The house of Rocha
In the heart of Dublin, a gentle, inspirational, passionate man is the centre of a mysterious and extraordinary creative hub that is in turn the centre of a €200m-a-year Irish business. As John Rocha and his loyal, dedicated team prepare to take the fashion world by storm once more, he gives Emily Hourican a rare look inside their world. Photography by Sarah Doyle
Published 11/10/2009 | 05:00
It's a quiet, sunny Saturday morning in September. The city is still half asleep, and what few are awake are oblivious to the whirl of activity going on behind the facade of a Georgian townhouse on a serene city-centre side street. These are the handsome but low-key headquarters of one of the country's most successful design houses, where John Rocha and his team of craftspeople and designers are busily putting the finishing touches to the latest collection, spring/summer 2010. On the walls are paintings by Clea van der Grijn, with whom John collaborated on the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. There is a pretty back garden, just big enough for al fresco lunches or a lazy, late-afternoon coffee.
From modest beginnings, with some well-documented difficulties along the way, John Rocha is now a worldwide business with an annual turnover of some €200m. In the notoriously fickle and difficult world of fashion, that is a considerable achievement. There is now, alongside the core clothing collections -- and all under the one roof -- the wildly successful Rocha.JohnRocha label for Debenhams and John Rocha for Waterford Crystal; as well as home and living lines, and the jewellery, which celebrates its 10th birthday this month with the new Alill collection. The empire also extends to an interior design and architecture business, with projects such as the Morrison Hotel and Beacon Court. What these projects have in common is a simplicity of form married to a richness of material. The same philosophy, the same eye, is evident in each manifestation -- a gentle movement of traditional craft into a modern form.
By the following Monday, the house of Rocha will be empty. The entire collection and staff will have been transported to London, for Fashion Week. It's a mass exodus that takes place twice a year, when the team of 30 must relocate for the 12-minute show that will determine their future for the following six months. But in the meantime, in every room of this gracious, high-ceilinged four-storey house there is bustle and activity, with all the last-minute business of finishing, fitting and final embellishments to get through, which has temporarily superseded the wider work of creating and imagining. It is a hive of industry, from the pattern-cutters in the basement; to the top floor, where Sinead Garcia, head of jewellery and accessories, is sewing delicate chiffon petals onto hats for Monday's show.
The fact that it is all run from Dublin, a city from which so many designers are forced to emigrate or to carp bitterly from the sidelines, makes it quite extraordinary. So let's explore the set-up of the house of Rocha on this sunny Saturday morning, and in so doing, get a snapshot of an indigenous design business at its peak.
This is a building that hums with different kinds of energy depending on where in its rotation the business is, ranging from the highly creative early days of designing and conceptualising, through to the nuts and bolts of ordering, overseeing manufacture and delivering. There is an annual cycle, and within that there are tighter, seasonal cycles. What there is not, is downtime. "You used to get time off between the two fashion seasons, now we're continually busy. Sometimes there's a quiet week in April," says Monica Gumbrielle, managing director and head of all operations, with a laugh. Monica has been with John for 15 years now. She joined as his assistant, and is now "John's voice" on a number of things.
"John is a gentle soul, not at all egotistical," is Monica's verdict. "He's inspirational, passionate about what he does, through thick and thin. This inspires people to stay with him." Enquire as to her role, and Monica laughs at the question. She is heavily involved with both Waterford Crystal and Debenhams and also directs the company's marketing strategy. And yet, when asked, her response is, "I turn my hand to almost anything!" Then she tells me about the architects who helped cut out patterns for the womenswear collection, crawling around on the floor with scissors; or the time the whole team, many of whom have been with John for a decade or more, sat around by ultraviolet light, gluing tiny crystals onto a fibreglass cow for the mosaic Waga-Moo-Moo, Rocha's contribution to the Cow Parade. "Almost everyone will do anything, it's about creating beautiful things," Monica says. "But, it's about fun also. We work so intensely that we need to laugh too." Those who have worked for Rocha down through the years will testify to the long, long hours and the pressure, but also the camaraderie and the communal focus of the team.
