On a warm day in the heart of Le Marais, we caught up with Samuel Ross – the multidisciplinary creative who has straddled the worlds of art, fashion and architecture to name just a few. In Paris overseeing his brand A-COLD-WALL* ’s various parties, activations and launches, one in particular caught our attention – the launch of his new collaborative shoe with Converse, the ACW* Sponge Crater.
The latest in his ongoing relationship with Converse the brand, Ross’ new collaboration focuses on reimagining the silhouette by encompassing his overall design ethos of futurism and comfort, whilst promoting the concept that less is more. The unique design features Ross’ nurtured and atypical contemporary aesthetic, whilst also placing a distinct emphasis on comfort: the style’s foam underfoot and flat knit upper ensures full breathability and maximum cosiness.
Moving out of the sun and, fittingly, settling against a cold wall inside, we caught up with Samuel to talk through his ongoing relationship with Converse, which the two describe as a ‘partnership in innovation’ – as well as getting to know his motivations, personal anecdotes and how they inform his overall design.
Firstly, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Of course, I love CULTED so when it came up I was like 100%.
So I wanted to start with Brutalism – I know it’s a big source of inspiration for you, and I wondered what is it was about the movement that you’re drawn too specifically? Is it the aesthetics, the structure, the references?
I think it’s the fact that it’s always surrounded been a point of reference to my childhood and formative years. If you think about how widely spread materials like rough case or pebbledash are across working class Britain, but actually just across Westernised society, it’s like a social equaliser: how these materials that are generally associated with Brutalism are placed across different geographies, generations and classes.
If I were to make a brand that had the voice of reflecting society, it felt right to start with such an artistic movement, you know.
Speaking about Brutalism, there’s obviously a lot of dialogue between the movement and city environments. With being born in Brixton but growing up in the countryside, does your work consider both of these areas equally or is it more drawn to one over the other?
I think that’s where the interest in class first arose. I knew what it was to be British-Caribbean, and had a deep understanding of what mid-90s Brixton was as a child. All of my childhood memories are deeply connected to that place in terms of visuals, optics, sense, smell and class. It’s part of my culture, as one of the beating hearts of Caribbean culture in London.
But that experience is so dislocated from the experience of growing up as a person of colour in the wider Midlands of England. Being born in Brixton but going to school in a tiny town in Northamptonshire where there’s only 4 other Caribbean people in your year, you kind of have this double helix view of society. Two experiences, which is something that has always been with me. How do you communicate between both of those? One is not necessarily above the other – it’s all society, you know.
Would you say your work sits within the intersection of that?
Yeah. I understand all classes of society – the one I was born into, which is the working class, but I can also comfortably navigate the spaces of fine art and academia. I think I’m just really interested in the paradigms of self expression.
Moving on to Converse – I can see you’re wearing your new Sponge Craters. How important is the balancing of form and function for you when designing a shoe like this?
I think I’m getting more radical in my footwear design. The collaboration model enables me to dream vividly on shape, form and concept – which you can’t necessarily do in your own company due to considerations like commerciality etc.
Converse are very good at enabling artists of all kind, and offering a sense of freedom. The sense of freedom almost comes before the form and function on this shoe. I’ve developed so many sneakers now, and a shoe is a shoe, so it’s like how do you keep pushing and raising the bar? You almost think less and feel more.
So it becomes more intuitive, I hear that. As you’ve touched on, you’re a multidisciplinary creative having worked within art and architecture to name a few. How did this translate into fashion design?
I loved clothes before I knew what ‘fashion’ was, maybe because I could never afford them to be totally honest. I always wanted to be able to engage with ‘a Converse’ or ‘a Nike’, but I could never do it because we didn’t have a lot of money. It was an aspirational need, want or pull.
Beyond that, I understood the power of clothing. When I was coming up, everyone just wanted the same uniform – a grey tracksuit, or a parka coat, or a pair of Air Maxes. We all wanted to dress the same. But when I first started engaging with it, if you want the actual story, was when I started stealing clothes from high street stores at 15, ‘cos I couldn’t afford them. Before that I was a shop boy, and at 16 I started selling counterfeit clothes, then at 17 started my first T-shirt brand. So yeah, I’ve always had a relationship with clothing – it’s always been this thing for me.
It’s really interesting that you describe it as a ‘pull’, before you even knew what ‘fashion’ as a concept was. From that, how do you feel about now pulling up to Paris, the hallowed halls of traditional, coveted fashion?
I had a really interesting conversation about this yesterday – discussing why V and I had no fear of moving into runway fashion. Because if you look at our group of peers, there’s not a lot of us doing runway. But I think it’s because we studied traditionally in other disciplines. It gave us the confidence to know we were equipped enough to be able to take in the conversation.
But also, the fact that I’ve studied disciplines of design and arts, and that I was homeschooled for a bit means I was kind of engineered to be an artist, do you know what I mean? Fashion as a concept was alien, but creativity as a concept was not.
If you were to give advice to our young readers who perhaps want to get into fashion design, would you recommend streamlining early, or getting a broader creative education?
They should always get the education – they’ll be a better designer with the education. It’s different now, there weren’t a lot of British Caribbean or British African designers 10 years ago. You had Martine (Rose), and Ozwald (Boateng), but Grace (Wales Bonner) didn’t have her label yet. Now, there’s more representation – but we felt like there had to be a rupture in the process to get it.
If you study you’ll have more skills – institutions now understand that they need to support people of colour more – which just wasn’t a thing back then. Things have improved, it’s not all the way there though.
Does this progression land you with a sense of responsibility?
Yeah, I feel it. But it’s good – I’m not a punk, or a rapper, but I’m radical in luxury and in fine art. It’s a different type of cadence and it’s important that there’s different archetypes and ways of getting from A to B. My way’s not the only way, but it is a way.
It should be said, too that this is just one project of your ongoing relationship with Converse – what’s in the works?
Good question. There’s a lot in the works soon, but I can’t tell you. It’s not going to stop getting radical. But we’re also making sure wearability comes into play, for sure.
Ok! We’ll be watching. Going back to earlier, you mentioned Converse as being one of the brands that you saw as aspirational and wanted to engage with as a kid. Did this personal connection inform your relationship, as well as their enabling of creativity?
Yeah. I remember my first pair of Converse – they were navy blue and white and I got them in the Caribbean. There’s always an emotional tie with the brands I choose to work with – there has to be some sort of memory to inform the amount of commitment required for the project to be successful. Converse has that for me.
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See also: WERE YOU EVEN IN PARIS THO?