Inside the blueprint

Samuel Ross unpicks the references and motifs behind A-Cold-Wall*

A-COLD-WALL* began as a think piece posed by founder and creative director Samuel Ross, exploring ideas of inclusivity and communication via design and construction with a particular emphasis on Britain’s working class. This conversation later evolved into an art project and then, in 2015, a fashion brand that has rapidly established a cult global streetwear following.

Created as a material study on British culture, A-COLD-WALL* morphs and adapts in tune with the developing societal dialogue. By manipulating industrial materials like PVC, plastic and rubberised nylon into sophisticated (and highly covetable) pieces, Ross is engaging a modernist discourse that speaks directly to the aspirations of a fresh generation.

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James West: I know you are interested in the idea of a consumer journey, what does that mean in real terms for you?
Samuel Ross: Well, there are two ways to look at it. One is that you’re taking a young consumer who’s into streetwear and then you mature them through garments, art and sound experience. So the entry point in that conversation would be something like a screen-printed t-shirt. How can I take, say, a seventeen or eighteen-year-old who might not necessarily understand good design but wants to be in that conversation, how do I take them on a journey? The other kind of consumer journey is where I present a series of different lanes of communication, from sculpture to furniture, sound design, installation art, and they can be accessed at any time, so it gives the opportunity for a consumer to almost jump across all of the different facets in which I operate, outside of A-COLD-WALL*. People either go down the complete A-COLD-WALL* route and they’re there for streetwear and want to learn more about art through fashion, or you get the more learned individuals who wish to have a more eclectic understanding of our age of creativity. I don’t necessarily try to cater to them but I do try to have an open dialogue in forms of creativity outside of just clothing.

JW: And what platforms does that dialogue happen through? Is it mainly Instagram?
SR: At the moment, yes, it’s primarily Instagram and then anything type-based will be Twitter. I write think pieces, break them down and throw them on there. Some of them are digestible mantras, which is what people need, and some of it is a bit more cognisant, like, “Ok, we’re really going to get into stuff now.” But they’re also going to find a home on Medium [an online publishing platform] which I’m really excited about. I’ve spent so much time on the app, and we’re starting this philosophy page on the A-COLD-WALL* website, which is really going to break down some of the ideologies and nuances that have influenced the clothing, the story and the practice itself. So that will expand through Medium, but also my think pieces on race, culture, design, what sound can be, what sculpture can be, will live on more appropriate platforms, but Instagram is definitely like the macro point at the moment. We’ve split our Instagram into different channels and we’re about to integrate this new way of operation which means that, on specific days each week, you will see a repetition, in the form of dialogue, from the previous week. That could mean on Tuesday at 5pm we’ll be talking about entry-level products, and that conversation will be framed in the form of a GIF, which splits across four images and then goes into two full-body images on the carousel. And that will repeat weekly on Tuesdays. Whereas Thursdays it might be design and runway, with a focus on mood and video. It’s almost like a syncopation of content, you know? Taking the old idea of tuning into a TV channel. It’s making sure there is consumer confidence – they know they can go back and see repetition in place.

JW: There’s not a lot of structure otherwise on Instagram, it all just churns by.
SR: Literally, it’s like a never-ending slipstream of stuff, so we’re trying to carve away from that and have this incubator I suppose, where it’s much more ordered and concise with what is going out. I left my studio just now and my team were finishing up an argument over an Instagram post because we really fucking care about that stuff [laughs]. We started this new means of communication for e-commerce products, which operates on a completely different calendar to retail. In theory, we do six collections a year for menswear, not two, they are small drops of about 35 pieces. Because we’re selling direct, we cut out wholesale and this means we can sell products at a lower price point without compromising quality, which is great. Now we’re figuring out how to communicate that, and we thought, OK, we did all this amazing aesthetic, moody, euphoric stuff – people understand that about the brand, but now it’s time to talk about the actual quality of the garment. So we’ve come up with this way of talking to consumers which is pretty much eight or 900 words per post, it’s a breakdown of where the garments are made, the specification, fabric gsm, the dye technique, print technique, print weight… everything. This whole idea of macro-exposure rather than hiding information.

“I left my studio just now and my team were finishing up an argument over an Instagram post because we really fucking care about that stuff [laughs]…”

JW: So what was the argument about, that the post was too long?
SR: Well that’s the thing. The first post that went out three days ago did really well, it had 800 words, it had a GIF and then two slide images of just close-ups. Amazing response, people got it, it worked. But today my team compromised, they decided not to form a GIF and go straight to carousel instead, and that broke the chain of routine. But we’re in a good place I’d say, in that we all take it really fucking seriously because we care about communication. It’s not even about the likes and the comments.

