Head of menswear design, Martin Anderson and head of womenswear design, Karin Gustafsson
Credit: Courtesy of COS

Soft-spoken and simpatico, Karin Gustafsson and Martin Andersson are the perfect ambassadors for COS, the brand whose design teams they lead.

A quiet achiever with an  indomitable presence on the world’s High Streets, the COS brand is characterised not only by its vast wardrobe offering, which is equal parts classic and contemporary, but by its growing involvement in the worlds of art and design. Through the process of collaboration with likeminded groups and individuals from diverse fields, COS has built a formidable portfolio of creative projects executed in partnership with some of the world’s most venerable arts institutions, including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Frieze Art Fair in New York and London’s Serpentine Gallery.

It was at the latter that the designers first encountered the work of critically-acclaimed Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, an iconoclast from whom they had long drawn inspiration. In Fujimoto’s sparse and cerebral work, Andersson and Gustafsson identified an analogue of their own ethos and at Milan’s annual design fair, Salone del Mobile, both parties recently unveiled their joint venture: a Forest of Light.

Installed temporarily in Milan’s Cinema Arti, a rundown theatre designed in the 1930s by Italian architect Mario Cereghini, Forest of Light’s field of spotlights drew inspiration from both the history of cinema and the forests of Fujimoto’s childhood – a central motif in his architectural practice. Endless configurations of smoke, mirrors, light and music triggered by the constant stream of visitors created a space that was both stimulating and a refuge from the chaos of the outside world. It became clear when talking to all three parties on site that this was a work for which they all felt a great deal of pride.

The two COS designers have worked together since Andersson joined the company in 2008 from his own label and from a position with British outerwear brand, Aquascutum. Here, they reflect on the process of collaboration, their creative processes and on their fruitful working relationship.

It’s worth noting that during the course of our conversation, each finished the other’s sentences on more than once occasion.

Sou Fujimoto’s Forest of Light and one of Gustafsson’s womenswear designs for COS Spring/Summer 2016
Credit: Courtesy of COS

From your first outing with British designer Gary Card, before COS even had a retail presence here, until now, each successive outing at Salone coincides with the brand’s expansion throughout Italy. What has the response been from the Italian market to the brand, and to initiatives like this installation?
Karin: We’ve had a great response in general in Italy, but Salone really is so international. It’s like the world is your whole stage when you’re here, which is amazing. I think when we did our first Salone five years ago, that was more of an introduction and one of the reasons why we came. Salone is so inspiring and we always come to do research so the point was to come and say ‘This is who we are’. Now, as we’ve grown, our presence here has grown as well. We’ve moved from the Lambrate district to Brera, which is more central and close to our store. We’ve had a fantastic journey in Milan.

Did the process of collaboration with Sou Fujimoto differ from your projects in recent years?
Martin: The collaborations are always so strong, because we’ve been able to work with people who we genuinely admire and love their work. This was a very different experience because it’s a different artist, or an architect in this case. The whole process was quite smooth. We like to give people a blank canvas and don’t dictate what they should do. One of the exciting elements of this project is when they first present their ideas. We want them to create something that isn’t about our collection necessarily, and more about the thought process and the collaboration.

Karin: That first initial meeting is more about what they’ve been thinking about, and then we develop renderings and a design process. But nothing can prepare you for the moment when you arrive and walk in. That’s awesome.

Sou Fujimoto’s Forest of Light, seen in situ at Salone del Mobile 2016 alongside a ‘Strap dress’ from the COS Spring/Summer 2016 collection
Credit: Courtesy of COS

Can you describe that feeling?
Martin: Amazing. It’s such a beautiful space. The softness, the shapes and the lines. The architectural elements without the use of any materials that you can touch. I think it really is stunning.

Karin: It’s so nice that our presence here has evolved to become an experience. Two years ago, we worked with [Japanese design studio] Nendo to create an installation around the white shirt, which is our core garment. It was almost ‘the experience of the white shirt’. Last year, [New York art and architecture collaborative] Snarkitecture created an almost cave-like environment made out of ribbons. It was so quiet; it was almost an escape from the hustle and bustle of the fair. This year is quite similar, in that it is an escape into a forest of light. It’s beautiful.

At Salone del Mobile 2016, COS commissioned an original work from Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, whose Forest of Light is seen here in situ at Milan’s Cinema Arti
Credit: Courtesy of COS

How does the process of collaboration with someone like Sou, or Oki Sato of Nendo and the Snarkitecture boys, differ from the process that you have together as collaborators while working on your collections?
Karin: It’s very different. We work with these people because we love what they do, and of course we see some kind of shared values and aesthetics in their work, but we also want to see what they can deliver.

