Why Are Israelis So Excited About a COS Branch?

Shoppers at Tel Aviv's COS branch are acting like they've reached the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert – an echo of Israeli despair

Tel Aviv's Cos branch.
Yoav Peled

Somehow I found myself in the TLV Fashion Mall, as it’s called in English, because Tel Aviv no longer exists. Tel Aviv has died and useless Hebrew has died along with it. English is the language of money, and that’s what interests the residents of TLV. If they stick out their tongue – it will be green, like dollars.

The mall itself is part of the Gindi TLV project, which is not yet populated and already looks like a slum for the rich. Slums for millions of shekels. The buildings are incredibly ugly. Concrete boxes, covered with bathroom marble, piled one atop the other. The balconies are small, like crowded cages in a zoo. It looks like a 1950s workers’ housing project that received an unsuccessful injection of Botox – proof that it’s hard to shed the inherent lack of aesthetics of the Zionist enterprise, even in the case of a “luxury” 21st century project.

Luxury is a spiritual trait with a tradition and inner logic behind it. It can’t be faked. Gindi’s project is one big fake, among the large number of fakes that typify TLV capitalism, which plays the game and pretends, but whose wretchedness is evident to everyone.

You can’t fool us. We’ve already been all over the world. I haven’t seen such ugliness anywhere. As opposed to the prejudicial assumption, it’s not Mediterranean ugliness. Mediterranean cities are beautiful. It’s ugly because it’s so detached: a garbled attempt to be neither here nor there. A façade of Western luxury that will dissolve with the first rain and turn into a huge mud puddle.

The fashion mall looks like any other mall. Not beautiful, not ugly. Uniform. That’s an important principle in building a mall – the absence of a sense of time and place. You enter and nothing discloses the fact that it’s an Israeli mall. By the same token it could have been an American, Italian or Turkish mall. The main thing is to get lost inside a blurred fantasy lacking any identifying characteristics. It’s a tactic to lull you into a stupor. Where am I? / Who am I? / What am I? The questions remain suspended in the air. Are you seeking an answer? Buy something. Maybe it will help, maybe not. Probably not.

The Gindi TLV project.
David Bachar

I arrived at the first Israeli branch of COS, the upmarket subsidiary of the popular and popularly priced H&M. It’s amazing how provincial we are. “The first branch in Israel” is a description that still causes goosebumps, as though it were 1993 and McDonald’s had just arrived here. It makes no difference how much we travel abroad, we still want to be like everyone else. But even COS won’t save us from our Israeli fate. We are here, and even if we import things from there – we’ll remain here. And apparently that’s the tragedy most of us share.

A prosaic elegance

COS is a brand designed for people who aren’t interested in making a statement. They have no problem looking like everyone else walking down the street. Fashion is not particularly important to them. It doesn’t make them unique. They don’t use it in order to externalize their individualism.

Anyone who wears COS clothes has no fashion pretenses. He’s trying to be elegant. In other words, not to make an effort, not to think about what he’s wearing, to maintain neutrality. It’s a prosaic elegance; an elegance for someone who isn’t playing the game any more. He doesn’t ask himself if he has good taste. He makes do with the simple look, with simplicity itself, just as a farmer makes do with a plow or pruning shears.

That’s what has made COS such a strong brand among the middle class and the young bourgeoisie, people in their late 20s, going on 30. They don’t have the strength to deal with fashion any more. They’ve already worn T-shirts with pictures of bands, clothes in phosphorescent colors, pants by independent designers, couture dresses, hard-to-find vintage clothing, asymmetrical and avant-garde outfits. Enough, they’re tired of it. Fashion is life, and they’ve been defeated by routine, having children, attempts at financial survival and a simple fact: They’ve understood that clothes won’t rescue them from their existential fate. If you’re a nondescript person – you’re a nondescript person. So it’s better to wear a nondescript shirt. You ain’t David Bowie, man.

Gray is a dominant color in every COS collection. So are black, white, brown, dark blue, light blue and denim. The most blatant, daring, extreme color is mustard. Whereas the COS branch in the Fashion Mall is far from being as neutral, elegant and refined as the items – excuse me, the fashions – on the hangers.

In effect, it’s the total opposite of refinement. I’ve already visited COS stores in Paris, Berlin and London, and the Tel Aviv store is terribly noisy. A kind of chaotic uproar that reminds us not only of the place itself – after all, we know exactly where we are – but that seems to have an echo of despair and neurosis; the excitement of people who have been released from the leash that was strangling them.

The COS store is filled with people who seem to have reached the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert. They walk among the aisles like people high on drugs. Hungry mice in a maze. They caress the fabric of the shirts and pants with a kind of erotic embarrassment, as though they were stark naked. Their faces are full of desire and passion for polo shirts and sweatshirts made of 100 percent cotton.What’s the big deal? Haven’t you ever seen cotton before?

There were lots of people in the not particularly large space during the week of Passover, many of them wearing skullcaps. It’s interesting that God prohibits the consumption of pita and bread, but He has no problem if his believers walk around malls and clothing stores and waste their time on consumer nonsense. Like all religions, the Jewish religion is quite an anachronistic phenomenon that is not adapted to modern times. If there is a God, he doesn’t exist in the COS branch in the TLV Fashion Mall.

The line for the cash register is endless and nerve-racking. It takes from half an hour to an hour, and those standing in line would like to die or to kill each other. This is revenge for the checkpoints in the occupied territories. You want to imprison the Palestinians in a crowded ghetto? Just wait, in COS they’ll show you what that means. The cashiers work in slow motion. They can’t manage to fold button-down shirts. It’s not their culture. And if it were a jalabiya, their hands would also be fumbling and shaking.

In front of me on line are two young guys. One turns to the other: “COS? Kus [slang for ‘pussy’] would be more like it,” and his friend replies – “The Kus clothing chain.” And they laugh. As opposed to the situation in other countries, you can find lots of clothing in sizes Small and Medium, whereas they quickly run out of Large and Extra Large. Israelis are not thin and svelte. They are full-bodied. They’re soldiers with the wingspread of an Apache helicopter. They have the physique of a morgue refrigeration unit. I fled without buying anything.