JW: One thing that’s also interesting about A-COLD-WALL* is that a lot of people wear it. I know that sounds stupid, but that’s not something that can be said for a lot of interesting brands, not even necessarily a lot of hype brands. In Paris, London, New York, kids are wearing it everywhere. Everyone wants that buzz for their brand, but only a couple are managing it, and you’re one of them. Why do you think that is?
SR: I think it’s because people have seen me learn and grow in real time. There are people who have followed my journey on Instagram from when I was working with V [Virgil Abloh hired Ross in 2012 as a design assistant], they can see the progression, and I think part of that gives them a sense of ownership over my journey. Having such an open dialogue on Twitter and Instagram kind of makes people feel they can share my journey. Also, there are a few of my contemporaries who have framed a form of communication in fashion which ties into art and sound, and I think being part of that group, people trust us from an aesthetic point of view. I also expose and talk about product a lot, from quite a critical standpoint. I think that can be quite encouraging to someone who’s looking to purchase a piece as well, when they see me on Instagram, hand-dying 100 pairs of Nikes or paint-spraying from 2013 then see that process refined in 2017. If it was me, I’d think that is a sign of consistency and something I could potentially put my money into. But then there’s the reality that we decided to scale and so we have 115 doors, this year we’re going up to 135 doors before we open our first mono store, which will be moderately soon. I guess people buy into the confidence I have in talking about and creating the product, and it sounds a bit cliché but they pick up on the passion and the effort put into that. Some of them have seen me go from an intern at Kanye, lifting boxes at Off-White, to today being in the Forbes 30 under 30 and stuff like that.

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JW: You’ve scaled it up very quickly and successfully, which is hard if your ideas are intimate and honest. How have you made those important decisions?
SR: I think it’s always been… honestly it’s just been intuition. But it was a lot about understanding that I was the underdog for about a year-and-a-half, and using that to my advantage, riling people up [laughs]. For example, maybe two-and-a-half years ago, I had a campaign with a set of images I wanted to send off to one of the high-tier publications online and they refused to take the content. I had quite an emotional reaction, but within the next three days I did pop-ups and gave out 300 pieces of clothing for free, and we had a turn-out of 700 kids in an hour-and-a-half – I knew that would be photographed and put onto social media. So it’s also understanding how to communicate. It’s almost like being this translator between two different communities and using the buoyancy between the two as a vantage point. I feel like I’ve been able to get into both rooms, you could say the ‘real artist environment’, for example Central Saint Martins kids, and then kids from Peckham to Tottenham to Brixton. Part of it is that I was raised to be an artist as well, to communicate between high class and working class environments. I grew up in a house which didn’t have a lot of money but I have highly-educated parents, my mother’s a psychology and sociology lecturer, my father went to Central Saint Martins and is a highly-educated man as well as stained glass expert and specialist. So I think a lot of those tendencies filter through the way I communicate, I’ve looked to translate ideas between different communities, basically.

JW: Do you think that conversation works because of the way society is structured? In ten years, do you think the kind of conversations between class that you feel you facilitate will be similar, or do you think the market will be very different as fashion and streetwear evolve together?
SR: I would be completely happy if the market did change in ten years, it shouldn’t stay fixed. I think that comes down to A-COLD-WALL* being an artistic practice that has the ability to morph and be malleable. If artists and designers really hold their integrity, they’ll change with the market. I mean, some designers don’t care about what’s actually happening but I do, so I will take that narrative through. In my last show I talked about the refugee crisis, people drowning at sea, and some people didn’t like it. Certain people really got it, but I can’t pretend things aren’t happening in the world, and I’ve been handed a megaphone, I’m not just going to talk shit, you know? I’m not just going to put on loads of expensive stuff and then parade around, I’m not here to move into the bourgeoisie. It’s funny how quickly some people actually do that, and it’s fine, they can, but that’s not why I exist. I feel a void, and that’s also why A-COLD-WALL* has worked, because there hasn’t really been a primarily black British fashion narrative that speaks to the working class and can communicate with the artistic world from my generation, so there was actually a gap in the market. A-COLD-WALL* started as a think piece, an idea, where I thought, “Well there’s a massive gap here for this conversation to be had.” I think that also speaks to the acceleration that we’ve witnessed with the brand, that there was actually a space for it. I believe I am the right person to contribute to a living narrative, and I would hope that there will be other British designers, they don’t have to be people of colour – it’s about articulating experience through a synthesiser of sorts, it’s about other people who can contribute to the reality of the working class, multicultural story, that is the modern British reality, exposed or hidden. There’s a lot to talk about at the moment.

“I do think there’s an understanding in my generation, and the generation beneath, that being a designer is a social megaphone.”

JW: And in some ways you’ve helped further that conversation.
SR: Exactly. Because I believe that social commentary in fashion, that is not just surface level, is very important.

JW: So many brands try and do ‘social commentary’ but it doesn’t feel genuine.
SR: Yes, season by season.

