The new A-COLD-WALL* and Dr Martens collab is here
Fashion stalwart Samuel Ross and the British heritage mainstay unpack the creation of their new silhouette.
Scowling youths and the growls of a dirt bike: a picture of Britain that Samuel Ross and Darren McKoy know well. It is this setting – commonplace in so many parts of the UK, though rarely brought to the fore in fashion – that informs the latest footwear collaboration from the A-COLD-WALL* Creative Director and Dr Martens Design and Product Lead. The partnership, which began in 2020, resumes here with the same architectural codes that characterised its first 1460 boot.
There’s also a renewed point of reference: inherent to each brand’s heritage, working-class subculture has been implicit in the duo’s creation. Samuel grew up in Northamptonshire where Dr. Martens’ original factory remains based. Trained in product design, he followed an unorthodox route to become one of the most acclaimed designers in British fashion. His stint working as Off-White’s first intern – poached personally by Virgil – attests to his talent for collaboration that has taken even the most classic designs, such as a Converse Chuck 70, into the realms of future-proof performance wear. His compatriot, Darren, hails from Sheffield and followed an equally atypical training path, educated in retail marketing, followed by successful tenures at Adidas and the North Face. Since 2015, he has enriched the made-in-England footwear company’s history, brokering blockbuster collaborations with Raf Simons and Marc Jacobs for the brand’s 60th history all while keeping its foot in a lineage of street-borne antics – from punk to dirt bike culture.
Teased on Instagram, their collaboration, which comprises a boot and shoe design, drops online in a password-protected release. Besides basic details, information on the offering is scant. The campaign’s film closes to the muffled sounds of D-Double-E’s “Street Fighter Riddim”, inviting a more contemporary subculture to join Dr. Martens’ audience. Here, the creatives behind the release discuss it.
What can you tell us about this new offering?
Samuel: We were interested [in] how Dr. Martens’ heritage – and the robustness of the shoe’s midsole – could be integrated into a story about heavy-duty outdoor activity, which links into the context of where we shot: an industrial estate in Manchester. It was this idea of liminal space across Britain – an unknown location, which represents the country itself. It's impossible to move Dr. Martens and A-COLD-WALL* away from a celebration of the working-class environments and materials. We wanted to pair that with the story of engineering and machinery, right down to the shoot location.
Darren, how did this partnership come about?
Darren: We've always admired Sam’s work. And there are direct synergies between Sam’s background and his interest in industrial design and Dr. Martens. We’ve known each other for a moment, as well. We thought Sam would bring a fresh point of view to connect with consumers across the globe and UK.
Samuel: Yeah, there is a proper local-to-global prospect of this dynamic. The local part is deeply emotional. I used to walk past Dr. Martens' factory on my way to school. I remember seeing Art Comes First waiting at the train station as a teenager, thinking, ‘Where are these people going?’. They were probably taking the train from London to Wellingborough and then getting on a local bus to Wollaston to DM’s HQ. DM was a portal into the wider world growing up. Of course, there’s a lot of respect which goes into building on a star of British culture like Dr. Martens.
Neither of you have typical fashion CVs. How do your working backgrounds translate into this project?
Samuel: I’ve been obsessed with garment design since I was young. My first placement was in a streetwear store in Northamptonshire called Styles of London. I was a shop boy when I was 12 or 13 years old, running up and down stock rooms, engaged with brands of that moment – New Era 59Fifty, Artful Dodger. At about 15, I started selling fake streetwear clothes. You know, off-the-back-of-a-lorry Evisu jeans, Nikes and Adidas. We always knew where to pick up counterfeit footwear – in a tower block on the Hemmingwell estate in Wellingborough. There has always been this fascination with style. It wasn’t even fashion – what the fuck is fashion?!
Then I went into graphic design, art, product design, ran a small streetwear brand in Leicestershire. I'd been involved in British street culture at least a decade before working with Virgil, which was more about bridging into the macro picture.
Darren: You can almost copy and paste that for me. I started working at a store called Hip in Leeds for Everton Campbell – a forefather of UK independent retail. It's a similar path: just an obsession with clothing and footwear, and really, the culture and lifestyle. Being around musicians that were coming in and buying from the store, going out to certain gigs. I thought, ‘How can I apply this with theory or practical skills?’ and found a course in Leeds. At Adidas, it was me taking those skills and applying them. That kind of led to where I am now.
Darren, how do you find it working on projects like this while maintaining Dr. Martens’ heritage?
Darren: We always pay homage. This is one thing that we speak to our collaborators about and why we work with Sam. It begins with the key DNA aspects and pushes them forward through constructions. My team’s challenge is making sure that they don't forget the brand’s blueprint. So, if it’s the icons – like the 1460 or 1461 – we won’t mess around with it too much. But when we create really new concepts like this, it's about keeping the aesthetic through key hallmarks but allowing Sam to bring his take.
Samuel: It's a good answer, because – and this is why I mentioned respect – Darren understands the brand fundamentals. You guys treat brand the same way Apple treats their brand. I understand that there are certain Dr. Martens styles that should never be touched. At the same time, I understand the soul of a collaboration is to perfectly inflame newness alongside heritage. We both operate across 12 to 14 collaborations a year; both companies thrive in collaboration.
You guys seem like good friends. Was it through this collaboration that you met or…?
Samuel: Serendipity, really. We were part of this age of streetwear before streetwear really found waves. You know, Darren knows Ace who was a core member of A-COLD-WALL* in the early days. It’s just been a genuine friendship across time.
Darren: It's funny, even before the pandemic – both teams were in Japan – we literally walked into a restaurant. Sam and I sat and talked for like three hours. Completely random. And then we kept seeing each other around at certain parties.
Samuel: The first time we bumped into each other, we were at Nigo's, and then the next time, totally different trio. I was with the Readymade guys in the club, just raving.
Working together, is there anything you've learned from one another?
Darren: We challenge each other. Sam helps us think differently in terms of applications and treatments.
Samuel: On my side, it's been learning how to distill brand. Understanding that a micro shift is actually just as important as macro. Sometimes it's not about trying to retrofit the engine, it's about refining. There’s also this shared culture between A-COLD-WALL* and Dr. Martens. The only way I can put it is that it's very front end, on the nose and British. The partnership knows what it wants. That’s rare. There are often glorious talks when you go into a collaboration, and it's very interesting to see how that then takes shape in email form.
Darren, you mentioned some of the techniques that Samuel was putting forward to your team. Could you maybe talk about those, Samuel.
Samuel: It varies. If you look at the lineage of the shoes we've developed, where we've used eyelets and rivets, we've kind of moved forward how an eyestay works. What is the concept of an eyestay as soon as you remove the eyelets and the lacing system? Darren's team are really willing to put the tooling and the investment down, and I think that is why this collaboration worked. I can talk about the inset; the foam padding that sits between two leather skins; the total redevelopment of tanning. We’ve played with a lot. Ultimately, it comes down to a viewpoint.
Darren: It's about creating a new space, right? We have other partners we work with too, but I think that here, it’s more modest.
Is there a person in mind for this specific collaboration?
Samuel: It's the generation of now. Fashion should reflect the time it exists in. If you look back, it's a documentative process. That comes back down to the visual language being amplified. You know, there’s local tooling, construction, the way different light bounces on different coatings on leather skins. But this is about the visual value of how we dress, what we grew up on and how the youth dress now; what it means to be a working-class British youth. This is a beautiful product, which is objectively a luxury product. But it's not about luxury.
All imagery courtesy Dr Martens