Suzy Annetta, editor in chief of Design Anthology sat down with Atul Pathak of COS on the occasion of their latest store opening in Pacific Place, Hong Kong

Design Anthology: Why open another store in Hong Kong? Obviously we love the fact that you are, but I just wonder why the priority of Hong Kong as opposed to other cities in Asia, is it some kind of special connection? Or is it just the brand is doing so damn well here?

COS:  There’s definitely a connection and of course we are super happy with the performance of the brand in Hong Kong. It’s really as simple as that, if I am honest with you. And I think location is always of the highest importance to us. Pacific Place is a mall we have really found quite desirable from day one, since we opened on Queen’s Road. The opportunity to open a store here is pretty much a no-brainer. I think the aesthetic of the mall itself is stunning, it is one of the most beautifully designed malls I have seen anywhere. So the synergy between their vision of the mall and what we’d like to have for COS is very similar.

DA: Are there plans to expand further throughout Asia?

COS: Yes definitely! We just opened in Malaysia in December, so now we have Malaysia, we have Singapore, of course you know we have South Korea, and Japan. We are doing very well in Mainland China as well. We actually have another store opening in Beijing tomorrow, in the China World mall. So Asia for us is of supreme importance. The responses have been super positive, and of course I think there is a lot more potential for growth. But we have to be comfortable with the pace of growth, we have to feel the location is right for us, and of course more importantly there is a customer base that is interested and likes the brand.

DA: Sure, well we have friends in Manila and other cities dying for COS to open there…just an FYI.

COS:   That’s good to know. You know customer feedback is one of the things that we often refer back to because if we are not accommodating what our customers like and want then of course there’s no point. We listen to a lot of what we hear and what we see, and where we take our inspiration from, and that affects how we grow.

DA: So that leads me to the next question. How would you describe the typical COS customer, or is there a typical COS customer?

COS: There kind of is and isn’t really. We tend to talk in terms of interests and mindset more than anything else. The world that we get the bulk of our inspiration from is of course the design world overall. So things like contemporary art and architecture, product design and graphics and just design culture. So it could be film, dance, performance, all those types of environments are so inspirational to us and effects what we do in terms of the collection and the way we design the stores, the packaging, and all that side of things. So we talk about the core customer being very much interested in that world as much as we are, and not just in certain areas but it’s actually kind of informs their entire lifestyle so to speak, so that they‘re just as concerned about what they wear on their back as what they have in their house, the type of furniture they buy, the cars they drive, and I think they have very strong aesthetic vision and I like to think we do as well. So I think that’s where that kind of dialogue between the brand and the customer comes in. So we talk a lot about the core customer being interested in that world. Being culturally aware, and having that kind of, how to describe it, it’s like a big city mindset, but you don’t necessarily have to live in a big city to have that type of mentality.

DA: That’s interesting. I think you’ve actually done really well. I feel like the entire creative population of Hong Kong is constantly decked out in COS head to toe. So I guess it sort of brings me to the next question. I actually had the pleasure of meeting the two creative directors here in Hong Kong.

COS: Yes, when we did the Andre Fu collaboration, that’s right.

DA: Yes, and found them to be incredibly inspiring and when they were talking about their creative process. So how do you go about making the brand or the product continually so timeless? I think that’s one thing that really appeals to me, that the pieces are just such great cool wardrobe staples. You know what I mean? They are timeless in design. And that’s one of the things that I love about it, that it’s not going to be so seasonal. It’s very refreshing to see that from the fashion world. So how do you go about doing that?

COS: That’s very flattering to hear, of course, thank you. To be honest with you, it’s intrinsic to the core brand DNA, and that was really the purpose of the brand from the very start, to provide clothing that feels contemporary and modern. But also has this sense of longevity. So of course when we talk about that kind of thing, an example is the COS iconic product, the classic white shirt, and always being able to find the classics, like the chino style pant. But each season it’s revisited.  So it could be a type of fabric we use where an evolution happens, or it could be a specific seam or it could be the length. Each season we feature what we can see to be timeless clothing, but again we evolve, we change it as the season progresses, so that it always feel current but the white shirt is the white shirt. So you know we always talk about modernity and not just trying to be modern but actually the philosophical sense of modernity is to look at your techniques and constantly revisit them to see how they can be improved. So that’s something that we do in every level of the brand, on a daily basis.  We call them the round table discussions, and we will sit around the table and it’s all of us, but the bulk of it is the creative team - the creative directors and the designers. But it’s something we feel is intrinsic to all areas of the brand. So it could be interiors, we have our own interior department. And they design all the stores and do all the façades. I’m not sure if you’ve seen images of the store in Seoul…

DA: Yes, it’s quite unique and different looking…

COS: And the one in Toronto is amazing, with the charred wood on the outside.

