This season, London Fashion Week is missing big names like Burberry and insider-favourite Victoria Beckham. But on a schedule devoid of the usual headliners, a different kind of mega-brand is making an appearance: high street behemoth COS.
The spot on the schedule comes at a time when many brands are rethinking their approach to events and marketing, particularly when it comes to fashion week. For H&M Group-owned COS, the show represents a wider bid to revitalise the label.
When COS first launched in 2007, its sleek, minimalist aesthetic gained a dedicated following among in-the-know fashion editors; the brand even garnered the moniker “high street Céline.” But COS struggled to maintain its relevance in an increasingly competitive and turbulent retail environment. Sales stagnated as fast-moving, digitally native competitors muscled in on its market. A BoF investigation published last year revealed a troubled internal culture.
Lea Rytz Goldman, an H&M Group veteran, was appointed to lead the brand’s turnaround last February. The brand’s fashion week show is the most public sign yet of her strategy to turn the brand into a go-to “accessible luxury” powerhouse.
Reestablishing the label’s cachet won’t be easy. Its brand of high-quality basics has become catnip for a flurry of direct-to-consumer upstarts, well-positioned to weather the ups and downs of the pandemic with slick online distribution and more agile supply chains.
“The apparel industry is extremely competitive,” said Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali. “It’s just hard to gain voice in an increasingly crowded retail market.”
COS was also slow to adjust to shifts in the fashion landscape that have made what a brand stands for almost as important as the clothes it sells. Rytz Goldman spent some of her early tenure at COS addressing internal concerns over failings on diversity and inclusion.
Meanwhile, the brand’s turnaround efforts are taking shape against a challenging retail backdrop. COS’ parent H&M Group doesn’t break out sales for individual brands, but the group took a significant hit over the pandemic and still has a way to go before it fully recovers. In the most recent quarter, net sales hit SEK 55.6 billion ($6.4 billion), up nine percent compared to a year earlier, but still 15 percent behind the same period in 2019. By contrast, rival Inditex, which owns Zara, saw net sales in its most recent fiscal quarter surpass 2019 levels to hit €7 billion ($8.2 billion).
Over the last 18 months, Rytz Goldman has been quietly working to position COS for growth. The brand has revamped its marketing to embrace the current cultural conversation and diversified the creatives it works with. It also expanded its product mix, launching new categories like activewear and a sustainable cashmere line. The brand plans to continue growing its store network — it entered three new markets this year — while simultaneously ramping up e-commerce sales, Rytz Goldman said.
The aim is to keep the core tenets of the COS brand intact while elevating the brand’s positioning within the market and reestablishing its relevance for today’s consumer.
“We are keeping the heritage and the backbone of COS from the start, because it is a strong and good framework,” Rytz Goldman said. The changes relate to “our mission: how we create and build a sustainable business; how we build our company culture based on inclusion, diversity and the strategy on representation; ... and how we communicate our storytelling and the personality of the brand.”
Tuesday’s show is intended to help elevate the brand and make it more aspirational in the eyes of both the consumer and the fashion press.
“Presence [at] London Fashion Week could improve the brand’s credentials as being a creative designer brand, with still attractive price points for consumer,” said Morningstar analyst Jelena Sokolova.
It’s slated to take place at the Roundhouse, a historic north London music venue that’s played host to many musical greats. (Tommy Hilfiger, a brand well known for staging expensive fashion week extravaganzas, chose the venue for its show in 2017). The clothes themselves are quintessentially COS: unfussy, clean, functional.
The brand has been busy drumming up excitement for the presentation. Flyers are plastered on the walls of London’s trendy Soho neighbourhood, featuring QR codes that, when scanned, take consumers to the landing page where the show will be live-streamed. In tourist hotspot Piccadilly Circus, passersby will see a huge COS promotional ad appear on the massive digital billboards that overlook the famous junction.
The aim of the show is “to manifest, again, COS as a fashion brand,” said Rytz Goldman. “It’s an opportunity to have our brand ID come to life.”