Samuel Ross has grafted for this moment. Speaking to him on the phone a month ago, Sam was hosting a conference about his recent collaboration with Oakley in Milan, which, incidentally, is where he’s set to move his entire manufacturing set up for A-COLD-WALL* in order to compete amongst the very best in luxury fashion.
His current settings are a far cry from where it all began. He’s gone from selling bootlegged Nike tees as a teenager to being hand-picked to rework an Air Force One with Nike and Fragment. He’s navigated his way up from working as Virgil Abloh’s assistant to becoming the head honcho of one of the most exciting brands in the world. And from his debut show just 2 years ago, he produced another of the most-accomplished collections on show at London Men’s Fashion Week in January.
A-COLD-WALL*’s profile is showing no signs of slowing down. You’ll now see fashion-focussed rappers like Rich The Kid, Chief Keef and Jaden Smith all adorned in ACW on a regular basis. And it’s not just musicians; arguably his biggest co-sign yet came from none other than LeBron James, where the 4-time NBA MVP showed off a pair of Size 15 A-COLD-WALL* x Nike Air Force 1 Hi’s on Instagram. Levels.
All this attention hasn’t gone unnoticed. Ross has subsequently been rewarded with a big money investment by Tomorrow London, who have acquired “a substantial minority stake” in his brand, meaning he’s got a lot more financial clout to make his ever-expanding list of grand ideas become reality.
So just how has he orchestrated such a meteoric rise at such breakneck speed? Sam took some time out from his increasingly hectic schedule to break down his phenomenal progression, where he’s gone from being a novice in Northamptonshire to an international interdisciplinary icon.
You’re currently out in Milan, and you’ve just moved all your manufacturing to Italy, which seems like a big move in your career. Was it important for you to do that?
In my eyes, it was essential that (the move) happened. I felt as an independent designer, ACW did as much as we could do locally. Now, we have access to factories with amazing production quality, and move more into the luxury market.
It’s a long way from where you grew up in Northamptonshire – what was it like for you growing up there?
It’s funny really, as none of my family have a background in fashion at all. They have backgrounds in art and design. My father studied at Central Saint Martins and my mother is a painter. So fortunately, I had a spirit guide into the creative industry. Despite growing up Northampton – quite a working class and impoverished area – my parents always gave me a stake in the ground to push my creativity forward from a very young age.
How did you first get into fashion?
When I got to the age of 10/11, I did my first work placement in a streetwear store in Northampton, which slowly opened me up to the world of fashion. By the age of 15/16, I was selling counterfeit Nike and adidas goods from my bedroom – way before many elements of this current resale culture even existed. I then ended up leaving the town I grew up in and formed a T-shirt brand at the age of 18, which went into 3-4 retailers in Leicestershire.
“It’s really just how committed you are to keeping a belief in what you’re doing; that’s one of the greatest things I learned from Virgil.”
Was it something you always wanted to do?
There was always this thread there connecting me to fashion – but it was always subconsciously – it was never “I’m going to break into fashion,” yet I’ve always had this tangible link to it. I used to walk into TK Maxx and fish out anything with a brand name or Nike tick on it just to be a part of that story and understand a part of that brand.
So that organic relationship with fashion lead to you being mentored by Virgil – what was it like being mentored by Virgil? How important was he for your creative process today?
It was pivotal to be able to work with someone who was really just so, so focused – and extremely talented – as he was. Virgil is someone who has complete confidence in his own ideas becoming true. That’s something that I really learned from him – you have to have 100% confidence in your own idea and your processes and own belief with what you’re doing to be able to really grow.
There are going to be times when all the odds are against you, whether that be from a manufacturing perspective, financial perspective. Then there’s just limitations from your social networking or immediate network, or even social placement and class system.
It’s really just how committed you are to keeping a belief in what you’re doing; that’s one of the greatest things I learned from him. On top of that, his work ethic is phenomenal. 18 hour days, 20 hour days… that’s what it takes. That’s why my journey is now beginning. All those hours are slowly starting to pay off, and it’s actually rationalizing the pace of growth. You put in so many hours to edge the chess piece forward, ever so slightly.
You’ve previously spoken on your work representing a form of social commentary – what would you say your most recent collection was a reflection of?