DA: Yes I did see that, that is amazing.

COS: We are always, each of us in different areas, trying to look at how the brand is perceived and how we feel we can keep evolving and create this sense of balance between the timelessness, but also with the modernity as well. But like I said its intrinsic core DNA and so again it’s that something we all, when you join the brand really, when you come in house, it’s part of the COS culture I would say.

DA: So that brings me to the environmental side of things and sustainability. How much of that is the core part of business and how important is that to COS?

COS: Well, it is of supreme importance, as it should be. And of course sustainability is a journey, which we have started. But again if we hark back to when we first developed the brand it’s something that we felt was an important core value. It’s this concept of timelessness again, and the longevity of the product.

DA: Right, making something that actually lasts…

COS: Making something that lasts…yes. Quality for us is huge importance to us, but it’s a balance of quality and affordability. So making sure it’s accessible for a bulk of people to buy into our kind of design aesthetic.  Also we look into new fabrics and production techniques that will help the garment to last for a long time. And of course the aesthetic itself, as you pointed out before, that sense of timelessness. And the fact we’re not so trend-led. So they can be worn far beyond what some people would consider to be a seasonal garment. You see that in the COS office a lot actually, I’ll often walk in, and I’ll say to one of the team “is that new?” and they’ll say, “No, it’s from 7 years ago.” So people are constantly revisiting what we had. Actually I do a lot. I had one shirt, which is my favourite, I got it in 2010, and I wear it sparingly now because I want to keep wearing it as long as possible…

DA: You need to get the designers to reissue it, so you can get another…

COS:  Yes! So again, it’s inherent.  I think from day one we talked about longevity of the garments through quality, the type of fabric you use and the making process itself. And as you know we are part of a bigger organisation where the concept of sustainability is enormously important, and our CEO Karl-Johan Persson set very high targets that all of us have to work towards in the next coming years. And our “10”, I do not know if you are familiar with our 10 year anniversary collection. It’s available in our Queen’s Road store. We explored the concept of making as much use of the fabric as possible…

DA: Yes I read about that. There’s a lot less wastage.

COS: It’s actually more a question of the fabric we use, because the off-cuts can be recycled or used to create something else. But again, looking to the future and how we can do this in terms of technique and moving it forward, and I think the idea of using as much of the fabric as possible is something that actually is even better. I think that the idea is to keep improving, season after season.

DA: The DA team are not only big fans of the clothing, but we’re also a big fan of the magazine…

COS: Oh, that’s good, thank you.

DA: But I’m kind of curious why you guys publish it? I think it’s a very interesting insight into the COS culture. What is the decision making process behind doing it?

COS: The magazine really came about for the very strong reason of being able to share with the customer. So as I mentioned before, again a lot of our inspiration comes from world design and again not just a specific area. It could be anywhere from art, architecture, to product, to graphics, various things, that our design team looks at all over the world. We always had a section on the website called Things which we still do, which talks about a lot of things that we see from over the place. Hopefully also it’s there to share, educate and even support emerging talent. And that’s really why it came about, to be able to talk about the COS inspiration, and personality to the customer, hopefully in a credible, beautiful format. We talk again a lot about tactility, and that’s also a reason why we felt about paper magazine would do that…

DA: Okay, I was just about to ask you why print not digital. The tactility is important…

COS: All the features are available online of course, for those who aren’t able to get their hands on a printed copy. It’s not that straight forward, we don’t just have a section called “magazine”, it’s all there, but it’s spread throughout the site. There are interviews, and the features and the images are all represented online as well…

DA: Well, I have managed to get a copy of the last few issues. The latest one particularly…

COS: Yes, that one... So it’s about having a direct kind of link and conversation with the customer and being able to, not just to bring them to our world, but also again help them understand and formulate the areas of design that we find interesting and hopefully they find interesting as well. Some of them are already very familiar with who we represent, and why we represent them and we always hear a lot of positive things about the magazine from Hans Ulrich Obrist from Serpentine and…

DA: Yes, he was just here last week for the Art Basel.

COS: He’s brilliant and he often refers back to things that we’ve had in magazine from years and years ago. “I remember when you featured this person, and this person is now doing this” and we’re all like “oh wow, that’s amazing!”

