Simone Rocha: ‘With every show I’m telling a story’

Simone Rocha’s feminine but edgy clothes have won awards and found many fans. She talks to Alice Fisher about being inspired by nature and why she puts women at the centre of everything she does

De Beauvoir Town in Hackney is known for many things, but bucolic views is not one of them. Yet look out of Simone Rocha’s office window and all you see is leaves and water. Somehow she’s found a rare spot along this busy stretch of the Regent’s Canal where a climbing vine has smothered all four storeys of the building opposite. So in addition to her vast dark desk, the photos of work by Nobuyoshi Araki, Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois and the wall of art books, Rocha’s office is full of dappled light off the canal and framed with a burst of vivid green. “It’s a blessing,” she says , gazing up at the wall of leaves. “It does make this place feel more natural.”

It also makes it feel like the perfect location for Rocha’s studio. A place where unsettling things are made. From her graduate collection in 2010 onwards, Rocha’s designs have riffed on traditional ideas of femininity, but always with edge or unease. Girly motifs – pearls, flowers, tulle – are worked jarringly with Perspex or embroidered plastic. Macramé bondage straps decorate pretty organza dresses. Ravaged hairstyles sit atop restrictive, embroidered Victorian dresses. For spring/summer 2018, her voluminous dresses were decorated with paper dolls and blood-red drop crystals.

Nature has played a role in her collections, too, but never as somewhere nice to have a picnic. Nature is the workplace of the African agricultural workers shot by photographer Jackie Nickerson which influenced Rocha’s spring/summer 2017 collection, resulting in Lucite-heeled wellingtons and rubber lace gloves. Its hedges are where Rocha kissed and smoked as a “wild, bold” teenager in rural Dublin, a reference offered for her spring/summer 2013 collection of neon daisies and gold tweed. Unbelievable leaves wrapped round a modern building, like those outside her office window, seem like something she could have dreamed up for herself.

Get in line: models wait to go on the catwalk at Simone Rocha’s autumn/winter 2017 show.
Get in line: models wait to go on the catwalk at Simone Rocha’s autumn/winter 2017 show. Photograph: pr

“My whole ethos is the idea of femininity and how that’s integrated into women’s lives, how it makes them feel,” she explains, looking rather small and younger than her 31 years behind her huge desk – though she speaks with remarkable confidence. “With every show you’re telling a story and you want to tell one that women connect with. Even if it’s a story about how men find women hot, women are still at the centre of that.”

Her work has certainly struck a chord. Fashion industry recognition was instant. She showed her Central Saint Martins graduation collection at Fashion East in 2010, a prestigious showcase for young designers. Lulu Kennedy, director of Fashion East, says that she fell in love with Rocha’s MA collection. “Simone’s taste levels, references and materials were refined and she absolutely knew her own mind – you could see right away she had what it takes to go all the way.” A year after, she was accepted for Topshop’s New Gen sponsorship scheme. She was a finalist for the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize in 2013 and has now won three British Fashion Awards, moving from the Emerging Talent award in 2014 to British Womenswear Designer in 2016. Everyone from Rihanna to Gillian Anderson has worn her clothes.

The trick, she explains in her friendly but firm way, is to find the intimate and expose it. “As a woman designing for women it’s natural to make my designs personal. So when I had a baby it really influenced the collection, because I felt terrible. I couldn’t help but be influenced. I make better work if I let my guard down and put myself into it. ”

On the catwalk: models wearing some of Simone Rocha’s previous collections
On the catwalk: models wearing some of Simone Rocha’s previous collections Composite: pr

Baby Valentine Ming McLoughlin – whose father is cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – is now nearly two. “Motherhood is like an out-of-body experience,” says Rocha. “The hardest thing is the lack of sleep. Though being pregnant was terrible, too,” she adds, laughing at the awfulness of the memory. “If anyone asks me how a collection’s going, I say: ‘Well, at least I’m not pregnant.’”

There are less visceral inspirations for her clothes, too. And her emphasis on traditional craft techniques and textiles – particularly unusual space-age fabric hybrids, such as laminated leather and plasticised crochet – mean her designs are much more than the emotions embodied in clothes.

