Conversations: Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*
Samuel Ross is the designer and founder of A-Cold-Wall*, a British fashion house that experiments with technical fabrics and industrial form to create modern representations of working-class codes and structures. Founded in 2005, the label fosters a progressive dialogue through expressions that integrate ideas from architecture, modernity and functionality. At 28, Sam has quite a few championship belts including the LVMH Prize Finalist, Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Europe, GQ Fashion Award, British Menswear Emerging Talent of the Year, and the list goes on.
Samuel recently spoke with us about agile work adaptations, his new venture - SR_A, the importance of positive outlook, and how this crisis will change the future of our industry.
RG: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. We’re honored to get your perspective on everything happening.
SR: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I have a huge amount of respect for what your team does.
RG: Thank you man, the love’s mutual. First thing’s first, how have you been keeping lately?
SR: I’ve been well. The team’s adapting. We’ve got a really solid team and a strong team ethos. It’s closer to family. We have a small, tight-knit team. There’s like 15 of us and we take care of one another. We live in a time where we’re able to be agile, which is brilliant. So, we’re really positive right now.
RG: Fantastic. Carrying forward with a question from our last interviewee, “What was the last thing you heard, saw, tasted or experienced that changed your life? Of course, you’ll get to ask our next interviewee something as well.
SR: That’s a big question!
SR: The last thing that I heard that changed my life was actually going back into Ryuichi Sakamoto’s archives and discography of music. Way before the Ryuichi Sakamoto that we know now came into fruition. I was going back to some of his early classics in the mid 80’s, to his Yellow Magic Orchestra days – I mean, I remember hearing that music as a child. My father used to play it and it was classic. Going back and just learning about his journey again has inspired me. That’s been pretty life changing on a micro level for sure.
RG: We love Ryuichi Sakamoto… have you seen Coda? The documentary, it’s brilliant. It first speaks about the time when the Tsunami hit, and the city had those radiation issues and how he’s been active in the social movement. It also touches on the past of course YMO days, working on the soundtracks as well as his current situation, fighting cancer... We could go on for days about this.
SR: Yeah, I’ll definitely have to check that out.
RG: With the pandemic causing major global shifts, in terms of interruptions with the economy, travel and plans; there definitely were important projects people were working on. If we rewind to 30 days ago, what were you working on before everything started to slow down, or have you stopped completely?
SR: It’s interesting as you know, we’ve shown seasonally for the last 3 ½ years and we were gearing up to show our 2nd season in Milan. We were in full swing of developing a more traditional seasonal offering, and were location scouting for old palazzos. We were going to use an old palais in central Milan to do an installation runway show in June. Of course COVID hit, so now we’re shifting that format to more of a digital, thematic experience. As soon as people started to feel frequencies in the air and started to speak about how COVID could potentially be something that really takes down Europe for the next half-year. From that point we were ready to ideate on different methods… how we could share the collection, how we could develop the collection or how we could change and augment SKU counts and categories that we focus on for the next coming season.
RG: Right. It was announced London Fashion Week will be combining both men’s and women’s to September for showing?
RG: Do you think you’ll be showing there instead as an opportunity, or something else?
SR: I think that it’s an interesting point we sit at. We’re so ingrained into British fashion scene now which is interesting, because the brand is only 5 years old, and before we were extreme outliers, right? We’re for sure going to be working with BFC (British Fashion Council) and there’s going to be loads of integration. I’m really confident that this is such a time where brands need to speak directly, and cohesively. A lot of the messaging you’ll be seeing from myself and A-Cold-Wall* around that show period will really be about working with key media partners.
SR: We’ve got some great relationships where we can do some really interesting content and visuals across that period of time.
There is much more empathy based on the fact that we are in a pandemic and we are in a crisis. That’s a sensitivity that to be honest, I’ve kind of learned through fatherhood........As much as one might be ready to tear down any type of obstruction in front of me, whether it’s metaphysical or direct; you still need to make sure your family and team are getting the support they need and that you can empower them to do so........it’s not just employees or colleagues. It’s much more like family.
RG: Do you feel the same drive you felt before this pandemic presented us with new worries and problems? Even for us, we have to rework the way we think a little bit to stay motivated. Our team included, where most of them are working from home. At the same time, that relationship is a little bit different from seeing someone in the studio every day, where work can be talked about more directly. What are you doing and how are you looking at things to keep your spirits up and maybe even the spirits of the team? Has your work needed to adapt in any way to due to these changes?
