Samuel Ross returns A-Cold-Wall* to its creative roots for AW22
The London-based designer discusses reconnecting with his creative instincts, and how mortality informed his latest collection.
Photography Adam Titchener. Images courtesy of A-Cold-Wall*
Like many other designers, the two-year pandemic has allowed Samuel Ross time to rethink the way he runs his brand, A-Cold-Wall. One of the most significant results of these months of contemplation has been the parsing of the two strands of the label into ACW — the moniker for commercially-minded pre-collection — and, well, A-Cold-Wall*, a fashion-as-art, artisanally-informed proposal.
“Brittle. Render. Sequenced. Thought.”, A-Cold-Wall*’s AW22 collection, marks the first time since the distinction came about that Samuel’s showing the latter line on its own, allowing him to reconnect with a sense of sweet earnestness that so many independent designers crave when their businesses start to expand. “Over the last couple of months, I really had time to be alone in my own workspace, and just think,” he says. “I could just play with inks and materials, and really figure out how to bring back that level of organic, fluid development to the scale I now work at.”
Returning to a creative approach that favours raw intuition over step-by-step strategy, he started things off by playing with artistic materials, “like clay and plaster”, as well as “physically moulding shapes of interest for garments,” imbuing the collection’s 28 looks with a distinct, haptic sensibility. Heavy-set upper silhouettes bear down onto bow-legged bottoms, implying the weight and pliability of artist’s clay, and armour-like carapaces suggest a battle-ready toughness. Elsewhere, smears of metallic paint on weighty jerseys and outerwear pieces imply a sense of creative impulsivity — clothes treated as canvases, rather than products.
The collection’s spirit is aptly captured in a film that Samuel collaborated on with photographer and director Rob Rusling — a broodily cinematic short that shares more in common with fine art films than your average fashion presentation. A spiritual successor to the enrapturing performance-meets-runway show A-Cold-Wall* staged for AW19 — you know, the one with naked body drenched in scarlet paint — it conjures an atmosphere of sombreness, austerity and ceremony, presenting fashion as a means to evoke an emotive response, rather than as something intended to be purchased and worn.
Indeed, it raises buzzy questions around what the role of a designer and creative director really is. Is it to create easily-worn, easily-desired clothing, or is it to challenge, to continually expand fashion’s artistic scope? For Samuel, the answer lies between the two — here, though, his focus here is firmly on the latter. “I wanted to be sure that about 70% of what we’re showing here is really directional,” he says. “What I'm proposing is that when A-Cold-Wall* shows runway, we should be showing ideas and perspectives, not just product.”
“Brittle. Render. Sequenced. Thought.” Talk us through the sequence of thoughts that led to that title?
[Laughs] Well, we actually started off with some very long titles, and I was thinking about how we could from macro to micro — four or five words to really convey a sense of focus, as well as the idea of a piece of prose, or a story that's being told. With the word ‘brittle’, there's a sensitivity to it, but it still carries connotations of sharpness or fragility — an awareness to the materiality and how it may respond. With 'render', there's a double-sense — on one front, it touches on the ability to render clothes and operate and tell a story through digital surfaces, which feels very contemporary. But then there's also a sense of rendition — acting and the play, theatre and performance. With 'sequenced thought', it was really about sharing what's in my mind and how I've been feeling, both subconsciously and consciously, for the past six months. It was really about being honest, and producing something that felt more emotional. It was really about going back to how things made us feel, rather than trying to engineer an affect.
In the show notes, you write about doing away with "the days of fixed forecasting, and predictive creativity”. How did you achieve that, and what impact did it have on your creative approach?
Well, fashion companies often start off really artisanal, and then scale up and lose that patina. It's just what tends to happen. You have to try really hard to preserve and protect that initial sense of artistry and find ways to communicate value in a way that doesn't feel homogenised. As such, my real role is to make sure that when we're developing our perspective on product, silhouette and material, there's a sense of integrity and purity there. With this collection, I wasn't thinking about how we could make the best cargo pant or the best blouson -- I was thinking about what feelings I wanted to convey, and how shape and form helped contextualise those feelings.
Has the precarity of the past six months informed your process at all?
I think that the concept of mortality has informed a sense of shape, and a couple of people I've spoken to about the film have said, "Fuck, this feels really dark and sombre!" I guess I’ve allowed my subconscious to really run wild, and if that’s what people are seeing, then that is, to a degree, what it is! That said, that hasn’t necessarily been my specific intention, but an awareness of mortality and the finality of life has enabled a freedom to really double down on creative expression. We don't have a lot of time, and when you know that, you just have to make sure that each expression, whether it's left brain or right brain, fills the room.
Speaking of the film, you’ve collaborated with Rob Rusling this season. What draws you to his work?
Rob and I first worked together for our SS19 show — our breakout show with the red body. I just felt like he was the perfect collaborator. He has a similar sensibility for theatrics, fine art and cinema, and there are shared visual sensibilities that I felt could be applied to A-Cold-Wall. Once I'd spent enough time mapping out the long-term proposition for A-Cold-Wall and deciding to present and sell our pre- and main collections separately, giving both facets space to breath, I knew I wanted to work with him. A particular thing that I appreciate about him is that we can have a back and forth, and we don't always agree on everything, but we're always happy to fight it out creatively for the greater good of the work.
What sort of conversations did you have working on this project?
Well, we had so many conversations around exposing the Black body. The first exposure of nudity in A-Cold-Wall* was in our AW19 show, and we cast a white body covered in red paint. This time, we agreed that the body needed to be Black in order to tie it back to the founder being a person of colour, communicating a level of closeness and personal exposure, and also a way of humanising the body. It was about exploring this idea of strength against fragility; self-questioning against self-confidence. That’s such a feature of the Black male experience, in the same way that the fact that we have an extra 1.5 to 2.5% of muscle proteins is. Showing that by exposing parts of the Black male body that aren’t usually shown — the lumbar area, the buttocks, the thigh — just felt like the right thing to do, humanising it and opening up a slightly more sensitive conversation.
Photography Adam Titchener. Images courtesy of A-Cold-Wall*