How Samuel Ross' fashion label A-Cold-Wall* defies definition
Calm is not how you'd typically describe a fashion designer's studio in the days before a runway show. The immediate lead-up to fashion week involves last-minute fittings, model castings, adding final details to garments and dealing with matters of runway design, music, hair and makeup.
But with only three days until A-Cold-Wall*'s show at the men's edition of London Fashion Week, the label's headquarters were... calm. Model castings were underway and the team was quietly working.
Samuel Ross, the brand's 27-year-old founder and creative director, opened our interview by insisting that things were as under control as they seemed.
"(Before) our first three or four shows, there was pandemonium. There was anarchy. There was pain. There were tears, sweat, blood, all of that. (But) at this point we're building this really holistic approach to team bonding and we're able to rely upon one another ... there's a very relaxed and concentrated energy," he said.
The studio, like that of many a young brand, is rather unremarkable. It's a functional space with few frills, more reminiscent of a design workshop than a glossy fashion showroom. The building itself is encased in scaffolding, which is visible through windows running down the sides of the studio.
But it feels like a perfect location for Ross, given that many of his clothes appear to be almost engineered, welded -- constructed. His designs are functional and utilitarian, though not lacking in conceptual detail: There are zips, sculptural shapes, cutouts in unlikely places and pockets upon pockets. Many of the materials are hardy (thick Scottish wool) or playfully sensible (beautifully shaped clear acetate and transparent nylon you could imagine wiping down.)
Labeling the label
Young designers are often pigeonholed when they're starting out. PRs and marketers craft narratives that are easy for consumers to understand -- then they push the message on repeat.
Much like emerging actors, the thing that makes a designer famous can end up being what they spend their career trying to move on from.
A-Cold-Wall* is often labeled a streetwear brand, and Ross' working-class upbringing is frequently cited. The media love to recount how a young Ross used to flip fake fashion to friends around the social housing block he was brought up in.
But while the designer was raised in a working-class environment, and there are certainly elements of streetwear in his work (think tailored tracksuits and lots of outerwear), such descriptions feel reductive.
"There's a tinge of classism obviously at play, between class and race and the word 'streetwear' ... I think that it's quite short-handed for that word to be simply applied to a plethora of work that I operate in," he said.
Born in Brixton, south London, Ross spent most of his childhood and early adult life in England's Midlands region. His parents are both creative and educated -- his father is a stained-glass specialist who studied fine art at Central Saint Martins and his mother is an oil painter who lectures in psychology. He credits his parents for "sculpting" him into someone who works in art and design.
Ross was creative from the start: He recalls selling a painting or sketch to a friend from his youth club at the age of about 7. He went on to study graphic design and contemporary illustration at university, and began his professional career in product and graphic design, working for a practice in Leicestershire. But he was restless.
"It's not that I wasn't happy. It just wasn't enough," he said. "I had this idea of grandeur that I was sold and pitched at university, as most students are. And, you know, the banal realities of being a junior outside of London, working on an industrial estate, just didn't give me the fulfillment I know I was able to (achieve) through work."
Plotting his next move, Ross experimented with various forms of creative expression, from music to street art. He got in touch with Virgil Abloh (now, the creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton), who offered him assistant work at his label Off-White. This brought Ross back to London and helped propel him to where he finds himself today.
At the end of last year, he won Emerging Menswear Designer at the Fashion Awards in London, and his clothes are now stocked at prestigious outlets like Barneys, Selfridges and Dover Street Market.
While Ross understands how -- and why -- he has been pigeonholed, he hopes to evolve beyond the narratives thrust upon him.
"What we're talking about is a movement between design and fashion, rather than streetwear. That's what's actually happening. That's what I feel we are living through and witnessing," he reflected.
A new genre of fashion
Days after our interview, the show Ross was preparing for goes ahead, a carefully orchestrated and eerie mix of fashion, design and art.
Set firmly in present day, against the backdrop of political instability and a global migrant crisis, the installation was, according to the notes left on each guest's seat, a meditation on the "two states of feeling that have dominated the last century of our culture, spiritual apathy and mental numbness in an age of monotonous muscle-memory scrolling."
The models walked slowly along a runway sandwiched by shallow pools of water either side. A troupe of contemporary dancers, arranged by choreographer Jamie Neale, lurched through dark water in vagabond-like rags to a musical score that was, at times, deeply unpleasant to hear.
The scenes were nightmarish. At one point, as a group of dancers neared the end of their water crossing, a vicious-sounding dog ran out to bark and growl at them. On the other side of the runway, a lone dancer made it to a small "landmass" which he struggled onto before lying exhausted for the rest of the show.
The horrors endured by the dancers went unnoticed by the models walking above, seemingly unaware of the pain and struggle at their feet.
"In these uncertain times, it's not just about classic ideas of protection and utility -- self preservation is key to survival," concluded the accompanying notes.
At the end of the show, Ross emerged to take a bow. He held his young baby in his arms, lightening the mood and leaving the audience with a sliver of hope for the future.
The show was layered, complicated, high-brow, edgy, pretentious, young, artful, personal -- and, like Ross' label, impossible to sum up in a word or two.