SR: That’s a really good question and it’s totally relatable, because I’m super involved in every facet of the business. Typically, the full team – the design team, creative communication division, and product development all happen in our central London studio in 180 Strand. I’m typically able to jump between different tables and keep stimulation going with direct feedback. So, they’re super agile, in terms of how we work. It’s been that way when we were up in Tottenham in a tiny warehouse, up until when moved to the heart of the city. Now there’s been a change in the action and tone I use with the team. There is much more empathy based on the fact that we are in a pandemic and we are in a crisis. That’s a sensitivity that to be honest, I’ve kind of learned through fatherhood. As my daughter has grown, the idea of family starts to expand more. There’s a softer side that comes to looking after your team. As much as one might be ready to tear down any type of obstruction in front of me, whether it’s metaphysical or direct; you still need to make sure your family and team are getting the support they need and that you can empower them to do so. There’s been a lot of buoyancy between friendship and work because as I kind of said, it’s not just employees or colleagues. It’s much more like family.
SR: We’re checking in a lot more. Arranging Zoom calls. Doing like… quizzes across Slack.
RG: [laughs]. What kind of quizzes?
SR: Quizzes within the group Slack chat.
RG: When all of this happened, the first thing that came to mind was the team. Guys have to pay rent, what can we do or what’s the best thing to do as a company? Questions start to come up with needed solutions. We’re the same in a sense where our teams are like family. To be able to take care of one another was definitely telling on your end too so we’re glad things are working out okay for everyone.
SR: Yeah, even just to relate to that. We’ve been able to keep everyone on the payroll, which has been a really big goal of ours. As you said, people have bills to pay and have put thousands of hours into our endeavours. We’re in the same space. I still think now, in my studio, when we're locked up, we didn’t assume to be locked up for this amount of time.
RG: For sure not. Having to board up the store here was somewhat traumatizing, we obviously hope for the best and know that this is only temporary, but even still…
SR: It’s that idea of our reality – the reality of our routine being broken. All of a sudden, it’s not this intangible moment happening, it’s really physical as well. Having to change your location, having to shut offices and studios, having to augment how you develop a collection when you can’t necessarily have your hands directly on it. It forces an agile change, but at the same time, I do believe there’s a silver lining in this too. If you think about the amount of resources and energy one can use simply just to open and close a design studio; to travel in an uber then travel home. There is an upside in us being able to assess how we go about things – refining or condensing some of our day-to-day processes.
RG: 100% agree with that. How is production happening? Is everything currently on pause?
SR: In regard to SS 21… we’re still putting forward production. The majority of our clothes are made in Italy and Portugal. We had a few delays there. We’re looking at what the key or essential categories that we want to concentrate on expediting are, to make sure of course that we have enough time to solidify a pre-collection in July and September. It’s allowed us to question “what are the signifiers of the brand?” We know it’s jersey, luxury jersey. We know its technical outerwear and we know we’re pushing into avant-garde accessories. We’ve been able to prioritize exactly what we should be focusing on and putting our efforts towards.
RG: We know you’re also doing stuff for SR_A. That must be keeping you busy. How exactly do you shift gears to make that to happen?
SR: It’s really interesting. SR_A is really moving right ahead and there’s some ground-breaking partnerships that’ll be announced in the next year under the S.R. brand name. To give a bit of insight of what that is – it’s a big foray into luxury industrial design. There are few elements of accessible parts to the SR_A world. It’s really focused on high level design and of course SR_A debuted in Serpentine Gallery in September and it won awards. My mind’s able to shift gears because it’s almost like having two different personas, one could say. The two are so interlinked, but they almost sit in different universes. Having this buoyancy between the two; it’s almost like brain training to a certain degree; a constant back and forth of shifting gears. Even with SR_A it’s almost a design problem, like “how do we make luxury objects with beautiful design, when we can’t access the immediate raw materials and resources to do so?” It’s an exercise of critical thinking at that point.
SR: Both feed one another. A.C.W. feeds SR_A; it’s concurrent and circular.
RG: What are you taking away from this whole experience?
SR: I think the first thing is… The first thing I’ll be taking away, if I’m speaking pure and honestly, would be the appreciation for family. That’s number one. We spend 90% of our time on the road; whether I’m doing installations, press runs, runways, or sales. This time – firstly, I’m super thankful that my family are well and healthy; point one, I’m grateful for that. Also, just being able to spend more time with my fiancée and my daughter at home for sure. The second point is really being grateful for such a diligent and dedicated team, who are able to really keep spirits high, just to push forward. The third point would be – it’s very rare that a generation, and like four leaders have a real shot at changing the industry.