Autumn/winter 2017 offers an interpretation of camo and protective wear because it was created in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and Trump’s election victory. “There is velvet and padding in there because it can’t all be hard, even if the world’s gone tits up.” The spring/summer 2014 collection, which included pearl-topped stockings and voluminous skirts slashed with pearl-edged slits, was the result of a swim in the Irish sea. “All the rocks were licked by the water. I thought how amazing it would be to do something shiny, so we coated lace to make it wet-look. Then I wanted something else that came from the sea so that was the pearls… It all came from being in a place.”

If Rocha sounds more like an artist talking about her work than a fashion designer talking about seasonal trends, well, that’s what she intended to be. She still prefers to work in 3D on models or stands rather than sketching like a typical designer. Her father is John Rocha, the celebrated Hong Kong-born designer, and he and Rocha’s mother, Odette, worked on his celebrated international fashion label together. In fact, John Rocha also won a designer of the year award at the British Fashion Awards, back in 1993.

Simone Rocha sitting on a fallen tree
Simone Rocha: ‘There is velvet and padding in my new collection because it can’t all be hard, even if the world’s gone tits up’ Photograph: Linda Brownlee/The Observer

Simone Rocha grew up with her parents and her brother Max in a village on the outskirts of Dublin which was “absolutely amazing. Dublin’s full of music and literature and my dad loved parties, so Perry Ogden and people like that, were always round our house. I mean, it’s more multicultural now, there weren’t many long-haired, Chinese male fashion designers rolling round the city back then, but it was still a lot, a lot, of fun.” Many of her collections have been inspired by family – as both her parents come from families of seven, she points out that that, of course, has been an influence: “Family is unavoidable for me.”

She is severely dyslexic and not very academic. “My poor parents, they’d have to be so proud whenever I passed anything.” She ended up at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. “I specialised in fine art, sculpture, print. I wouldn’t have studied fashion because it would have felt like such a cliché, but one of the disciplines on offer was fashion, so I took it and – damn it, there it was: how I could best articulate my ideas through something physical.”

She moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins. She was taught by Louise Wilson, the ferocious professor of fashion who seems to have single-handedly shaped the current generation of British designers. “She was, like, ‘I know who your dad is and I couldn’t give a fuck.’ She’d look at my work and shout: ‘Just because your dad is… blah blah blah.’ It changed how I felt about the family thing. Now I don’t care what people think.”

She really shouldn’t care. Her work isn’t just award-winning, it’s a commercial success, too. These are not things you achieve through family connections. Rocha has shops in London and New York, and the label is now growing (20% year on year), in profit ($3m accumulated profit since launch, she reckons) and she owns the whole operation.

Simone Rocha show, backstage, Spring/Summer 2018
Backstage at the Simone Rocha show, Spring/Summer 2018 Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

“I’m shocked by how much I enjoy the business side,” she confesses. “It’s been a learning curve, I’d be the first to admit, but I run this company. My mother ran my father’s business and she was so strong but elegant in that role. She was just incredibly inspiring.”

In a fashion landscape currently dominated by conglomerates whose multiple brands churn out between four and six collections annually – not to mention the cosmetics and lifestyle spin-offs – Simone Rocha is an oddity. An independent label run by a 31-year-old which only produces two collections a year does not sound like an international concern, but here she is. Rocha says she has no intention of changing, either.

“I am very happy. Rei Kawakubo at Comme Des Garçons, Miuccia Prada… They’re women helming their own companies. These are the people I admire. And I’m an emotional designer, I put a lot into a collection, so I don’t want to make more than two a year.”

Rocha doesn’t call herself a feminist because she finds the term divisive. She dislikes the way everything has to be labelled. She is happier thinking about her various roles as a mother, a nurturer and a control freak.

“I am very straight to the point and I know exactly what I like and don’t like. I think with clothes and with business it’s easier to be this way,” she says and then smiles gleefully. “I’ve gotten worse. By the time I’m in my 60s I’m going to be terrible.”


Alice Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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