It’s a weird one – it’s almost a reflection of me having a speakerphone and showing people where these references are almost pulled from and the conversations that can be bought up on the value of material. As soon as it’s in a gallery, everything is looked at in a much more profound way; but in the hands of a builder, it’s almost invisible. I think it’s really interesting to focus on these small details when you see the cross-pollination of materials used in different contexts by different class systems.
Do you think UK style, art and design is at a good place in 2018? And do you think the current political climate has played a role in increasing the talent levels in these fields?
I think that it’s actually making it harder. With Britain on the brink of Brexit, it’s making the pound very hard to trade with at a stable rate with Asia and Europe, which is obviously pivotal for a lot of young brands. This makes it difficult – I think it’s fair to say that in the extreme circumstances we’re in, with such instability, is that it cuts off a lot of fat.
This leads to a lot of the people who aren’t sure if they want to be in design or fashion don’t want to take the risk and jump, which leaves a much more focused peer group… which isn’t exactly a very political answer, but a very rational one.
“If you were from a certain area, it’s the type of tracksuit you would have had. Down south it was all cotton and jersey, and then when you get to Birmingham it’s all nylon.”
You’ve previously stated that your influences for A-COLD-WALL* derive from council estates, but now you’re quite literally taking you work out “in the field” with your Oakley collaboration. How much are you trying to expand the brand’s horizons to be seen and worn in different environments other than just as “streetwear”?
I think the beauty of the Oakley collection is that it’s not an A-COLD-WALL* story, it’s a Samuel Ross story, which lives in an entirely different world.
It allows me and frees me up to explore an entirely different scene. This collection is about isolating the technicality that Oakley is renowned for and putting it into a new context, which of course still reflects the outdoors – key to the Oakley story – but I can add my more utilitarian, minimalist twist to it.
This allows me to live outside of the ACW world, which is important because I’m a designer before I am a brand. My background is in product and graphic design behind the scenes, so it’s refreshing to deliver a new narrative.
What I hope this does is give me practice going to a house, it’s a perfect execution to show that I can develop ideas outside of one narrative.
Your clothing contains a lot of sportswear motifs – how much would you say sport influences your work and fashion as a whole?
I grew up playing basketball or football every single weekend, and what I really took from that was the attire we used to wear. Obviously down south it was all cotton and jersey, and then when you get to Birmingham it’s all nylon. All these instances are a part of me, which is why I was so excited to work on technical nylon fabrics for the Oakley collection. That’s part of my story – I might not have talked about it so much with ACW but it’s still part of my story.
So it’s subconsciously had an effect on your output…
Yeah completely. Now, I’m consciously wanting to use nylon, because this is what we grew up wearing; if you were from a certain area, it’s the type of tracksuit you would have had. These were types of subculture, but we weren’t really aware of it at the time we were just living through it, we were it, so that’s the perfect mood-board for me.
What other mediums are you looking to work in this year aside from fashion?
Concrete Objects – a homeware product stocked in Slam Jam Tokyo – is one way I make sure my body of work is diverse. I want a long, storied career in design. I don’t just want it to be about fashion, which is why I score most of my own shows, produce the short films and art-direct for Oakley and have written the music for it on my keyboard… I just keep myself diverse, open and forever learning. I’ve always worked that way on a small scale, it’s only now being magnified.
What are you passionate about aside from your work, art and design?
I don’t get the time to do it as much as I want now, but I try and run three times a week. I’m really passionate about fitness and health – as soon as I have a small time lapse where I’m not working, I usually focus on health to be honest. Whether it’s going on massive juice cleanses, or sleep intervals where you wake up at certain times, and specific times to eat and only drink hot lemon water – I just wish I had more time to expand on that. I’m sure I will when my infrastructure grows.
Going forward this year, what are the brand’s plans for 2018? Will we see more POLYTHENE* products this year?
I’m focusing a lot more on homeware this year, and POLYTHENE* is ready to go, but I’m just waiting for the right time to launch it. I want to make sure the infrastructure is completely tight. I’ve done the whole building something from grass-roots upwards which I loved, but I’m now 3 years into my independent career, so I want to make sure everything is of the highest calibre. Whether it’s customer service, turnaround, or material quality – it’s going to be the best that I can possibly make it.
Samuel Ross was speaking to Jacob Davey.