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A Cold Wall grows up into a fashion house

Samuel Ross is taking one of London Fashion Week Men’s buzziest brands to Milan, where he will join the ranks of Prada, Giorgio Armani and Gucci.  

Samuel Ross is at something of a crossroads. It has been half a decade since the designer and all-round creative force started his streetwear label, A Cold Wall, in 2015. The milestone heralds a new trajectory for a much-hyped, much-talked about brand that has already had an extraordinary ascent.

Inspired by art and architecture, A Cold Wall is best known for its imaginative streetwear. Ross’s take on the category – which is currently a prevailing force in fashion – has quickly amassed a dedicated following among consumers and retailers alike.

Browns, Matchesfashion and Selfridges are among its high-profile stockists in the UK. A protégé of Off-White founder Virgil Abloh, Ross has grown A Cold Wall into one of London Fashion Week Men’s (LFWM) hottest tickets and is still yet to celebrate his 30th birthday (in May next year).

Testing tailoring

His autumn 20 collection, due to be unveiled in just a few days’ time on the main schedule of Milan Fashion Week Men’s, marks a change in direction for A Cold Wall. Ross’s ambition is to take the label from cult name to fully fledged fashion house. To reflect the growing maturity of A Cold Wall – and what he describes as an “ode to menswear” – there will be significantly more tailoring and less print than in previous seasons. The departure from LFWM to Milan is a further signal of intent.

My customer has gone from boy to man with me. I can reflect our journey

“We’ve reconstituted so many limbs of the company,” Ross tells Drapers in a cafe in the labyrinthine building in Temple, central London, that houses his studio. He is warm, welcoming and charismatic company. “We have a strong foundation in streetwear, and that’s still part of the essence of A Cold Wall, but the reconstituting of the brand that will be shown in Milan is based on the fact we’re now identifying as menswear – which is a huge shift.”

A Cold Wall spring 20

A Cold Wall spring 20

Ross has already been experimenting with a more structured, polished aesthetic over recent seasons – including a sharply tailored suit in shades of muted blue (left) that appeared alongside spring 20’s utilitarian sportswear. A Cold Wall ready-to-wear retails from around £165 for T-shirts to £1,080 for outerwear. Accessories retail from £45 for socks to £535 for bags.

“We’ve been litmus testing how tailoring reacts in our collection,” Ross adds. “It’s a more discreet, sophisticated take that still has function and architectural shapes at its core. It also reflects the journey of my life.

“I’m not 23 any more. I’m 28, I have fiancée, a child [his daughter, Genesis] and a larger company. My customer has gone from boy to man with me. I can reflect our journey.”

Eyes on the prizes

Ross’s own journey is one from boy entrepreneur in Northamptonshire, dabbling in both art and fashion, to multi-award-winning designer, feted on the international stage.

The industry’s respect for his talent is reflected in a long list of awards – including being shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH Award and winning the Fashion Awards British Emerging Menswear Designer in 2018.

Last year, Ross was awarded the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) GQ Fashion Fund Award and the Hublot Design Prize. He is also an alumnus of Drapers 30 Under 30 2019, which celebrates the achievements of fashion’s young talent.

Accolades have translated into stockists, and sales. A Cold Wall has more than 190 around the world, including Ssense in Canada, The Store in Berlin and Dover Street Market in Tokyo.

Turnover at the brand hit £12m last year. Around a third of sales come from Asia-Pacific, a third from the US and the reminder from the rest of the world. Ross will not reveal any information on the brand’s profits.

I want the focus now to be solely on the garments. Milan is the perfect reset

“We stock A Cold Wall because it’s unique,” says Joe Brunner, menswear assistant buyer at Browns. “With most brands, you’re just buying into the product, but with A Cold Wall, you’re buying into the designer, too.

“Samuel has managed to find the balance between directional yet commercial. We definitely saw this for spring 20, which was arguably his most mature collection to date. The maturity in the designs could bring in a new customer, one which would propel the brand further.”

Jack Cassidy, head of menswear at Selfridges, agrees: “We have always been impressed with how Samuel has built a strong world, and an aesthetic that uniquely encompasses ready-to-wear, accessories and footwear. His approach and passion for other elements of the creative industry such as architecture, has enabled him to diversify, while continuing to build the brand image and awareness.”

