INTERVIEW BY MEREDITH CRAIG DE PIETRO
PHOTOS BY CHRIS SHONTING
STYLIST: Annette Lamothe-Ramos, PHOTO ASSISTANT: Matt McGinley, MAKEUP: Emi Kaneko,
HAIR: Brandy McDonald, MODELS: Katrina, Rouza, Melissa at Elite; Bettine at Muse
Eye-bogglingly complex sweaters are the first things that come to mind when someone comes up in our face and whispers, “Bill Cosby.” Not Pudding Pops, not that “Dad is great, give us chocolate cake” song he sang, and certainly not Fat Albert. Sweaters are what Cosby is about, and if you don’t think so, you don’t have eyes.
It’s hard to reach a consensus as to whether Cosby sweaters are atrocious, attractive, or the product of a visionary mutant alien with knitting needles for fingers and a sewing machine for a head. Get ten people in a room and you will hear ten different opinions. One thing is for sure, though: Whoever designed these bad boys is a genius.
The true story is that a feisty Dutch fashion man named Koos van den Akker created the Cosby knitwear using his signature Frankenstein method of stitching together portions of different materials. As a young man, Koos ran a small clothing store in The Hague. He came to America to work as a missionary (on paper, at least) but quickly became engrossed in the fashion avalanche of New York City. By ’72, business was beginning to pick up at his Madison Avenue store, and his career as the world’s foremost designer of ragbag apparel was solidified.
It was sometime during the early 80s that a Koos sweater was given to Bill Cosby as a birthday gift. America’s favorite dad loved it so much he told the wardrobe department of The Cosby Show to back off while he slipped his head through the neck holes of Koos’s creations for years to come.
Two and a half decades later, every twit in tight jeans, Henry Kissinger frames, and a fuchsia fanny pack is scouring thrift stores for the most abominable sweaters they can find. But they don’t know the steep and storied history of the original. We do, because Koos is our new best friend.
Vice: How did your work first catch the eye of the Cos?
Koos: I had a customer who was a friend of Bill Cosby, and one day she came to me and said, “I need a present for Bill. Would you make him a sweater?” I said I’d be delighted. So I made it and she brought it to the set in Brooklyn. He liked it very much.
Just like that?
He went on set wearing the sweater, and it was simple: “Why don’t I just keep it on while we tape?” That episode got so many letters! “Where did you get the sweater?” “What the hell was that?” Bill called and said, “Listen, this is a big success. Would you make me more?” I said, “Absolutely.”
It all seems very easy.
I would make five or six sweaters every couple of months, and after I’d send them, he would call and say, “OK, time for a new lot.” He never asked for anything specific. We were free to just do it.
Did you ever watch the show?
Sometimes. I had a TV at home but I didn’t use it a lot. I saw several episodes, and if I knew he was wearing one I would take a peek. But it was a family show and I had other things to do.
I’m surprised to hear that he only began wearing the sweaters well after the show first aired. Your sweaters are such an indelible piece of the Heathcliff character that it seems deliberate.
Everything that is important in my life has happened by chance. It was by chance that Bill Cosby put on that first sweater.
Was your work ultimately commissioned by the network?
Bill would pay for the work. I make that point because that’s very rare, you know? But he knew I needed the money.
Business wasn’t lucrative even with your Madison Avenue store?
I was always in financial trouble. I was not a good businessman. You can’t be both creative and a good businessman. I had big ups and downs, but I always stuck with the way I do things. I’m totally comfortable with it today.
Well, there’s no denying that you helped each other tremendously.
He is a gracious and wonderful person. I got to know him and his wife, who became interested in my work herself. Bill said, “Now listen: If you get my wife, you lose me.”
Mrs. Cosby tried to steal you for her own?
I said, “Well, how am I going to control if she likes me or not?” She came by and I started making all kinds of things for them both. They had a wonderful house in the south of France and I did tablecloths, bed stuff, and curtains—everything in the Koos style.
A house chock-full of Kooses? Sounds like a dream palace.
It was like having a Broadway show to work on.
And by that time you’d been a designer for years. You’d already apprenticed at Dior and built a business in New York.
The Cosby sweater really happened later in my career. It was all very nice, but nobody knew it was Koos. It was just a sweater. It was part of the program. And I certainly never gave it that much attention—or thought it was making my career.
At heart, you’re a collage maker. What inspired you to take this direction?
