Cos: Thoroughly modern minimalism

As Swedish brand Cos marks its fifth anniversary, Harriet Walker celebrates the quietly confident shop that has changed our high streets

Harriet Walker
Monday 11 June 2012 11:44 BST

The best indication of a brand's successful infiltration is when you can't imagine the high-street landscape without it, or remember where you used to buy anything before it existed.

And five years after first arriving in the UK, Swedish label Cos is becoming as much part of the fabric of our town centres as its stablemate, H&M.

Launched with a catwalk show at the Royal Academy in 2007, and operating out of a coolly designed flagship store which occupies the ground floor of the old Dickins and Jones building on Regent Street in 2007, Cos (it stands for Collection of Style) has since become a wardrobe saviour; a go-to for simple and anonymous clothing, stylish basics and zeitgeist-y geometric and minimal pieces that owe their success as much to their casual complexity as they do to their reasonable, mid-market prices. After a favourable reception, branches opened in Manchester, Glasgow and Brighton – and the company will expand to Asia and the Middle East later this year.

"At Cos, we want to propose a style inspired by architecture, graphics, design and arts," explains womenswear design manager Karin Gustaffson (pictured above).

"To play with volume and proportion, rather than follow fashion trends. We have always hoped to create styles that last beyond the season."

This sort of refreshing, customer-focused logic is another part of the reason Cos has done so well. Arriving on our shores just prior to the financial meltdown, what Cos offered was a world away from the fast fashion prevalent at that time, suggesting timelessly classic but consciously current pieces that don't date or look tired.

"I wouldn't say we have changed the high street," Gustaffson adds modestly, "but it feels to us that customers' shopping habits have changed. They are looking for key styles that last, such as the white shirt, chinos and the little black dress, all of which we have interpreted to fit the modern lifestyle."

To mark its fifth anniversary, the brand has released a capsule collection of re-imagined white shirts, each finished variously with bib fronts or sporty, elasticated cuffs and cotton voile. While some of the label's design quirks might seem just that – a bit off the wall – Cos simply doesn't do faddy; to begin with, it barely even did colour. Initially, stores were stocked full of black and grey, sports-inspired drapery and tailoring that took inspiration from avant-garde labels such as Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Marni, as well as some of the more utilitarian aspects of vintage Prada. It introduced, in subsequent seasons, vibrant neon brights and pastel hues, each delivery complementing what had come before and developing a coherent, and characteristic, sense of style.

"We've been told that customers see us as filling a gap that exists between designer and high street," continues Gustaffson.

"We pay a lot of attention to the quality of our garments and always look into ways to innovate fabrication to feel modern and interesting."

While Cos may be full of heavy slub jersey and traditional quality wools, there are also additions, such as neoprene, metal mesh and intriguing technofabrics, which give an added sense of quality and consideration to pieces which feel anything but mass-produced. Since its launch, Cos has been singular among non-designer brands at cultivating a sense of authenticity that doesn't come across as exclusive or in-the-know.

"I'd attribute a lot of Cos's success to intelligent visual communication," says Agata Belcen, fashion editor at AnOther Magazine and a fan of the label's signature ascetism. "It shares this with labels such as Céline, Comme des Garçons and Acne, who promote themselves not just with images of their products, but by letting us into their worlds with in-house magazines and non-commercial booklets. We're given an old portrait; an interview with a florist; a guiding principle that may have inspired them or may have no direct influence, but which is just something they'd like us to know about."

Undoubtedly Cos is more a lifestyle than it is a store: it's about buying into an aesthetic rather than picking a new party dress. Clothing is serious and designed to fit into the lives of its aficionados. And that vision just happens to have chimed perfectly with the vein of sleek modern minimalism that has enjoyed such a resurgence in the past five years, championed on the catwalks by the likes of Céline and Yves Saint Laurent. It's the understated garb of the creative industries, a destination for the directional, recognisable without being conspicuous. As far as fitting into the British high street goes, Cos has been as unassuming and understated as the clothes it sells – and is all the more alluring for its quiet confidence.

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