Informed by his own upbringing, Samuel Ross’s immersive approach to design blends politics, fashion, music and art
If you follow the British streetwear scene, then Samuel Ross is a name you’ll know. But even though the designer has put out a capsule range with Harvey Nichols, appeared on stage at Selfridges with Virgil Abloh, and has his every move covered by Hypebeast and other streetwear platforms, Ross and his label A-COLD-WALL don’t really receive their due recognition from the UK’s fashion establishment.
A-COLD-WALL is a “design project” intended to deliver an injection of art and aesthetics into the streetwear sphere via the clashing of environments and class systems. Ross’s vision is realised by way of pop-up installations themed on “wage disparity”, radio shows and sound design, as well as reversible long sleeves, hoodies and oversized overcoats.
As for the question of whether it’s art or is it fashion – that’s irrelevant when the clothes manage to look purposefully modernist, the materials and textures are interesting, and wearing the garments feels both street and aesthetically sharp in a way few other labels really manage.
Are you an artist or a fashion designer?
Samuel Ross: I painted, did illustration, then I moved over to product design, I was doing fucking kitchen installations and then graphic design for recording artists – for my generation graphic design is like the swipe key into the fashion industry.
So what is fashion for you?
Samuel Ross: It’s a medium. Clothing is just another way for me to articulate ideas – what I love about fashion is the design process. Which is why I say I’m a designer, not specifically a fashion designer. Product design is my love. I want people to be able to buy a piece of A-COLD-WALL furniture and have that as a centrepiece in their lounge too.
Products that people connect with have soul, they say things that can’t be said and aren’t audible. There’s a difference between a design that has soul and a product. Soul is something that articulates an idea, that connects these dots that can’t be expressed through language. It touches on art, it’s expressive.
“There’s a difference between a design that has soul and a product. Soul is something that articulates an idea, that connects these dots that can’t be expressed through language. It touches on art, it’s expressive” – Samuel Ross
You just flew out to South Africa to work with singer-songwriter Petite Noir on a project for a Cape Town museum.
Samuel Ross: Yeah, he’s influenced by the same religious influences I’ve always been into. I spent a lot of time in church, having an identity crisis when I was 16 or 17. It was a weird time, I was from some super working class area, from ends, it was only going to uni that took me away from that crisis and I was able to focus on design and explore other pursuits.
So are there spiritual dimensions to A-COLD-WALL?
Samuel Ross: There are, there are. All the soundtracks that come from A-COLD-WALL I’ve made myself, I’ve sampled a lot of traditional European choirs. I’ve always been attracted to this idea of religious perfection. It’s only in the last 100 years that church and state have really separated here. But the idea of the working class and religion has always been quite interlinked, and church has always been used to direct people.
How does that feed into your fashion aesthetic?
Samuel Ross: A-COLD-WALL’s mission statement is clashing environments and class systems. So religion is attractive, but being a working class kid from ends, I’m also influenced by the environment I grew up in.
My early pieces were based on British tailoring, overcoats and pressed trousers. I’m not working with tweed anymore. I’m using canvas, I’m using cotton tyvek fused to wool, I’m using lace cotton now, lots of cotton jerseys and canvases but also nylons.
At the moment cotton jersey speaks to me just because of working class tracksuit bottom culture, but also canvas speaks to me, canvas feels coarse and helps me articulate the texture of a chalk wall, and ages well like buildings do too. All my fabrics are trying to articulate architectural materials that can’t be worn through fabric.
The clothes are meant to look like cold walls?
Samuel Ross: The thought process behind the clothes initially was to articulate the textures of the environment I grew up in. Such as pebble brick walls, grey pebbledash, off creams, colours that were kind of meant to be ignored and to blend in. There is an acuteness and sensitivity to these colours and textures that is really subtle. Once I figured out a way to create these washes by overdying by hand, adding certain salts to clothing whilst dyeing, I was able to create an environment through fabric.
Producing these clothes feels like a labour of love, using a really coarse French terry with a high thread count that has been overdyed four times, for me that’s luxury. I don’t think mass production in a factory with a high price point is luxury, we’ve lost this idea of the handmade and artisanal.
You have this quite militant stance of only supplying stores that offer you the space for an installation.
Samuel Ross: A-COLD-WALL is not just a streetwear project, is also cultural commentary. It’s really important that the concept is completely articulated and understood through an audio experience, a physical experience and the clothing. The installations are a way that people can really understand that. For my generation installations are a way of cutting through the way we digest content. A flat image of a painting and looking at Instagram work in the same way. It’s important that the art that I’m putting out there fully immerses and that there’s a subtle shock value to it, that isn’t always obvious with the clothing, because I want the clothing to be wearable but the ideas are complex.
With installations you feel like you’re in a scared space, you’ve gone somewhere, you’re transformed.
Samuel Ross: Yes, by building an installation in Rotterdam I’m bringing them black working class Britain. They can touch the ripped up sofa and feel societal tension it represents. I keep saying this but it does keep coming down to class and colour. I use the installations so people can really get a lot of shit that people live through.
What is the racial and class dimension of A-COLD-WALL?
Samuel Ross: I’m not claiming to be some sort of saviour, but I haven’t been able to name a black British designer that’s influenced me or my peer group. I can’t name one. I also remember being 16 or 17 and thinking we haven’t had a big artist like Damien Hirst. And we haven’t had any (big) name designers from ethnic backgrounds. And people are starting to notice.
“A-COLD-WALL is not just a streetwear project, is also cultural commentary...by building an installation in Rotterdam I’m bringing them black working class Britain” – Samuel Ross
So you think if there were more working class artists, there might be more Damien Hirsts?
Samuel Ross: Maybe.
People reduce streetwear to commerce – you’re saying, ‘No, this is art.’
Samuel Ross: People love the clothes and they love the brand’s aesthetic, but there’s this cap on the ambition of anything labelled streetwear that I’m trying to break through.
Do you think there’s a connection in the way both streetwear people and art people like to collect?
Samuel Ross: The streetwear world and the art world are almost parallel. The whole idea of collection, that luxury is saying both ‘I was there’, as well as ‘I purchased it’. The idea of presence at an installation is a high point if you’re a fan of the brand you can be a part of something. It’s the same as being part of the dinner hosted for your favourite contemporary artist.
What does the A-COLD-WALL name mean?
Samuel Ross: Our entire society is based on walls, that slightly unpleasant feeling of rubbing your hand against a wall, that barrier, is a feeling everybody knows. It’s something that resonates with people from different places, a kid on a council estate can rub their hand against a cold pebbledash wall, and a kid from a mansion can rub his hand against the cold marble.
All this talk of graphics, architecture and walls. It feels technical, machine-like and in an old fashioned way, masculine, almost.
Samuel Ross: I’m black British Caribbean, the truth is that is a hyper masculine culture and is obviously gonna articulate through design and clothing. There’s not really much celebration of femininity amongst those communities at all. I’m the weird art one of all of my friends. The others are in jail or doing X, Y and Z. So, I want A-COLD-WALL to be almost like aspirational propaganda.
Gallery credits: creative direction Samuel Ross; photography Chuck Noah; fashion Ace Harper; model Jordan Vickors; assistant Josh Barnes