Well, when you look around New York, everything is collage. When you see the buildings, the variety of skyscrapers, the sky and light—to me, that’s all collage. Things I see in everyday life inspire me. And then I take the fabrics and I make the combinations.
Pre-Cos, how was New York treating you?
The first write-up I got from the New York Times was delightful. It was all very nice, very cute. My work was original here in the States, but it wasn’t original in Amsterdam. What attracted Bill Cosby was that it was so totally unique. But to me it was just normal.
And now everyone’s biting Koos.
I looked at Vogue the other day and it was all there! All the stuff I’d done for years. It’s all accepted. But I was never really trying very hard to please the press.
The press was oblivious?
I mean, there were no interviews suddenly asking, “How about the Cosby sweaters?” That happened much later.
Look at all the designers you’ve influenced. That must be reassuring.
I’m thrilled! Absolutely thrilled. Recently the cover of Women’s Wear Daily had a dress with all these printed ribbons on it. I know that I was the original. I know that I did it first.
Your popularity certainly comes in cycles.
The first time this happened was about four years ago, when Nicolas Ghesquière from Balenciaga said in the New York Times that he was inspired by Koos.
I read that!
He didn’t know who the fuck I was—whether I was alive or dead, a woman or a man. He had no idea. He’d found my stuff in an LA garage in some paper bags that were going to a vintage store.
Was he complimentary?
He interpreted my work in a most delightful and wonderful way, and I loved it.
Have your fans have remained loyal?
People who own the sweaters are very careful. We restore clothes that are 30, 40 years old. A woman got bigger or this or that. Usually you put a patch in, but this is like museum stuff.
Is what you do couture?
No! It is not couture. Couture is when you fuss with people. Couture is when you take the measurements and they stand in front of the mirror. I have no patience for stuff like that. It is couture in another way. It’s what happens on the surface that makes it a Koos.
You seem pretty adamantly opposed to couture.
You know, when I see all that stuff today from all those countries where we have war, with people walking around in djellabas, I think, “Fuck! This is the most beautiful thing you can wear. You don’t need all this pinned-up crap that we sell. Just a big beautiful shirt.”
Still, one-of-a-kind garments are obviously important to you. The sweaters you made for Bill were unique, right?
Oh, yes! Of course. Sweaters were far more popular in the 80s than they are today. Sweaters from Bill’s time were $600.
How many did you stitch together for him over the years?
It must have been two dozen altogether. I have no idea. It was enough to make it an important part of that show.
I’ll say! At what point do you think it became the Cosby sweater?
Probably two years into the program it became known that Koos was making Cosby’s sweaters.
And then things must have picked up quite a bit. How did you find time for it all?
I work 12 hours a day. I start at six o’clock in the morning and am here until six o’clock at night. That’s pretty good for somebody whose peers are all retired.
You’re in there designing with the kids every day?
I deal with young people all the time. I can’t stand people my own age. I don’t have anything in common with them. Believe me, I’m fighting as hard for a place as you are. It keeps you young and excited. Then, hopefully, one day I’ll just drop dead. That would be nice.
Don’t say that!
You know, I’ve done it all. I don’t need much more time.
Does anything stand out as your proudest achievement?
I think the fact that I’m still around is great. The fact that I was a success here is something pretty special for a little guy from Holland. When I was at Dior, for instance, and I worked my ass off, people regarded me as a peasant: “You’re from Holland! You don’t know anything.”
Still, a Dior apprenticeship…
Well, I have this thing with women. At night I would make clothes for customers, just to make a living. I had to pay rent and there was no money coming from back home. So those women there had me by the balls. They were horrible. That’s where the whole hatred started. I’m an abused man.
But look at all you’ve done despite those old bitches!
I’ve made a rich life. I created a world around me that I am very happy with. I hope when I die they really miss me.
So you hold no regrets and no grudges?
Of course there are sourpuss moments. Sometimes I think, “Fuck! I’m in the middle of 35th Street in the back room! What the hell? I’m 70 years old and I don’t have any money.” But I have my health and I have great memories. That’s the best thing.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
No! Of course not, silly woman! Retirement is like hell. No way! But I have it easy. I’m standing here not doing anything. If I want to go to the movies tomorrow in the middle of the day, I will. If I go to San Francisco, I take off for two months. I can do whatever I want. It happens that I like to be here working.
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