Samuel Ross has been breaking the mould his entire life. He studied graphic design, but the polymath channels his wide range of interest to start the streetwear label, A-COLD-WALL*, with his business partner, Andrew Harper.
He works in fashion but uses it as a medium to explore British working class culture. He is as comfortable welding nylon, shaping it to his will as a couturist does with fabric. Ross is redefining the meaning of streetwear, melding what is traditionally t-shirts and screen-printing with a healthy dose of intelligence and culture.
We sat down with the British designer, who was in town to launch a capsule collection to celebrate Dover Street Market Singapore 1st anniversary. We discuss the inception of A-COLD-WALL*, his collaboration with Dover Street Market Singapore, the culture of hype and his fears and what gave him the courage to break the mould.
ESQ: Could you tell me more about the inception of A-Cold-Wall?
Samuel Ross: I was travelling through Europe and North America, working with friends and contemporaries, and working for several brands, such as Stussy, Been Trill, Kanye X APC, Off-White and whatnot. I began to understand that there was a zeitgeist movement happening globally that was related to high fashion and what is known as streetwear. These pockets across America and Europe were telling this narrative and of course being from the UK, and the UK having such a deep connection to subculture, of course before what we're in now, there was punk. I knew there was an entirely new story of British working class subculture that had to be told, and that was the point where A-Cold-Wall came to fruition once I realised there was a gap to tell this story.
ESQ: Could you elaborate on how the brand came to be known as A-Cold-Wall; was it in reference to the cold pebbled surface of the council estate?
Samuel Ross: I'm talking about the council estate but more so what I'm talking about is what it represents, the sociographic notions of a council estate and the architecture impeaching on the people in that area, and I'm also talking about the Victorian and Edwardian five-storey home in Islington. It's the mixing and melting pot culture of London, where you get the working class and the upper middle class amalgamating together, and that really is A-Cold-Wall. It carries a very rough and corrosive nature, from the architectural references, and it also carries a string of intellectual communication which is also more shared with upper-middle-class studious environments.
ESQ: Why pick fashion as your medium of expression?
Samuel Ross: I've always had an interest and relationship with clothing specifically, I think it was clothing before fashion, and then it slowly bled into fashion. The first instance for me when clothing and fashion could be paired together was when I saw a video called The Aliens. I started to understand how you can take one article of clothing and put it into a fashion context and then Shane Oliver followed with the Hood By Air short videos, and then Virgil Albloh followed with the Pyrex Vision videos. So those are all predecessors to me and they showed me inadvertently how to communicate. Then naturally, I studied these videos and was mentored by certain people and I learnt slowly how to communicate a bit more with clothes and fashion.
ESQ: What does designing clothing allow you to do that graphic design doesn't?
Samuel Ross: Clothing and fashion are a macro culture, and it is a billion-dollar industry, whereas graphic design is not. So the resources, efforts put in to support graphic design, product design, often don't reach a certain level. And I also felt that I was starting to lose fulfilment from graphic design, a field I majored in it from when I was 15 to 16 years old. I did that for seven to eight years and it felt like a natural step to work in a field which allowed five to six levels of sensory deprivation to exist in one place. Film, sound, installation, garment and movement could all live in one place, whereas graphic design is quite linear. So it felt too restricting.
ESQ: For this collaboration with Dover Street Market, there's a soundtrack and capsule collection? Is there a certain direction you're going for?
Samuel Ross: There's a soundtrack, capsule collection and a physical installation. The capsule collection was really to deliver the key and core fundamental aspects of A-Cold-Wall into the Dover Street Market story. That story is being led by the colour palette, is very monotone and quite coarse and cold, which is comfortable for myself because I tend to wear black anyway [laughs]. It was also really important for us to ensure there was an installation aspect that embodied movement and acoustics as well because as much as A-Cold-Wall is about the clothes, it is about experiential design and art, so to pair all three layers together was the perfect way to introduce the collection. So you'll find paint staining across the garments. Our signatures, such as asymmetric overlocking and threading and clean minimal pieces of type, are then juxtaposed against large, engulfing pieces of type and logo graphic. It’s really a good capsule to show a core market what A-Cold-Wall is and where it almost started.
ESQ: A-Cold-Wall has been labelled as streetwear and you have another diffusion line where you do more T-shirts because you worry about A-Cold-Wall being too avant-garde. How do you feel about all these labels that people put on your brand?
Samuel Ross: It’s interesting isn't it? Because initially streetwear was strictly T-shirts, screen-printing, which was fine and important but I think what happened was a wider community starting using the term ‘streetwear’ to separate the movement from traditionalist fashion. Now it's really interesting because streetwear has become one of the most important points in our generation of fashion, so you'll find larger fashion houses joining ComplexCon. Things are really changing. If you look at who's being appointed to houses such as Virgil like Louis Vuitton and Demna at Balenciaga. Even Gosha and his close, tight-knit relationship with Comme des Garcons and Burberry, I think that it’s time the term ‘streetwear’ be let go of. But it’s also becoming an incredibly powerful word and culturally powerful and also financially—it’s a very powerful term now.
ESQ: You mentioned that you do not look at fashion references anymore. Do you find it limiting or liberating?
Samuel Ross: The only thing I look at in terms of fashion references is price points, but I don't look at designs. And I feel like its dangerous to do so, as a young new brand, to allow other information to kind of influence your direction, I think its damaging in terms of like a long-term growth pattern. If someone had a 2-year plan for a small brand, they can reference all they want, because it's a short business plan, but if such as ourselves, you plan to have a brand for a long period of time, I think it’s important to allow yourself to build a tapestry independently.
ESQ: There's a certain negative connotation to streetwear which comes with hype and reselling etc. What are your thoughts on hype?
Samuel Ross: I think that engagement is important. I don't think it’s essential, but is very important to allow a brand to grow and for ideas to mature, and without that level of engagement, it is incredibly difficult for independent designers to mature and reach a point of, not just interest but creative intelligence without having that initial interest to fuel growth. What we're calling hype I would call engagement. And that engagement is really essential to mature and fuel independent niche businesses.
ESQ: What is your greatest fear?
Samuel Ross: I'm driven by a fear that stems from being born into relative poverty. Fear fuels the idea to succeed for me.
ESQ: I’m Asian and my parents had the same fear that a non-traditional career would not equate to success. What gave you the courage to take a different path?
Samuel Ross: My mother or father to be honest. I was pulled out of school when I was eight years old due to racial difficulties from teachers, which is actually phenomenal for black British/Caribbean individuals, and my parents home-schooled me. My father studied at Saint Martin's and got a first class degree in fine arts, and my mother is now a psychology and sociology teacher, so from quite young I understood that what appears to be black and white lines can be bent quite easily, fast-tracked and moulded. That definitely changed my opinion on how you can shape your future.
ESQ: What would you like your legacy to be?
Samuel Ross: I would like my legacy to be intelligence. I also want it to be one that is respected for the hard work and for having a long-term plan for my brand. Also, one that is known to be uncompromised.