Designer Q&A: Karin Gustafsson

Karin Gustafsson, creative director of Swedish high-street brand COS, talks with us about its much talked about collaboration with Studio Swine at this year's Salone del Mobile


Design Anthology: Can you tell us a little bit the decision-making process behind choosing to collaborate with Studio Swine on this installation?

Karin Gustafsson: I came across their work a few years ago while doing research for the collection, and it gave me the feeling of the cinemas or the theatre — they are always sort of poetic and beautiful, but it also made me want to know more about them. So I started doing more research, and got to know so much more about them, and their approach to projects is very interesting, and also how they work with materials is very important to them and it’s something that we have in common obviously. Someone in the team knew them so we had a coffee, and then we approached them to see if they want to be featured in our magazine, and then we knew that we wanted them to be part of our exhibition at Salone.

It’s our sixth time here now. We’d be interested really, so we had a meeting and gave them our brief with all our expectation with our brand’s DNA in mind. We wanted them to focus on simplicity and modernity and also create an experience that would be tactile. But that was really all, and then they went away. It was almost like a blank canvas.

So you had no idea what they were working on to begin with?

No. We’ve been really lucky to have had the opportunity to collaborate with many different disciplines and different creatives. We carefully choose who we want to collaborate with, and the main thing is that we have a symmetry or a similar mindset and appreciation for design and art and, you know, aesthetic. And then, we don’t feel like it’s our position to make demands — we’re not the expert in their fields. It’s about creating an experience that we can share with the customer.

So you felt that there was a sense of trust there because you already knew their work and you had shared values, so you were quite happy to just let them go?

Yes, they obvioulsly came back with a concept, and it was really amazing, the thought process. Everything from the starting point throughout the entire process, they presented it in in a very clear way, so it was very easy, obviously, to be excited.

Right. So how did they present that first concept to you? Was it just drawings or, how?

No, it was like a PowerPoint, but it was a mix between film and images, and the final piece was in a drawing format.

Oh wow, that must’ve been quite interesting.

Yes, it was so nice. I wanted to share that here actually, but I think it’s quite difficult with images, so somehow we couldn’t.


Well it’s quite incredible. I mean I have a feeling it’s probably going be one of the most photographed or at least video-ed installations from Salone this year. It’s been really fun watching people interact with it. There’s something very child-like about bubbles — it’s a very basic human reaction that everyone just so happy to see them but also play with them, you know, it’s quite fun!

Furthering that, when you are thinking about who to collaborate with, what is the thought process? Is it just people that you’re inspired by and whose work you’ve been following?

Yes, that’s sort of it. We’re very much going on our intuition and gut feeling but also a genuine appreciation of someone’s work, and that is how we tend to choose the people we collaborate with. For example, with Snarkitecture, we knew about Daniel Arsham’s work, and then we collaborated.

That was two years ago, right? I did see that one, I didn’t see Sou Fujimoto last year. That Snarkitecture one was great. So how do you find out about these designers? I mean are you reading blogs, is it mostly magazine, or is it combination of...

Yeah, I think blogs, for research we do read blogs for sure. And then we do a lot of research really. So we always try to see all the shows, you know the art shows — and London is amazing for that. You know, I think internet is good for that because you can do global research and we read. We’re just really curious I guess, as a team.

That’s one thing that struck me about your creative process and how you find inspiration. It seems quite unique to me in the fashion world, but I don’t know that there’re any fashion designers that are really looking at other creative disciplines as much as you guys seem to do. Do you think that’s partly what makes that the clothing of each collection so timeless? Because to me, I found it incredible that every collection comes out there is a sense of timelessness, it doesn’t seem so seasonal which to me it’s incredibly refreshing from the fashion world.

Yeah, I mean, that’s very important for us. We always want to create products, deliver items that have that feeling of long-lasting. You will keep it in your wardrobe and wear it for many, many years. You may want to rest it for a few years, but it should have that quality design of something you will want to keep.