DA: Actually I just read his interview with the duo from Studio Swine.

COS:  Yes, I think it was last S/S issue that they were featured. And now of course we are working with them on the installation at Salone in Milan.

DA: So why Salone?  As a fashion brand, why participate in a design event in Milan? It’s kind of interesting to see how a lot more non-design brands feel the importance of having a presence there. I’m wondering what is the philosophy behind that, and the decision making process of how you choose to work with the people that you do.

COS:  Well, it’s our sixth partnership with Salone this year. So we have been there since 2011, and its incredible to see the journey of not just what we’ve presented, but actually Salone itself. It seems to grow each year and becomes even more special.  I think the original idea behind it was going back, as you mentioned, to the D word, the design world that just runs through every aspect of what we do and the way we do it.

The very first year we didn’t actually even have a store in Italy when we first chose to have a presentation there. So that’s actually quite interesting. But I think we genuinely felt that we were already familiar with the concept of Salone and the concept of the fair, and of course the fact that all of the Milan seems to participate. It wasn’t just about the fair in the convention centre itself, it was actually that the whole city comes alive and recognises the importance of design. So that is really the principle reason that the city itself becomes such a design hub. It’s not just about going to the fair, it’s actually about looking at everything around it as well. And of course it’s very international, and we just felt again a lot of the people who may or may not be familiar with COS as a brand would certainly be coming into that city, so again it could be an opportunity for us to, again, not just gain our inspiration, but actually be inspired enough to create some kind of partnership or collaboration and have people come and see what we can do and how we can do it and also again to generate feedback  and dialogue with design people and of course the general public, existing COS customers and hopefully the new ones as well really.

It really was a talking point, sharing, giving something back as well. Hopefully you will see it next week and maybe you will feel the same vibe.  But it’s very much about just creating an interesting experience now more than anything else, to create that kind of the feeling the people have maybe when they are not so familiar with us and walking into the store for the first time. And hopefully they are quite pleasantly surprised, especially when their friend’s told them about it or something like that. We sometimes get the feedback that “oh, we hadn’t heard about COS before, but we went in, it was such a nice experience for us.” So we often think of the word experience as well when we refer back to how we want the brand to be conveyed. That’s really, what I like to think what we were able to kind of achieve with Salone.

I mean in terms of the partnership, again, it’s of supreme important to us. We had very different disciplines over the last few years. We’ve worked with design studios, we’ve worked with architects, and even this kind of element kind of artistic involvement as well. But they are all quite different in their field…

DA: And that’s a deliberate choice?

COS: It’s deliberate in the sense that, we’ve always partnered with people whose work we actually looked at over the last few years. So Karin, our creative director, very much feels we should work with the people that have inspired us and have given us so many ideas. So we think if they help us, give us some inspiration, perhaps they would be able to also create something that feels like the COS experience in this environment as well. We’ve been very lucky because everybody we approached to say “we’ve been so inspired by your work, would you consider of working with us on this?” They’ve all come back and said “yes”.

DA: Fantastic! I wasn’t in Milan last year but it was a partnership with Sou Fujimoto, right? I heard that was one of the most photographed installations. Very much looking forward to this year.

COS: Yes, it was interesting, very much so. I think this year’s collaboration with Alex and Azusa of Studio Swine will be super interesting.

DA: I can’t wait to meet them. They sound really, really interesting. Unlike anyone else. Fascinating couple. Okay, last question. COS just celebrated its 10 year anniversary, what do you see for the next ten years? I know that’s a very broad question…

COS: Well we’re always looking forward as much as we are revisiting, but I think we still feel very excited about the prospect of the brand in different areas. We talked a lot about the concept of accessibility, so we still have probably plenty of areas we look into, in terms of retail growth and new markets to look into. And it’s always nice to hear about that your friend is waiting for us in the Philippines! Of course we are excited to hopefully at some stage be able to go there. I think there are many other markets that we have been very fortunate enough to get some feedback on as well.  So from a business perspective that’s really the areas we’re looking towards.

There are also so many other international creative environments that we would ideally want to participate in, and talking about accessibility, the experiences we create at Salone going further afield.

We are also our own best and worst critics, so we often look inwards to see how we’re doing, how we can improve. Going back to the philosophical concept of modernity, what are we doing, how are we doing it, can we make it better. And I think when it comes to looking forward, it’s about doing things the best way we can do it. And looking to focus on who we are and what we’re doing. Giving the best back to the customer. And if we can do that for the next ten years we’ll be very happy.