Samuel Ross is changing the fashion game
He's the fine-art-dabbling, fashion-world-dominating, streetwear-sceptical polymath disrupting the system
Thursday 29 September 2022 By Teo van den Broeke Photography by Jeff Hahn Styling by Yves Alawe Grooming by Michelle Leandra
I first encountered Samuel Ross, the 31-year-old designer and artist you probably know best as the creative director and founder of cult British label A-Cold-Wall*, around half a decade ago following his breakthrough SS19 menswear show. It was a thoroughly theatrical affair, where it was requested that guests wore protective goggles and ear plugs. In our showroom appointment after the presentation, Ross, who had just been nominated for the prestigious LVMH Prize, seemed to me as much a fresh creative force as he did a bundle of furtive glances and overwrought academic statements. A fledgling fashion pupae: very nearly ready to fly, but not quite cooked.
The man sitting opposite me today, sipping on a Diet Coke in the plush surrounds of 180 House while draped in a hand-distressed, sage-green merino and lambswool robe from his own brand, is an entirely different animal. We’re just a few floors above the headquarters of both A-Cold-Wall* and his design practice, SR_A, and he’s looking me in the eye as he explains the origins of his newfound confidence: ‘I think it switched during the pandemic,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘The autumn/winter ’20 show was part of that. It was the moment I said, “Yes, I’m a fashion designer, but I’m also an artist. I may have come through streetwear but, actually, I’m an artist.”’
That collection was the first Ross showed in Milan, choosing to shift from London for the glitzier – and arguably more globally influential – surrounds of the Italian fashion capital. In an intentional sidestep away from the classic streetwear and sports-infused garments that defined his first collections, the models walked his whitewashed runway in syrupy wraparound coats, smart cigarette trousers and double-breasted suits in technical fabrics. Since AW20, A-Cold-Wall* has continued pedalling in a more sartorial direction. It’s a grown-up glow-up that has not only imbued Ross with a new air of self-assurance, but also directly benefited his business, too: in 2018, the company reported a turnover of over £7m and it currently boasts more than 115 retail stockists worldwide.
‘I’m in the process of reforming the brand at the moment, and part of the reformation is a return to craft and artisanal techniques,’ he explains. Though Ross – the son of Windrush-generation parents – was born in Brixton, raised in Northampton and educated at De Montfort University in Leicester (he now lives between London and Northampton), his accent has all the international slip and slide you’d expect of a peripatetic being. ‘We tripled A-Cold-Wall*’s growth in Covid. We’re expanding our partnerships over the next few years. We’re moving to Paris for runway shows. But for me to have the motivation to do it, I have to question the driving force of A-Cold-Wall*. What does it need to do for me to put my time into it? What I really care about is craft,’ he insists. ‘The focus is on craft, it’s not just about scale.’
It is interesting, given that Ross was arguably one of the key beneficiaries of fashion’s great streetwear boom – a movement that saw craft-focused luxury goods, like tailored Savile Row suits and benchmade shoes, lose out to track pants and graphic tees (the global streetwear market is projected to reach a peak value of $149.2bn this year, according to GlobalData, while suiting comes in at just $15.31bn, says Statista). In 2015, the same year Ross started his brand, luxury kingpin Louis Vuitton broke ranks by teaming up with New York skate brand Supreme. Later, Ross’s mentor, the late Virgil Abloh, brought his street-infused vision to the LVMH-owned label, which helped to build it into one of the world’s most influential men’s fashion players.
Despite all that, Ross is firm that streetwear has no foothold on the ever-shifting landscape of contemporary luxury. ‘I don’t think it has a place,’ he says, firmly. ‘For the recent A-Cold-Wall* installation in Paris, we split the space into sections. There were the technical clothes, the heritage craft stuff and then streetwear and footwear. Three out of the four received a lot of attention and one didn’t. That was streetwear,’ he says. ‘The nuanced consumer is no longer pleased by a simple graphic tee. We’ve had a decade of it, we need to move on.’
The aforementioned streetwear boom not only redefined the way in which the vast majority of us dress, it also coincided with the insatiable rise of the fashion collaboration. Beyond Louis Vuitton and Supreme, arch-WASP label Ralph Lauren collaborated with Palace Skateboards in 2018, while Dior teamed up with Stüssy in 2020, and both Balenciaga and Gucci recently worked with adidas. Each and every one of those collections was, anecdotally speaking, an instant sell-out. Accordingly, collaboration is one of the sea of streetwear’s many waves that Ross has little compunction about continuing to ride.
Indeed, in the past few years the designer has collaborated with Nike, Converse, Hublot, Roa, Oakley, Beats by Dre and Dr Martens, to name a fistful. ‘I’ve got proof of concept,’ he smiles. ‘There are so many case studies, stuff I don’t even mention. Like the collaboration with Roa is the highest-grossing collaboration they’ve ever done. And what we’ve built with Converse is a seven-figure business. All this has contributed to my strengthening voice.’
‘The nuanced consumer is no longer pleased by a graphic tee. We need to move on’
It’s a broad-reaching, utterly inclusive modus operandi that Ross learnt from the best. The designer – who has two daughters, Genesis and Olympia – was famously nurtured as a hungry young student by Abloh, who stumbled across the graduate’s design work on Instagram (Abloh once told me in an interview: ‘I use Instagram like a phone book or LinkedIn’), before reaching out to him by email. Ross interned in Abloh’s design studio and subsequently the Louis Vuitton creative was a regular fixture at Ross’s A-Cold-Wall* shows, cheering him on supportively from the sidelines. Abloh died from a rare type of heart cancer in late November 2021, just before he was due to appear with Ross at Design Miami/ Basel.