Fabien Kruszelnicki: Do you think there is more of an expectation, or a passion, for younger designers to use their voice in that way? In New York, Pyer Moss uses his platform to talk about issues he feels are important.
SR: It’s hard to say, it’s case by case. I wouldn’t say there’s a collective movement towards social commentary in fashion. There’s actually not that many, Pyer is one, definitely, but I think a lot of people are actually quite scared to say what they really think. It’s important to have social commentary, but it shouldn’t be forced, you should just keep it simple. There needs to be integrity behind it, and it wouldn’t necessarily be good to see more designers do it because it has to be truthful. But I do think there’s an understanding in my generation, and the generation beneath, that being a designer is a social megaphone.

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JW: It’ll be interesting to see how kids that are twelve now are going to do communication, social media will be completely baked into their blood.
SR: Yeah, it’s going to be much more synthesised isn’t it? It will be interesting to see where it’s taken, but I hope that we’ll see the streetwear kids realising there’s more than fashion as well, and move more into tech, retail and other industries. Because I think what streetwear does is to kind of calibrate the mind to understand predicted value, supply and demand, simple business acumen which often isn’t taught in schools, right? So it would be good to see those first seeds planted through streetwear which then flower into other fields of entrepreneurship.

JW: I’m interested to know how the big, established brands will stay relevant. In the past, there was always the idea that the ‘high-end’ filters down to the high street, and then you get a knock-off version of it, which of course is still very prevalent. But a lot more things are coming up the other way around, the things you wear with your mates are being appropriated back into the system by large fashion brands. Do you see that shift?
SR: I do. I don’t think I’ll articulate it properly, but big brands are almost sparring back and forth with the user to try and find a pocket to hit at – if that makes sense?

JW: Yeah, to see what works.
SR: Right, like a sweet spot almost. But that really speaks to the fact that they’re no longer enabled or in a position of power. I think that we’re going to keep seeing more of a grass-roots, individualistic angle for fashion communication through social media. I don’t think the future is with those houses, I think that they’re important, but if we’re talking about the future of progressive fashion design, it’s more likely to come from off-line or social media than it is from the preexisting establishment.

JW: I think it’s the same with a lot of industries, isn’t it?
SR: You just reminded me of a think piece actually, it’s in the Sondra Perry book Typhoon Coming On, it talked about how pre-internet there was one viewpoint: linear, with a vanishing point. So the viewer would have been the ‘house’ and it looked onto the landscape, whereas now there are so many different viewpoints that the internet has enabled.

“That’s why A-COLD-WALL* has worked, because there hasn’t really been a primarily black British fashion narrative that speaks to the working class and can communicate with the artistic world from my generation…”

JW: How much time do you spend on all your other projects, furniture and sculpture verses fashion?
SR: I cut my day up. So from 5:30am to about 11:30am I work on sculpture and design that’s not related to A-COLD-WALL*, and then from around 11:45am or 12:00pm until 8 or 9pm I work on A-COLDWALL* for the most part. Today’s a bit different because I have an impending deadline…

JW: That’s quite dedicated to split it up that way. Do you go for a walk in the park in between the two?
SR: I run, or do weights, something physical. Running’s quite empowering, just to get back to reality, you know and actually touch the soil.

JW: You run outside, not on a treadmill?
SR: Yeah I do treadmills sometimes but I don’t like them, I need to run outside, not on flaccid rubber! [all laugh]

FK: Where did your logo and name come from originally?
SR: So the logo is a birds-eye elevation view of a two-storey building, like a reused version of a council estate building. The name A-COLD-WALL* really goes back to the think piece I mentioned. It talks about the relationship between materiality and class, from a geographic standpoint. So take London for example, you can think about the materials and the layout of the neighbourhood of Islington vs Dalston ten years ago, and how those materials, if they were to speak, hold a different value and different narrative – those narratives being in the form of people. It’s about the cross-pollination of those ideas, so for example, the schoolyard is the perfect place in which that happens, you get working class kids mixing with middle to upper-middle class kids, and they cross-pollinate ideas. They both go back to their, let’s say ‘material’ homes, one might be an alabaster building and one could be a pebbledash or rough-cast building. It’s about having continuity and balance and value between the two, so the idea of this child being able to touch the outside of his alabaster building and being able to touch the outside of this pebbledash building, both being cold walls, both being equal.

JW: So it’s a metaphor for sharing ideas.
SR: Exactly, the melting-pot of culture in the city of London was the basis of A-COLD-WALL*. But now I’d say it’s much more of a material study, as a whole, looking at shape and form. A-COLD-WALL* is now really about dense, conceptual ideas going through a conversion process that results in product or sculpture or sound. It’s more about that now than the original premise.

