Simone Rocha’s future: ‘The sky is the limit’
The Irish fashion superstar’s fame has eclipsed that of her father, John Rocha
Simone Rocha at her studio in London. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
It’s tricky trying to find De Beauvoir Town in east London, a Hackney mix of low rent shops, council blocks and early Victorian villas separated from Hoxton by the Regent’s Canal and showing signs of gentrification. This is the location of Irish fashion designer Simone Rocha’s headquarters; her home, which she shares with her partner, the Irish photographer Eoin McLoughlin, and their small baby daughter Valentine, is a short bicycle ride away.
It is equally tricky these days getting to speak to her, commensurate with her international fame, celebrity status and tightly controlled media access, so it has taken prolonged efforts finally to come face to face with her in the studio on a wet July morning where she is busy preparing her spring/summer 2018 collection for London Fashion Week.
Rocha’s influence in fashion has been far-reaching. She has modernised Elizabethan and Victorian silhouettes; her use of traditionally decorative feminine accoutrements of pearls, lace, patchwork and handwork along with pink neoprene has been endlessly copied, while her Perspex-heeled footwear is a signature. The references in her work to home, family and in particular to her Irish and Chinese roots and her grandmothers have inspired a younger generation of designers. Her use of models in her autumn/winter 2017 catwalk show to reflect customers of different ages broke boundaries.
She is warm and welcoming when we meet, though her steely PR Praetorian guard is wary and watchful throughout the interview. The studio is a bright, airy building (revamped by her and her father John Rocha) backing onto the canal, with interconnecting rooms – no doors – that house her design, production and sales team. It is populated by beautiful young creatures wafting around dressed in Simone Rocha and intent on their various tasks, whether shoe, embroidery, fabric or jewellery design, or engaged in the pattern-cutting room downstairs.
“We didn’t want people working in offices because we are a very connected team who speak the same language. All my core team came as interns and have been with me for five or six years,” she explains, adding that they hail from colleges like Central Saint Martins and NCAD (where she trained), Chelsea College of Arts and Griffith College Dublin.
Rocha, 30, her own best advertisement for her clothes, is dressed today in a bell-sleeved white shirt, black textured skirt, fur-lined leather slides and sparkling green crystal chandelier earrings. She looks radiant. “The drippy earrings are the first to sell because they fit anybody,” she smiles, showing a box of jewellery samples and explaining that the spacious room in which we meet is where fittings and the final castings for shows are done. “I work on a model most days rather than draw, to see what [the clothes] feel like on the body – it is important that they fit different bodies.”
Voted British Designer of the Year last year and the only young London-based designer to open stores on both sides of the Atlantic, she has been celebrated for her strong, modern feminine aesthetic and defiant independence. “I am an emotional designer and very inspired by art. Clothes are so physical so it is about how I can translate [ideas] into the clothes – I feel very connected to what I do and am very tactile and textile-driven. Clothes have such a long lifespan and I want them to be in a wardrobe for a long time, so from the very root to the fabric, it is a lot of heart and soul,” she explains, showing her book of imagery (self-published) taken for her AW17 show highlighting women of different generations. “The world is so upside down at the moment and it was how an idea of armour and protection could be translated into clothes – how I could mask the body in my own version of camouflage, both soft and structured – with padded vests and embroidered cotton and tulle.”
These large-format photographic publications in limited editions of 1,000 are given away freely from her shops. “Opening a store has changed the business, my understanding of my customers and my perception of the industry internationally. It makes you realise that the whole world is small and interconnected. You become aware of people in different walks of life and how we can introduce them to what I do in different ways.”
Books on photography, art and literature dominate the shelves in her office, a testimony not only to her wide range of references but also to her own cultured background growing up in Dublin in her parents’ milieu of artists, writers, photographers and musicians. She has always acknowledged the influence of artist Louise Bourgeois, once described as the mother of American feminist identity art.
There’s a shelf with her many awards, a piece of the cornicing she designed for her shops and a mock-up of her first window in the Dover Street Market in Mayfair which had to be sent to Japan to be vetted for owner Rei Kawakubo’s approval. “I like to keep these physical things,” she comments. Two huge portraits of Perry Ogden’s famous Pony Kids lean against a wall and a head study of an African woman by photographer Jackie Nickerson – who shot Rocha’s spring/summer collection of land girls (in broderie anglaise dresses and lace printed wellingtons) in Zambia – dominates another workspace.
“I love books both for pleasure and for work. I love Irish writers, maybe because I live here – I think Donal Ryan is amazing and I read Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper when I was pregnant. As for movies, when you have a baby it is very difficult to watch movies, so they went out the window two years ago. But being a mother has made me want to do better work and take my work more seriously,” she says, describing herself as very straightforward and extremely decisive when it comes to work.
‘Sensitivity to texture’
Known for her pragmatism as much as her creativity, she credits her own background and education for the continuing success of her business. “From my father I have learnt an amazing sensitivity to texture, colour and his vision, but he has always made sure that I made the right turning in business. From my mother I have inherited a sensibility and an unbelievable wealth of culture, art and design. We love each other very much.”
Fashion was part of her life growing up in Dublin. “I loved being in dad’s first studio in Temple Bar after school, loved the working environment. I love machines and I like making and doing. It has been very natural to learn so much and be independent – and to be Louise Wilson’s pupil [at Central Saint Martins] was the best thing I ever did and an amazing education. She put me through the wringer, but came to every one of my shows before she died.”
Her first big break came after her debut show in London when Adrian Joffe and Rei Kawakubo of Dover Street Market decided to stock her collection in London, as did cult boutique Colette in Paris. “To get that support and recognition from them was a huge turning point,” she recalls. Her business has been profitable every year since then, and though she is widely stocked in Asia, North America is now her second-largest market after Europe, with her collections including new categories like jewellery and accessories as well as wider price points.
A keen gardener and cook who haunts the Columbia Road Flower Market at weekends, she compares growing a business in the same way. “It is like a garden – you have to tend to it, look after it and you need to look after everything there. [For the future] I would like to hope that the sky is the limit, but we started small and are growing organically.” A third shop in Hong Kong, her father’s native city, may be the next step in global expansion.
In the meantime, her Dublin “home” is Havana, Ireland’s leading independent boutique, her first and sole stockist in this country. “Nikki [Creedon, the owner] has been so pivotal with the labels she has stocked over the years like Comme des Garçons, Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten, and she bought from my graduation collection – that was an amazing platform at home. She has a real understanding of women in a modern way – that balance of femininity and realism. We are doing a special installation there for the autumn/winter collection.”
One of Rocha’s closest friends, who has known the designer for nearly 15 years, is the Irish stylist Aisling Farinella. She describes Rocha as “one of the warmest friends I have ever had, so funny and down-to-earth and the hardest worker I know, who has taken it [her success] all in her stride, enjoying it and sharing it. You can see her in everything she designs, references from home and growing up. She enjoys the simple things in life and is a big inspiration to us all.”