Architect of fashion

Architect of fashion

COS doesn't do fashion shows. As much as most labels thrive on staging a fashion spectacle to garner headlines and viral buzz, the low-key retailer is the epitome of understatement.

So what does it do to present its new collection to international industry insiders in Hong Kong? Erect a gallery-like showcase - in collaboration with design wunderkind Andre Fu.

"It's so nice to have that interactive element with Andre's structure, which is almost like a celebration of the kind of urban environment here in Asia," explains Martin Andersson, head of menswear design, COS.

"And also from a presentation point of view, we also felt that it's important that it wasn't a catwalk show, it's a kind of meeting between architectural design factors and fashion."

Architect Andre Fu, the University of Cambridge architecture grad behind hotels such as The Upper House in Hong Kong, first met the COS team during the brand's launch at Galerie Perrotin, which he had designed.

For the Fall 2015 preview, he transformed the upper storey of a pier overlooking Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour into a modernist space using a melange of glass cubes, planes and mirrors.

The gritty locale with sweeping vistas of the skyline has been a go-to destination for cool events of late.

"We're using the upper deck of Central Pier 4, which is basically a deck that hasn't been in function for quite some time," explains Mr Fu, who has also designed The Fullerton Bay Hotel's rooftop bar Lantern and restaurant at Clifford Pier in Singapore.

"So there is a kind of urban agenda to the whole exercise of this particular collaboration in the sense that we want to showcase some degree of urban regeneration. It is to revitalise an existing structure, and instil new life and experiences into it."

Ironically for a fashion brand, COS has always prided itself for bucking trends in its quest for perfecting basics.

Eschewing flashy prints and body-baring cuts for meticulous details and figure-shielding silhouettes, the sister brand of H&M is all about keeping things on the down-low.

As such, its collaborations are similarly subtle, with its creative heads partial to esoteric, design-driven tie-ups.

"We want to share our inspirations and influences, and it's just so nice to be able to work on a presentation like this, or when we worked with the German artist Carsten Nicolai, for example, who created an art piece especially for us," recalls Mr Andersson.

"Rather than putting it in a gallery, we put it in the window of a store. As long as it feels honest and true, then it's certainly something we will keep doing."

Having participated in the Salone del Mobile in Milan, the largest trade furniture fair in the world, annually since 2012, the brand will be collaborating with experimental New York art/architecture practice Snarkitecture at this year's edition in April.

Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen, the firm's founders, will create an immersive translucent cave using strips of layered white fabric. Last year, COS worked with Japanese design firm Nendo on a concept store featuring products from both companies.

"I have known the brand for quite some time, and had a close relationship with the brand," says Mr Fu. "And I am obviously excited to embrace this world of fashion, going forward.

It's slightly different from things that I typically do. Typically, people would associate me with hotels, and a very high end and niche kind of market. But I love the kind of very modernist quality to COS, and we have such synergy with each other."

The linear, clean space created by Mr Fu was a perfect foil for the brand's Fall 2015 collection, which was a tad more theatrical than its usual pared-down pieces.

Inspired by the Mono-ha art movement, which melded natural and industrial materials in often-dramatic installations, the line was more a nod to Japanese avant-gardism than minimalism.

The hero look was a voluminous parachute dress with a cloud-like, asymmetrical skirt; whereas the more adventurous male aesthete might be able to pull off a collarless grey wool blazer worn over a Margiela-esque apron.

"I think it feels quite new because it has a sense of drama to it," says Mr Andersson. "Particularly in the womenswear collection, there's a really new, strong silhouette, which is a column-like shape with a focus on the waist, almost kimono-like as a garment.

And even for menswear we had a top, which we called the sleeping bag top. We took a white shirt fabric and padded it, almost like wearing a duvet."

With the evolution into more conceptual territory, it made perfect sense for the label to host a preview for the collection - an anomaly for the company.

Being able to witness the oversized proportions and sculptural, almost origami-inspired shapes worn on models helps to reassure die-hard COS fans, worried that their reliable wardrobe staples have been replaced by Rei Kawakubo riffs.

Besides, amid the bedding-like dresses is a multitude of sensible suits and sheaths, and the introduction of a highly versatile piece - the unisex white shirt.

"We love the white shirt, and can talk about it for hours," exclaims Mr Andersson, who sits forward in his chair excitedly when asked about the fashion basic during the interview held at The Upper House. "It's become such an iconic COS garment, and for us, as modernists at heart, it's a blank canvas to do something really interesting."

According to Mr Andersson, the humble button-down has the potential to evolve into infinite iterations, from a basic work shirt worn with a tie, to collarless tunic-style shirts, Oxfords, formal shirts or even deconstructed variants like a top with buttons only on the shoulders.

"When we turned five a couple of years ago, we thought, 'what are we going to do to celebrate that we've been in business for five years,'" recalls Mr Andersson.

"We thought of the white shirt, so we reissued one shirt from every year, for both menswear and womenswear, and we put it in a store on white rail. I think for Karin (Gustafsson, head of womenswear design) and I, it's just one of the favourite things we've done.

You really saw each shirt, it felt very valid and also different. It's a great project and really kind of summarised the brand."

This article was first published on March 28, 2015.
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