This piece appears as part of "Not In Paris," an online exhibition hosted and curated by Highsnobiety. Head here to see the full series.
“A-COLD-WALL* has kind of gone through hyperbole streams of development in the last two and a half years,” says its founder Samuel Ross, who since the brand’s launch in 2015 has become as well known as the brand itself. What started as a British streetwear label with a new approach to commerciality has evolved into a multi-million dollar, service-based luxury company. The fundamentals around functional design, architectural form and a precise eye for detail and fabric that were present from day one are still there, everything else has changed. The evolution towards a more stripped back A-COLD-WALL* — one focused on reduction, technique and signature silhouettes — is noticeable.
“I think there were two points for the change. First, it was about a truth. Although I'm a voice in streetwear, I come from an industrial product design background. There's always the more serious and conservative approach to this industry because there are simply more rules in place,” Ross explains. “So I think what's happened is, I've just been a bit more honest with myself, in terms of my personal value system and making sure that the brand reflects that integrity.”
“Next to that, I came to fashion via streetwear at the age of 21. I'm about to be 30 next year in May. My perspective and value systems have evolved as I've also grown into full adulthood as a father, as an individual with a fiancé, who's now buying property and is looking at MA courses,” he continues. “It's a different chapter in life. And I'm very much about gracefully moving forward. There needs to be space for the new young generation to come into play. And my role now is to continue to mature as a designer and an intellectual within the fields I'm operating within. It's not to cling onto streetwear. I need to pass the baton on.”
“You guys are kind of seeing me transcend into a new space as a designer, not just as a fashion designer. The fine arts world is where I'm gracefully moving into now. But this movement reflects the type of work that I'll be making in fashion.”
So how does it all work?
With Highsnobiety, Ross exclusively shares the inner workings of his brand. From ideation to marketing. The A to Z of A-COLD-WALL*.
“It's not a reintroduction, but it’s the first time people are going to have a deep dive and see material constructional quality,” he says. “Pre-Spring 2021 is a really good place to start that off on because it's about design that can integrate into the modern wardrobe. It's conscious design, it's functional design. It's not seasonal for you to wear. I mean, the biggest change I'd probably say is, we've moved completely away from decoration and embellishment, and it's all about function, shape, and form. It's a completely different psyche.”
The six stages of creating an A-COLD-WALL* collection, strap in.
I typically start by building a 25-page manifesto, which is pretty much like an amalgamation of keywords that capture the zeitgeist from my perspective. Typically it’s related to lands, terrain, and urban architecture as a whole so form, shape, color, and sound.
So, that happens every season. It's pretty much like this mixed media document, you could say, of still images or notes of prose and poetry and color, anything which feels relative to what I believe the market wants and where A-COLD-WALL* should be going. Typically, as the collections have moved forward, they've become looser and more abstract.
For the most part, the manifesto is [inspired by] past collections as I’ve developed enough concepts to tie us over for another four to five years. There are probably 10 to 12 different books with pages and pages of loose files that I've developed over the last half decade. I mean, from a conceptual perspective, they're fine. It's now taking them and looking at how they can be integrated into a working product, which can serve the user and this is where the research comes into play. For the most part, we're looking at dramatic shapes and forms. It's about finding that midpoint of how a reference point actually improves based on what's already in the market. And how we can add our opinion as a brand to such a category.
The manifesto then informs the sketching process which I typically go straight into. It’s pretty much based on lucid forms and new shapes. There are literally pages and pages and pages of sketches, notes and annotations. It’s where the actual blueprints of a collection are built. Historically, when I got into sketching, I tended to overdesign a collection. Now it's just a process of actually reducing and stripping back designs that may not be relevant, or we may not need for the season. So I sketch in, say, week two, and it probably won't change much to what you see on the runway. It’s almost like the raw data of the collection.
After this, it's about perfecting, refining, reducing, and stabilizing the concept. To a certain degree, although I have a great team, I kind of work in isolation. It’s interesting because, typically, I operate a bit differently from our in-house design team. I usually start with form and sketch and then we go into research. It's almost like I lead by concept and simultaneously brief the design team. After, I present a collection to them and we work together to actualize it.
I don't really touch the digital CAD (computer-aided design) format until two to three stages later, as I like to work on the concept by hand and material. At this point, I'm having deep discussions with the team. The concepts and silhouettes are in place. How do we now make sure that this product or this color palette, or the size of whatever actually speaks to a consumer's needs? How can we offer them something which is both comfortable and rational? Because we're not necessarily in the phase of hyper experimental embellished ideas anymore, it's more about meeting a midpoint between exploration and function.
