The clothing that designer Samuel Ross creates under his label A Cold Wall is hard to define succinctly. It's sporty, but definitely not athleisure. It's fashion-forward, but mostly accessible. The fit alternates between slim and oversize, sometimes even within the same piece. Just please don’t describe it as streetwear.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the term, but I think we need to be careful about what we’re putting under that umbrella," the 25-year-old, tatted-up, born-and-bred Londoner says. "To put out something that's taken a lot of time and effort and mechanics behind the full process of an idea — for it to instantly be grouped as streetwear feels kind of unfair."
The fashion industry's relationship with streetwear — the often belittled, though wildly lucrative category that is a catchall term for so-called "urban" labels from Supreme to Stussy — is complicated. This is especially the case as revered, high-fashion houses like Givenchy, Balenciaga and Gucci consistently borrow from the genre's foundational pieces, like graphic T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers, often without crediting the streetwear pioneers who came before them. Ross says part of the problem may be casual racism.
"When it comes to black designers who haven't been lumped into streetwear, I can only think of Grace [Wales Bonner] and [Balmain creative director] Olivier Rousteing," he says, noting that he's also one of only a handful of working black designers, which, he adds, is an issue in and of itself. "I'm not making early-'90s graphic tees. I'm in the year 2017, and I'm sending polythene down runways. It's just a different age now. I think it comes down to naivety and miseducation within the fashion industry."
But those who get it, get it. Ross only founded A Cold Wall in 2015, but in that very short time, he's made his way onto the shelves of stores like Barneys, Harvey Nichols and Japan's United Arrows and into the wardrobes of the coolest kids with a talent for spotting the Next Big Thing online. He also just made his London Fashion Week: Men's debut, with a brief runway show held in a former brewery in the city’s Shoreditch neighborhood.
It helps that the self-described introvert had early co-signs from hugely influential industry figures. After earning a BA in graphic design and contemporary illustration from De Montfort University, Ross landed a job at a design firm. Some of his early work caught the eye of Off-White designer and Kanye West creative director Virgil Abloh. Ross worked with Abloh for three years, and also contributed print design to Hood By Air and had a hand in West’s work with A.P.C., all before launching A Cold Wall. Last year, he designed exclusive packaging for two of NikeLab’s most high-profile collaborations, with Stone Island and Louis Vuitton’s Kim Jones.
All of his experience inevitably helps inform the work he does on his own. "It's about taking all of that information which fits into the high-fashion world and combining it with my background, which is very much working class," he says. "It's about putting an exchange together and sewing and stitching them into one place."
He means that literally, too. Construction is a key element to A Cold Wall, with visible stitching and duct tape applied by Ross himself, with the help of an assistant. The effect is that these pieces are truly built by hand. "I celebrate seamlines. I celebrate messy stitching," he explains. "It's a celebration of what we almost try to hide."
Ross reports gross sales of £150,000 (about $158,000 at current exchange) in 2016 from his e-commerce store alone; the next challenge may be how to maintain the personal touch that has resonated with his fans as A Cold Wall continues to grow. While he has no aims at the moment to become a recognizable face in the vein of his mentor Abloh — he says he would prefer to be compared, in the future, to people like Steve Jobs or the architect Sir David Adjaye rather than a public, social figure — his stock is poised to continue to rise. An A Cold Wall x NikeLab Air Force 1 debuted during his runway show (Ross declined to comment on whether it will be sold, calling it a "bespoke experiment"), and he plans to introduce a lower-priced line called Polythene Optics soon.
"I just don't want it to be about clothes, about fashion," he concludes. "It's about shifting how things are viewed through design. It doesn't have an endpoint."