Putting on a show

Conceptual, immersive fashion shows – part runway, part performance – have become an A Cold Wall hallmark. In previous seasons, guests have been asked to don protective goggles and been sprinkled by falling “rain”. By moving to Milan, Ross argues, the brand will step into the heart of Italian menswear and signal to the world that it should recalibrate its expectations of an A Cold Wall show.

“You think Italy, you think Prada, you think Giorgio Armani, you think Gucci – you think all these brands that have a real understanding of menswear,” he explains. “The narrative that we’ve told at London Fashion Week Men’s has been super-pivotal and seminal for the growth of A Cold Wall, but we’re almost competing against ourselves in London, in terms of the installations we’ve done.

“It is very clear that we can deliver on installation. I want the focus now to be solely on the garments and for people to pay attention to the detail. Milan is the perfect reset for us to be able to do that.”

My love for the metrics, the business, and structure has grown alongside my love of creativity

The changes afoot at A Cold Wall extend further than clothes and shows. Structural shifts have been made over the past 12 months to create a more resilient, better organised business that is primed for growth. This has included building new departments and boosting the size of A Cold Wall’s team.

“I was pretty much the nucleus of all the brand’s creative endeavours,” says Ross. That isn’t good as you start to scale, because you need to bring in people who can strengthen the brand and the business. I learnt the hard way there.

“We’ve been building out each division of the company. We’ve added a product development division, creative communications, human resources and public relations. It means we can harness the individual skill sets within each division.”

Each division has between three to four people, bringing the total size of A Cold Wall’s team to 15. There are more hires planned, including in merchandising and fabric technology.

Investor wisdom

Ross has also benefited from the expertise of senior figures within fashion accelerator Tomorrow London Holdings, which bought a minority stake in the brand for an undisclosed sum at the start of 2018. 

“To bring in that senior knowledge and experience and pull it into A Cold Wall has really helped give me guidance where I needed it,” he says.

Allow no sense of compromise, but also don’t be afraid to bend and warp your plan

Alongside his creative responsibilities, Ross was appointed by A Cold Wall’s board as chief executive officer last year, replacing an unnamed incumbent. As the brand has grown, so too has his business acumen. His strategy is to drive direct-to-consumer sales, open pop-up stores and launch selected collaborations. 

“I spend a lot of time looking at data, at metrics and at our performance, as well as spearheading the creative vision for the company. My love for the metrics, the business, and structure has grown alongside my love of creativity. I’m learning what it takes to scale a company from grass roots to micro [fashion] house.”

A Cold Wall SS20

A Cold Wall spring 20

Ross has long balanced creativity with an innate entrepreneurial flair. He grew up in a creative household – his mother is a sociologist and psychology lecturer, his father a stained-glass window specialist. As a child, he sold sketches and drawings at his after-school club to make money. Later, as a teenager, he sold counterfeit sportswear around his home in Northamptonshire.

A Cold Wall launched in 2015 – the name is “a literal, yet abstracted interpretation of materiality” – with no external investment, working in the early days on a made-to-order model.

After graduating from a degree in graphic design and illustration at De Montfort University in 2012, Ross began working for Leicestershire-based business Imperial Design. There, he designed everything from tables and chairs to cookers and pots. It was also during this time that he created a series of online portfolios dedicated to his various interests, including illustration, street art and streetwear.

Be agile, stay as a sponge and read. Stay educated

These digital showcases caught the eye of Virgil Abloh, founder of luxury label Off-White and artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, who remains a close friend and mentor. In 2013, he began working under Abloh across various projects, including collaborations with rapper Kanye West, founder of the Yeezy fashion label.

Working with a forward-thinking designer such as Abloh – to whom he speaks on the phone multiple times a week – helped Ross build credibility in the fashion industry. He credits his mentor with teaching him the intense grit, drive and discipline it takes to launch a brand.

In turn, Ross is now supporting the next wave of young design talent. He donated the funding he received from the British Fashion Council’s Newgen initiative in 2018 to emerging designer Eastwood Danso.

“My advice to those starting out in the industry is to ensure you always have a plan of what you want to achieve, because it will save you a lot of time and stress,” he says. “Allow no sense of compromise, but also don’t be afraid to bend and warp your plan. Be agile, stay as a sponge and read. Stay educated.”

The industry will be waiting to see what the next five years hold for Ross and A Cold Wall. By bolstering the brand’s team and focusing on a more rounded offer, the designer wants to make A Cold Wall a mainstay of menswear.

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