To get a sketch into a CAD we'll probably do around three to four rounds, because it's not just about the design, it's also making sure that the merchandiser is getting what they need from it. Making sure the commercial team is going to be able to get the level of marginality they need from the proposed design, and the production manager is able to actually source the materials and hit the deadlines we need to reach. So although it's a simple CAD, there are still four to five different individuals within the business focussed on it.
My job at this point is to look for faults in the product. I’m ensuring that my team is deep diving into all of the product details. I'm sure for anyone who’s in an arranging room with me, it's not fun because this is where I'm tearing down ideas to get the product where it needs to be. They aren’t comfortable conversations [however] they’re open conversations, and they're from a [group] perspective. By now, I'm embodying what the consumer is going to think and what the likes of the LVMH group are going to think because they’re who we’re pegging as our competitor.
Fabric Swatches and Color Selection
As soon as the technical designs and CADs are complete, and the functionality is agreed upon, we go into fabric selection. This is where we’re sitting down, usually with my team or two others, and we pretty much go through around 400 different swatch books strictly selecting fabrics. We see what equates to the price we want, the color sensitivity, and the MOQ (minimum order quantity) we need to reach.
Typically you split the fabric and materials into two different sides of the brand. One side [connects with] the left brain and the other with the right. You've got your more commercial aspects on the left and then you've got your more artisanal, sensitive fabrics, which will be on the right. So for the left brain of the fabrics, which are more commercial, more accessible, we source between Portugal, South Korea and China, primarily. For the right brain, which is really the design tier and the artisanal side of the brand, we pretty much only source within Portugal and Italy. It's super important at this point to connect the two.
I still work on 95 percent of all of the print graphics myself. The inspiration really depends. With jersey, there tends to be a theme for graphics, which I evolve throughout. But again, I’ve spent so much time as a print developer for Hood By Air and other brands I worked under that I do print very well, therefore it’s something I still develop with my own hand, specifically for the upcoming season.
In our research process we're assessing the market and seeing what works, what potentially hasn't worked, and how the DNA and language of A-COLD-WALL* can then move into a space which maybe wasn't articulated so well by competitors. The biggest point of difference in the brand’s offering here is that there’s this process of taking high concepts and distilling them into functional goods and functional products.
When we look at the bags for example, there are about five revisions in regards to each prototyped sample before the final product is out. I think there needs to be a real understanding of intelligence in products. Something that doesn’t make a product work for me is when the quality of the fabric isn’t on point. And then it's about the functionality and the intelligence of the product. ‘Does the feeling and aura of this product communicate the intelligence of the wearer that we're targeting?’ If it doesn't, it has to go back into development.
And, as I said last season for Fall/Winter 2020, there were two hard resets of the entire collection because what was coming back just didn't resonate with what I wanted to communicate with our consumer. This season we won't need to do as many hard resets because the DNA and the future of the brand are aligned. It’s really about making sure the product that comes back [from production] respects the end consumer.
Reaching the Audience
We now sit in a space of modern luxury, so the expectation of our products and the price point often equates to what LVMH or Kering will be selling at. That means the product needs to be very well thought out and articulated to be understood.
I've been building up personas in-house in the past year. We now speak to three different personas. Those being the artisan, the conscious professional, and the modern luxury consumer. One is more centric to say a Veilance, Stone Island, CP Company or Nike ACG, while the artisan, for example, might be more extroverted in their opinion and choice of color and silhouette. All three, however, are completely relevant and it’s super important we’re able to serve all. So here's this underpinning, and almost wired framework, for every product being allocated to a persona. And it needs to meet the immediate requirements of that persona. The silhouette, color, construction, hand touch, messaging, all need to ensure that there’s the underpinning values of A-COLD-WALL* in every product. Those being brutalism, architecture, industrial design and color sensitivity.
If you look at the M-65 jacket for example, that was targeted to the conscious professional. But now the M-65 is synonymous with the brand so how does the M-65 silhouette we propose exist in the conscious professional, but also apply to the artisan, and to the modern luxury consumer? And that's where the fun begins because you start looking at silhouette and function and embellishment and texture to kind of spread the existence of a signature product to different consumers and to different demographics.
I think the main point is how strategic and how stringent this is. I'm here to produce a really serious body of work here. It's not all fun and games. It's about making really good products that can compete.
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