‘I think about what Virgil meant to us all at least once a day,’ says Ross, as he looks out of the floor-to-ceiling window next to us. We’re on the top floor of 180 House and the grand grey views over Aldwych seem an appropriate backdrop for the topic. ‘Every single day. Eeeevery single day without fail. It’s gut-wrenching to try to comprehend it, and there’s a whole community of people who feel this way. We all feel like we’re still mourning him.’ He pauses. ‘It’s little things, like not having a person to text an idea to or share a meme with. All of these elements of friendship. It’s so difficult to come to terms with it. You can’t comprehend a loss like it.’
Ross is working hard to maintain Abloh’s legacy by casting himself in a similar mould: that of a very modern polymath; a Japanese jersey-clad da Vinci for our times. Since Abloh’s death, there have been rumours that Ross would make a natural successor for the late designer’s LV throne, which currently sits empty. Does he think he has what it takes? ‘Virgil was able to umbrella so many different disciplines, and that meant many other voices and personalities could sit beneath him. He’s the only one who could do that. V and I are different – my way of doing things is a bit more serious.’
Returning in kind the mentorship that was provided to him (a task he endearingly calls ‘each one, teach one’) is another important strand of the Samuel Ross roadmap. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Ross founded the Black British Artist Grant. Using £25k of his own money, he awarded 10 fledgling young artists a £2.5k prize each – an innovation he intends to expand upon further for 2022.
‘For the next round of the grant, we’re spreading our reach. The V&A is on the board and Grace Wales Bonner will be our first guest designer.’ Does he consider himself more of a mentor than a mentee these days? ‘The whole prospect of changing the industry and mentoring is part of my practice. It’s not advocacy anymore because it’s a philosophy and a law. What Virgil put forward in terms of mentorship has matured into a rule of engagement, which is huge.’
Despite the death of his mentor, Ross – ever the professional – turned up to Miami Basel to unveil his first-ever design project in collaboration with celebrated New York gallery Friedman Benda. Consisting of a series of 12 bold works, recognisable in their distinct Ross-ian colours (there’s plenty of orange) and neo-industrial forms, one of the pieces, Trauma Chair (2020) – a high-backed, burnished steel take on a picnic foldaway that he has described as referencing ‘traditional West African stools and chairs of the Benin region’ – has already been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art.
‘The exhibition did very well. There were a lot of orders. We made eight editions of each piece, and the average sale price of each one was around £75k,’ Ross laughs. ‘There’s a demand for new conversations to be told in that space.’
Although the pieces in the show were ostensibly furniture-shaped, the sculptural nature of the work surely indicates that Ross has his future sights set less on the Conran Shop and more on the Tate Modern. ‘I’m now looking at doing a solo exhibition with [Friedman Benda] next year and there’s a lot of interest from some really exceptional galleries in London. There have also been soft talks with a few of those galleries around my sculptural and public artworks.’
What would a Samuel Ross fine-art exhibition look like? ‘A lot of my artworks are large-scale sculptures, and a lot of it involves steel and powder coating. There are large panels that are sheet-folded, which are designed to sit at a height,’ he explains. ‘I’m taking my time with it. It’s just me working in my home studio, letting the work reveal itself gradually.’
Samuel Ross wears A-Cold-Wall* throughout. Big Bang Integrated King Gold 42mm watch, Hublot. All jewellery, Ross's own.
It’s no secret that success in the plastic arts has long been dominated by white men. Ross notes that after winning the Turner Prize, it took Steve McQueen 14 years to reach wider public consciousness after the release of 12 Years A Slave. He also highlights David Adjae as arguably the most successful man of colour in architecture, but he finds himself hard pushed to think of another. On whether he’s found his race to be a barrier in the next industry he intends to conquer, Ross is circumspect. ‘Virgil died on the day of my Friedman Benda debut. He and I were on the double cover of Design District. In terms of the postmodern and modernist vernacular in industrial design, there aren’t that many people of colour involved. So, going into that showcase and debut solo, without V’s support, was a really strange feeling.’
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, fashion – like many other industries – was quick to jump on the social change bandwagon, with major brands appointing people of colour to their boards and developing inclusivity departments. Ross spoke on the topic a great deal at the time (he told me in an interview that ‘people need to see truly Black bodies outside of traditional tropes if we want to see real change come forth’) and I’m intrigued to know if he thinks much material change has occurred since. ‘I was in Milan last week and I was in the lift at a progressive hotel,’ Ross responds after a pause. He sounds weary. ‘I was wearing a navy blue robe with a silk shirt and an LV bag, and this woman didn’t want to get in the lift with me. She’d called the thing, there was loads of space and she skipped it. It’s impossible to not see racism as the main determinant of why she wouldn’t get in with me. That was a reality check. It doesn’t matter what you achieve, it’s those things that shape who you are.’
On the subject of what more needs to be done, Ross is pragmatic. ‘I started off hard left in politics and I’m very apolitical now. I think a lot of people that supported POC in the first instance identified as left. But looking at the impact post-BLM, there hasn’t been much that’s happened. It seemed like an easy way for certain political parties to score votes,’ he says. ‘Black people should be supported all of the time, beyond crisis moments. There didn’t seem to be a plan beyond BLM.’
Does he see himself as an agent of change? ‘I’m about designing change,’ he says simply, placing his hands on the arms of the velvet Soho Home chair in which he’s seated. ‘Whether that’s in art, fashion or in societal structure. It’s fundamentally about designing change.’