I think the fact that we have a quite strong identity that’s also quite tight, and that almost acts like a frame around us and we always sort of stretch within that frame to find new way to reinvent these classic pieces. It’s always a focus on the world of essentials for us, like that shirt, the T-shirt, the chinos, the little black dress. I think doing a thorough research process and then translating that into a thorough exploration when you create a product really makes a better product in the end.

Even though our DNA is very understated, clean lines, we don’t want it to feel like it’s fashion or going to go out of fashion. It’s more about style and more about long-term style. But still that process is very important.

I love the fact that you guys revisit the same shape and you may see it in the store six months three years later in a different colour. Or I noticed recently that one of the dresses that I have from maybe last winter is now just a top. And I love the fact you guys do that because it’s so fast, the fashion industry, and you can’t keep up with it. To me, I’ve always wondered, it just can’t be sustainable — even more than just an environmentally. So I actually really love the fact that you guys do that. So when you’re putting the collections together, are you actually thinking about things that you want to wear or is there a COS customer that you have in mind?

Yes, everything at COS is about teamwork. When we think about our customer, we don’t’ think about one specific person. I think it’s an ageless customer, and it’s a customer that can more be summarized, in a sense, by their mindset. We sometimes say that it’s a big-city mindset, not necessarily that they have to live in a big city, but we believe our customer is sharing our interests in art and design and that they are very culturally aware. And that’s something that we have in common. They also really sort of appreciate good design and are quite demanding, in everything from product quality to the shopping experience.


Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s something else for me that may be surprising from a high street brand that the quality is actually quite good, that it can, as you say, sit in the wardrobe for a couple of years and pull it back out again. But also the fit as well, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve stopped shopping in other nameless stores.I guess I’m always looking for sort of simple wardrobe basics and I think we all know that when you walk into the COS store, you’re going to find those sorts of things. They are always easy to accessorise and mix and match.

Thank you. I think fit is very important to us, and we work a lot on it. It’s actually the starting point. You know, it was one of the first things we started with like eleven years ago now.

You have been with the brand…

I’ve been there for ten-and-a-half years.

It was almost the beginning of your career, is that right?

Yes, I’d just graduated from Royal College. But I was a mature student, so I’d done things in the past. I came on board as an assistant, and one of my first jobs was to work with the blocks and finishes and the inside of the garments — that makes such a difference in the quality in the end. We still focus a lot on that, and we review the blocks. Because we want to create simple pieces that feel effortless.

It’s not that simple, I’m sure.

It’s not that simple, at all! The process can be long, but it’s an enjoyable process and an important process, and we do tend to work a lot with our fits to get them right.

I guess you’re quite lucky that you sort of started out from that side of thing and really got to know the garments inside and out.

Yeah, I’ve not had one boring day really — it’s amazing!


So what you are looking at now for inspiration? Is there anything in particular that you’re interested in? Art and architecture design-wise?

Not naming any names, what we’re seeing a lot is, like Studio Swine, the material process is very important and the creative process is very important too. The journey before you finalise the project is almost as important as the finished piece.

It’s just something we see. We have had really good response and we are going to continue with installation. I think people really appreciate the experience around art at the moment. So, it’s about blurring the line between disciplines and really sort of offering an experience.

Okay, interesting. One final question: As more and more fashion brands are feeling the need to have a presence at Salone, which isn’t really a fashion event, what is it that is important for COS to have a presence here?

I think for us is really that we see our customer sort of shares our interest in art and design, and this is now becoming like a creative happening. So all these disciplines getting involved. It’s not only about furniture design, it’s not only a furniture fair. So for all of us it’s a very inspiring place and a very inspiring place to come to for doing research, but also it’s an opportunity to meet the customer. And then also, obviously we take so much inspiration from different creative disciplines, so it’s almost a way for us to also give back. Really to share an experience together with someone that we get inspired by and share that with our customer.

Yes, that’s interesting and having you guys here really makes a lot of sense. Also, it’s incredible for creatives like Studio Swine to have patrons. To be able to do what they do, they need a patron that allows them that freedom and I think it’s wonderful that COS actually does that and lets people be creative, so congratulations.

Thank you.