think at least you have something of your own, which you always look at when you hire someone. You look at their thought process and you look at what they can add to your team.

Do you feel like the Cos aesthetic is your aesthetic, or reflective of you?

Yeah, I do actually. I really do. I think as a designer I wasn't very good at drawing but I always worked 3-D. So I always worked with draping. 

When you were younger did you think you'd end up in this sort of position, designing for a big brand?

I wasn't sure. I didn't imagine working for a big brand like this and I always thought, "Oh that would not be so creative, or it would be very restrictive," but it hasn't felt like that ever. So that was a really positive surprise.

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