SR: Right? We’re on the frontier of that happening. This is the exact same as the “dot.com” crash. You’ve got Facebook, Instagram, Twitter; all these other mediums. That’s the equivalent of what COVID is for our industry. I’m super optimistic that what will come after this will actually be very forward thinking.
RG: It’s almost like a reset. Would you agree?
SR: 100%, it’s a hard reset. There’s a lot of choices that can be made now that wouldn’t necessarily be on the table before. From a strategic standpoint, it’s going to be really interesting to see how macro and micrograms adapt to that; to see that this is really a strategic game that should be played to your advantage.
Now it’s about being able to magnify and concentrate elements which may have been slightly more aloof or discreet. It’s about making sure that those ideas are understood from a product perspective. I think that also goes back and amplifies the idea of brands being forced to become specialists, and experts in specific nuances for product.
RG: Right. When we think of a reset – for us personally that sounds like art versus commerce. That’s always been the biggest balancing act. Before this, we all had a good sense of what people want in the moment. Now that’s a little bit less clear or changing at least. Now that we’re more online focused, we’re missing that in-person tangibility that made brick-and-mortar set-ups the best method of expression for our industry, at least before. Do you think these changes have affected your overall approach? You’re definitely a forward thinker; especially when it comes to certain design choices and placements. Are we looking more towards essentials or are we looking more towards avant-garde approaches to fashion?
SR: Everything you said was right about the sensory experience of a garment and how something can literally be engaged to it. I think you’re also on the right horizon – and I definitely share the same sentiment about how we develop and design now, knowing what we’re going to be up against, regarding lack of physicality in fashion for the next twelve months. That has affected me personally, in how I design a collection. Now it’s about being able to magnify and concentrate elements which may have been slightly more aloof or discreet. It’s about making sure that those ideas are understood from a product perspective. I think that also goes back and amplifies the idea of brands being forced to become specialists, and experts in specific nuances for product; which is a really big positive as well. I think the SKU count we see moving forward from A-Cold-Wall* is a lot more concentrated. The category focus is a lot more concentrated. There are two very defined voices and opinions of how one should dress that will come from A-Cold-Wall* moving forward. It’s less of a patina and more of a structured system which allows for overlaying with two different forms of language. Long story short, because I get very passionate about these kinds of topics, it’s really about making sure that the dialogue, mission and narrative of the product is able to explain itself within the limitations of a digital space. That completely changes the way one goes about developing and redeveloping a collection. Our essentials category with A-Cold-Wall* is going to grow quite exponentially, but I’m also interested in loungewear. It’s created a really strong voice and point of difference from every other option within that category. It’s that element of the consumer coming to A-Cold-Wall* for a specific nuance within that category of loungewear. This is a really different opportunity to drill into what we want to say in those spaces and how we want to say it.
RG: Can you go back into the voice you spoke on? You mentioned a “defined voice” that the brand tries to convey. Can you talk a little bit more on that and the dialogue you’re trying to create?
SR: For sure. I think there are two voices for A-Cold-Wall*. One is this more aloof and discreet voice, which is based on subtle discoveries. It’s based on much more of a total and refined story regarding materiality. That’s the voice of the working professional. The individual who spends their time reading into architecture, into industrial design. They have a keen eye not just for aesthetics, but process, and philosophies behind design. The second voice of the brand is close to what one would call the artisan. It’s slightly more explorative. It’s more on the fringe of future forward. It’s a bit more abrasive and extroverted in the ways shape, colour and experimentation come into building garments. We really worked on nailing it and refining it those two voices for our upcoming season. To give some insider knowledge into A-Cold-Wall; it’s literally the artisan and the design professional. Those are the two voices.
RG: Let’s turn back the clock a bit to when you initially started the brand. Were you ever defining things this concretely from the get-go? Or did that voice gradually become clear with progression and experience?
SR: I think that the artisan voice was always there, for sure. I see myself as the artisan. There were many elements of that which I was able to augment, at least from myself.
SR: The voice of the design professional came with a bit more age and time; the growth that happened in and through this industry. I’ve always said I have a really public career. At least 8 years of mentors and people seeing me build A-Cold-Wall* brick by brick. It’s been amazing to share that journey and I would say that the design professional really came into fruition just after 8 to 9 years of being in the industry; with a bit of experience in fashion, product and graphic design at an agency level. As you begin to grow – I’m coming close to 30 at 28, and 29 in a couple of months – It’s like I feel young but old. It’s a blessing.
RG: An old mind!