Martin: We never expect them to use our product. We never push them to do anything, as we’re genuinely interested in a strong, exciting, creative piece to share with our customers.

Karin: And when we work on a collection, it’s much more of a…

Martin: Dialogue.

Karin: An intense dialogue. Of course, we have stronger [guidelines] so within those realms it’s a matter of, ‘what can we do? ‘What’s the new technique?’ We have to push ourselves forward in an organic direction. They’re two very different processes.

At Salone del Mobile 2014, COS collaborated with Oki Sato of Japanese design studio Nendo on an installation that riffed on the key COS garment – the white shirt
Credit: Courtesy of COS
In 2015, COS worked with Brooklyn-based design studio Snarkitecture on an installation that amplified core components of the COS brand DNA: transparency, clean lines and the elevation of the everyday into something extraordinary
Credit: Courtesy of COS

What do you want your customer take away from this experience, and others like it in the future?
Martin: We want them to be inspired, and feel as excited as we do. This is about sharing with our customers what excites us.

Karin: Salone is very important to our customers’ lives. They’re in arts. They’re in cultural areas, like architecture and design. We share a mindset that is culturally aware; whether they’re furnishing their home or buying a garment, they demand good quality of design.

When did you both encounter Sou’s work for the first time?
Martin: I think it was when we came across the wooden house, wasn’t it?

Karin: Yes, when we research a collection we look to the fields of arts, architecture and design. When we came across his work, we were so impressed with his approach to material, attachment to nature, clean lines and form full of function. The idea of the forest is central to his practice. It was when he did the Serpentine Pavilion in London that we really got to experience his work firsthand. It really moved us.

Final Wooden House interior view in Kumamoto, Japan, by Sou Fujimoto Architects, 2008
Credit: Photo By View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images
Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in situ at London’s Kensington Gardens
Credit: Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

You mention the similarities between your work as designers and Sou’s work as an architect. Besides the obvious difference in materials, how do your practices and principles as designers differ from one another?
Martin: Similar to an architect, we always strive to create collections that are timeless and last longer than a season. However, we work around two seasons, so our pace is obviously different to what Sou is used to.

Karin: I think also when you create something architectural, you need to consider cultural aspects, and the impact you have on your surroundings. Whereas with fashion, you don’t have to take any external forces into consideration. We can almost look inward – ‘What is right for COS? What do we want to do?’

There’s a great deal of debate within the fashion industry at the moment concerning the increasing pace of fashion, and the demands it is placing on designers. As creative directors, do you feel the same pressure to constantly engage with new ideas and produce more or are you exempt from those expectations?
Karin: I wouldn’t say exempt. COS is a brand that is so much about wardrobe essentials. We like to reinvent them with new techniques, new materials and new proportions that ensures a longevity of design. That we have such a strong brand identity [makes me] feel quite safe in what we’re doing.

What has the process of working with Sou, and seeing the finished product, taught you? What will you take away from this moving forward?
Martin: I think he is really amazing. I must say, I couldn’t visualise this but I’m really happened it ended the way it has. He managed to make architecture without using material. I think that is super interesting.

Karin: He’s thinking outside the box of what architecture can be. Lighting is such an important aspect of architecture, of the building, of the space, from natural light to artificial light. To really take that idea and play with it is super inventive.

One of Anderson’s COS menswear designs, as seen alongside Sou Fujimoto’s Forest of Light
Credit: Courtesy of COS

How many years have the two of you worked together?
Karin: Seven years. I will have worked at COS for eight years this year.

Martin, what’s something Karin has taught you about your design practice, and vice versa?
Martin: I think what I’ve learned has a lot to do with working with silhouettes, and considering that more in menswear.

Karin: I would say Martin has taught me a great deal about tailoring and the history of menswear.

How have you seen the other person grow, and in what way?
Martin: That’s a tricky question!

Karin: Another thing that I feel about Martin is that he has a very good way of not overthinking things. He’s really good at simplifying.

What’s something that you have achieved together that stands out as something you’re both really proud of?
Karin: When it comes to achievements, what we do is so much about teamwork. Being able to work on these collaborations that we’ve helped orchestrate, that has been amazing. And again, it’s not just down to the two of us. It’s a collaborative approach.

Martin: We’ve got a really good team. That’s nothing that we should take for granted and we’re very lucky in that way.

Tile and cover images: Courtesy of COS