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A-Cold-Wall*’s Samuel Ross Talks Streetwear and Smashing Social Barriers


Samuel Ross arrives at The Fashion Awards 2018 on December 10, 2018. Getty

You hardly have to be an insider to have noticed that, over the past year, the fashion industry has evolved with a profound ferocity, and a new spirit has swept through its hallowed halls. Streetwear, once a word used with derision, has become the mot du jour: skate brand Supreme won a CFDA Award, Off-White’s Virgil Abloh was appointed menswear artistic director at Louis Vuitton, and now a new generation of designers, as keenly attuned to youth culture as storied techniques, are taking centre stage. “It’s a complicated term but, to me, streetwear feels like energy,” explains Samuel Ross, the 27-year-old London-born designer behind the astonishing success of A-Cold-Wall. “It’s its own world, its own environment. It captures sub-cultures; everyone from kids in Brooklyn screen-printing T-shirts to the kids in Peckham doing the same.”

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A-COLD-WALL* ‘GLARE’ collection – now available online.

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In person, Ross manifests this new spirit: the day we meet in east London, near where he lives with his girlfriend and their 10-month-old daughter, Genesis, he is dressed in an artfully paint-splattered tracksuit of his own design, carrying a neon Prada bag and wearing box-fresh trainers (A-Cold-Wall, of course; he’s about to launch a Nike collaboration, but he’s staying on brand for Vogue). He’s arrestingly handsome, decked out in an assortment of thick chain necklaces: one heavy silver, one white ceramic (part of Abloh’s debut Louis Vuitton collection) and one formed from African beads in homage to his Windrush heritage. From his shaved head to his hands, he’s covered in tattoos: “I started getting them at 17. Every time I got a new one, it felt like I was removing myself further from the standardized system of stable school, stable job,” he says. “If I got tattoos, I couldn’t end up working in McDonald’s again.”

When he was only a few years old, his parents moved from Brixton to Northampton, resolving not to let their son grow up among gang culture, but by 15 Ross was selling fake designer clothes from their redbrick estate. “We didn’t have any money but, from a young age, I had this hunger for consumerism,” he says. “I remember being 13 and crying because I couldn’t have a poly-nylon Nike bag.” Leaving school with an obsession with branded product, he went on to study graphic design and illustration at De Montfort University. He achieved a first-class degree and ended up working as a graphic product designer for industrial brands such as Wilkinson and Beko kettles, “but I wanted more.” Accordingly, he set up a series of portfolio sites online and, after sending dozens of emails to a nascent Virgil Abloh, finally caught his attention. “I remember sitting in my swivel chair in Leicester when he followed me back on Instagram,” he grins. “I tried to tell everyone at the lunch canteen about it, and they were just like, ‘Who? Get back to work!”

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What followed was a call from Abloh offering an internship; the next week Ross left Leicester and moved into his auntie’s spare room in Croydon. He found a job at a Shoreditch ad agency, worked nights remotely for Abloh and, when Abloh and Kanye West went to Paris Fashion Week to launch Kanye’s APC collaboration and stage the Off-White showroom in 2014, Ross promptly got on a train to find himself surrounded by his idols. “It was completely insane,” he laughs. “I went from being a kid in Middle England to sitting on a sofa with Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo – literally overnight.”

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@nike @systemmagazine

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It was the relentless optimism, and staunch perseverance, of his new peers that propelled him into planning his own endeavor: “I learnt how to work, man. I learnt how to sacrifice. And, from Virgil, I learnt hope.” Before long, he had put together plans for “an art project based on exploring the cultural melting pot of the UK”, which in 2015 launched as A-Cold-Wall. “When I started it, I didn’t have the intent to create a fashion line, but product grew out of that narrative quite quickly.”

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While it might not have been the original aim, that product has made major waves. Rooted in the style tribes of the British working classes – neat cross-body bags evolved from market-stall holsters; utility vests and puffer jackets; technical nylon tracksuits developed with high-tech finishes – A-Cold-Wall offers clothing embedded in a cultural conversation but elevated with fresh appeal. “Samuel, since his time as my assistant to now, has been a part of this new breed of design,” reflects Abloh. “[He has] affirmative intention and [is] precise in his execution in garments as well as ambience.”

For his Spring 2019 collection Ross examined the sociological legacy of Brutalism, explaining that by living within the concrete high-rises that proliferate across this country, “tension and fear can become your framework”. With artisanal techniques and gently slouching knitwear interspersed with technical fabrics and carefully considered cargo pants,“I’m talking about stripping away the effects and repercussions that these concrete blocks leave on people,” he said. “I feel that fashion needs to be political because it reaches millions of people on a day-to-day basis and it really can be the hand that pulls people through the glass mirror; it really can change things.”

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Ross is testament to the fact. Having found major investment from Tomorrow London Holdings to develop his manufacturing finesse, with 117 international stockists now retailing the line, and having already achieved a turnover near unheard of for an emerging brand (€8.4 million in 2018), he is proving a determined desire to write his own script. “He’s just a cool, super-sweet and very talented guy with a ‘no border’ vision,” explains Dover Street Market CEO Adrian Joffe, who has staged A-C-W* installations in two of his global retailers. “We like him and we like his brand.”

Having earned fans in everyone from Joffe to Karl Lagerfeld (who, according to Ross, gave a standing ovation following his LVMH Prize presentation), Ross has found himself legitimized by the establishment while keeping a firm grasp of his roots. “I feel liberated,” says Ross. “Now, I feel just as at home when I’m on a council estate talking to my people as I do when I’m in Soho House asking for the à la carte menu.” If fashion’s new wave can be judged by its energy, he is its perfect ambassador.

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