SR: That’s it! This idea of the design professional also came about from peers who inspire me. I have quite a good friendship with David Adjaye – with Hans, the artistic director of Serpentine. These are people who are mentors and people who also inspired the work I produce. Our first asymmetric slate gray nylon suit that released a year and a half ago… as soon as that was produced it was sent to Hans, and he was wearing it every day. David Adjaye is a massive fan of our jersey work, our suiting and our outerwear. There’s this idea of actual communities being built around these personas that A-Cold-Wall* has, so it almost comes naturally to develop products that service those communities.
RG: Amazing. Now let’s switch gears a bit. Have you been stuck indoors for a minute? Or are you still at the office.
SR: For sure, I am the home studio slash home office right now. I’ve been at home, Jennifer and Genesis and I, for close to 6 ½ to 7 weeks. We’ve been out a few times to shop, but we’re really taking this quite seriously and I’m respecting the severity of the situation. We’re super fortunate that we have a home that offers each of us our personal space. There’s been a real benefit in just having more time to bond with one another.
RG: How are you getting out your energy mentality? Working in the home office is great. Is there a balance or routine that takes place for you?
SR: I think that at first there was a bit more of a balance [laughs].
RG: Haha and, what happened?
SR: As time kind of move forwards – you might also relate to this – the barriers start to blur a bit. The studio is almost a temple at this point… where ideas consistently flow 24/7. I typically start my working day at 6:45am to 7am and I typically get up at 5am ish on a good day. I have a glass of hot water and two slices of lemon, and one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with a little juice. I’ll start eating past noon. So there’s a set routine which is centred around the performance of doing my job really well and to the highest level. But also, as soon as the ACW* day closes for the team at 6:30pm; that’s when the SR_A hours kick in. If I want to continue the 5 am routine, I’ll work till 10:30pm, sleep 7 hours and get back up. But there are times when you just go into workflow and you work till 4 or 5 am, which was yesterday. There’s this idea of a routine, but I’m also testing the threshold of how one can optimize their output.
RG: You don’t stop, right?
SR: Not at all [laughs].
The one piece of advice would be focus on building and nourishing a really tight-knit, organic community........This is the perfect storm to go about taking more forward-thinking ideas and proposing those ideas to market. This is a time of change.
RG: What would you say to anyone trying to break into the industry or even someone who held that as a possibility. What piece of advice would you give them at this time?
SR: I’d say the one piece of advice – now this is really good question because I was speaking to a few younger London designers yesterday, actually. I kind of do a bit of mentoring with them but they’re all like family. The one piece of advice would be focus on building and nourishing a really tight-knit, organic community. It’s going to be these types of communities that get behind independent designers with forward thinking ideas. At the same time, this is the perfect storm to go about taking more forward-thinking ideas and proposing those ideas to market. This is a time of change. New designers and well-seasoned designers can really have an opportunity to say something quite interesting and nuanced at this time.
RG: Yeah, absolutely. We’re certainly seeing this reset as a positive thing. There are a lot of people in the industry without a refined voice. People do it for different reasons that might cut themselves a bit short, but for us passion is the first thing affecting our motivation to move forward. Our thoughts when we wake up to, before bed are deeply rooted in this industry. I’m sure you’re in that same headspace and sphere as well. One thing that we’ve been asking about for the last few interviews is the idea of “only the strongest” being able to survive this crisis. Jerry (Lorenzo) came back with a strong idea of not thinking of it as “the strong” that survive but “the hungry” that survive. There’s no way that the crisis will make us give up. If anything, we’re pushing even harder than before.
SR: We feel exactly the same way here.
RG: Working with you guys for 5 seasons, we can see the growth, changes, and refinement that happens season to season. Definitely more intentional which is super positive.
SR: Thank you.
It’s a pandemic and to a certain degree, we are at war with our old ways. It’s our job to come forward with new ways, grounds and foundations.
RG: What would you like to ask the next interviewee?
SR: I think the first thing you shared was super inspiring and it resonated with me. Jerry is a close friend and to kind of add to that – he’s right, it’s the hungry that survive. For me it’s the strategy that you apply towards the end. That really sees you through. It’s a pandemic and to a certain degree, we are at war with our old ways. It’s our job to come forward with new ways, grounds and foundations. That’s our job. To get back to the point of what question I’d pose to the next person… I think I’m going to take it down a more philosophical route. How has COVID-19 resonated with your previous life to the life you have now?
RG: Thank you again Sam for coming to chat with us during these times. It’s always a pleasure to check in with you. Stay safe and take care.
SR: Much love you guys, stay safe!