FK: I’m really interested in this social aspect, you mentioned growing up in a council estate and that being an influence, do you go to other places around the world and see those social structures, or get inspired by how people wear clothes in different places?
SR: No, not really. I see nuances and habits that inspire me, but it’s more from an architectural standpoint. A lot of the ideation takes place in my mind to be honest, and it’s quite a personal story. It wasn’t my intention for it to have such a global understanding but it’s occurred because it’s not an exclusive story. I think that’s what really connects it to the global market. It’s more a story that no-one wanted to tell, or no-one saw value in.

JW: Or didn’t know how to articulate, probably.
SR: Yeah. I feel like that’s where the continuity in different markets and different cities has come from.

JW: What kind of architecture are you interested in?
SR: Bauhaus for the most part, and Brutalism was a foundation that I based a lot of A-COLDWALL* on, more from a material value. I was having this conversation with Ron Arad yesterday. We were speaking for quite a while about it and he actually freed my mind a bit. Before that conversation, I probably would have just reeled off loads of other designers, like Anthony Caro or Rachel Whiteread, and I would have told you why I like their work, and how it related to mine, and how it inspired me. But now I feel like I’m in this place where I’m going back into exploring forms and architectural shapes that I’m naturally drawn to. A lot of the past three-and-half years of architectural influences for A-COLD-WALL* have specifically been Bauhaus, Brutalist, pebbledash, concrete, rough-cast, steel rod, but I’d say this story of tension and despair has been told in A-COLD-WALL* now, so I’m looking more to – it’s so cliché – but to an open-format future, and I think when it comes to looking for architectural references, they don’t really exist anymore for me, I kind of want to become the architect now, if that makes sense? That’s where the large-scale sculpture and the furniture come into play. I’m almost transitioning from a fan into a practitioner now.

JW: You’ve got to move forward I suppose, sometimes you feel like you get to the point where you’ve fully explored something and if you keep doing it then it becomes fake.
SR: Exactly that. That’s the endgame. I think I’m at that point where I want to carve out my own language in architecture, or at least in spatial design. There will probably always be nuances of Bauhaus in there, and I’m interested in how Dadaism can take shape in a physical format, I’m interested in isolated material study and juxtaposition… For example, I am working on an installation piece with Oakley, and the whole premise is they want to take the young consumer and put them into the Oakley narrative. I look at that from the perspective of, how can we take the modern protagonist and contrast them in the world of Oakley – which really represents the outdoors – something we have no relationship to. So I’ll take that self-written brief and find out ways in which I can almost reduce it down to a simplistic form. So the protagonists I’ll take down to the colour red for semantic purposes, and the outdoors I’ll take down to… it might be the form of a singular boulder, or 400 small boulders, and then placing one angular, red plastic object amongst 400 organic forms represents Oakley by Samuel Ross, represents that narrative. So now I’m trying to convert ideas into sculpture and architecture and spatial design.

FK: Are you interested in that utopian idea of architecture, making a perfect Le Corbusier city, a workable place? When you were talking about the boulders, there is something in the idea of the organic that feels utopian as well.
SR: I think it comes into my thought process in my life outside of A-COLD-WALL* all the time. I’m trying to spend more time outdoors, even if it’s just about, like I mentioned, touching the ground when you run, or whether it’s forms of meditation, a plant-based diet, or rural visits to different areas across different countries rather than only going to the cities which we all inhabit. I think it exists within me but I haven’t necessarily overlaid it in my design. But I think that’s why that Oakley project – for some it might seem a bit weird or obscure – that was quite exciting for me because it provided the opportunity to bring organic form into my design practice. The utopia question you ask is interesting because I was asked that by Hans [Ulrich Obrist] about a fortnight ago, and it seems to be this collective consciousness that everyone is speaking about: what does the modern utopia look like? I guess my reservations are, seeing the failures of 1950–70s utopia in working-class Britain, they got it so wrong. Living in a new-build area now, which looks like a ‘utopia’, I actually love it, but then no-one speaks… So I don’t know, are we post-utopia now? Is utopia even physical? Probably not. Utopia is really quite a modern idea, we’re talking about a post-WWII syndrome, what does the world look like after that? We’ve seen so many trials and we’re still seeing new-builds, small utopias, which house maybe 2,000 people and you go there and it’s like… Milton Keynes was supposed to be a utopia [laughs]… Do you know what I mean?

JW: I was born in a town called Harlow, I don’t know whether you’ve been there. It’s the same kind of thing…the whole town designed in one go by someone who really enjoyed roundabouts. I kind of love it, but it just doesn’t ever really work, does it?
SR: Maybe it’s something about physical memory that we don’t quite understand yet. Our idea of utopia seems to involve a separation from the past, but how utopia interacts with the past is the question we need to ask, because there is value of course, in the memory of what we’re looking at right now.

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