Today it is Aileen Carville's job, as head of PR and sales, to guide me through the many strands of the Rocha operation. We begin, literally, at the bottom, where Ros Duke and Hannah Mullan cut patterns, and Winifred McKenna and Jowita Lazarewicz, the machinists, run up samples of each garment in the collection, which will be sent to Italy, where manufacture is based. The rooms are filled with boxes of yarns -- wools, mohairs, mixes -- tubes of buttons of every shape, size and material; sequins and other gorgeous embellishments. On the first-floor return is the textile room, where Katie Hanlon, head of knitwear, is carefully treating exquisite crochet with industrial glue in order to create the distinctive, moulded-volume shapes that will anchor the show. Once it dries and stiffens, the crochet will retain whatever form it has been given, some bell-shaped, some spherical, some hourglass. The use of something so traditional, and its treatment in an entirely modern manner, is a Rocha hallmark.
Up again, to the light-filled first floor, where the original proportions and features of the house are most in evidence, and John himself, the heart of the operation and the calm centre of a creative whirlwind, is fitting designs onto Blathnaid McKenna, the house model.
As I watch, Blaithnaid is carefully pinned into a delicate 'leaf' dress. Made from layers of silk, tulle and chiffon, in all the changing colours of the season, it transforms her into a kind of 18th-century wood nymph. John is barefoot, intent, completely focused, surrounded by rails containing the entire collection. Some colours stand out from among the blacks, whites and creams -- a beautiful burnt orange, a pale, grass green, a wild-rose pink -- like touches of an artist's brush. Indeed, the colours of the spring/summer 2010 collection, Rocha later tells me, have been inspired by the work of the abstract painter Sean Scully.
But first, while John continues the business of fitting, I talk to Odette, John's wife, business partner and muse. They met 27 years ago when Odette went to work for him. With her extraordinarily delicate looks, the refinement of all that's best about a typically Irish kind of beauty, Odette is the clear embodiment of John's vision, and is hugely responsible for shaping and influencing that vision. Today, she is wearing a black, bell-shaped skirt with adorable orange leather ankle boots, a soft, black, hand-knit shawl over her shoulders and her black hair piled up high. Her skin is almost translucently white. The whole effect is a kind of gorgeous, high-fashion version of one of the women of Claddagh.
Odette is also making final preparations for the trip to London, and describes to me the set-up over there. "We bought an old pub," she says, "and now have the retail space on the ground floor, with a showroom above it and a flat on top where we stay." Once the catwalk show -- those intense 12 minutes before the eyes of the fashion world -- is finished, an equally intense week of selling starts the very next day, with buyers flying in from all over to view the collection up close, and place their orders. "It's quite a process, long days filled with back-to-back appointments," says Odette with a smile, looking not one whit daunted by the idea.
And after that, the collection travels to Paris for yet more selling, to buyers from Japan, Russia, Korea and elsewhere, many of whom don't make the trip to London. It's a long journey from the door of this Georgian house in the heart of Dublin to markets that are ever more exotic.
Once the selling is done, Barbara Hughes, the production manager, takes over, and starts furiously working on getting deliveries completed by December. By this time, John himself is no longer involved. Instead, he has already started on choosing fabric for the next season, moving ahead to the first chapter of the next story -- creation. "Sometimes we are all working together, and at other times, separately," says Odette. It is the internal logic of a business that seems to run by heartbeat, telepathy almost.
It is fitting that at this, the centre point of my journey through the building, I meet John himself, who, with the stillness of certainty, is the force that keeps the fire of creation going. From him I get an insight into the intangible, ethereal first act, from which all else springs. Without that initial burst of the imagination, the nuts and bolts are redundant. At the heart of that inspiration is a love of traditional Irish fabrics and crafts, the value of which went largely ignored until Rocha, a designer born in Hong Kong, began to champion them. What, I ask, has it been about Ireland that has so caught his imagination? "First and foremost," he says, "it's the people, and secondly, the traditions. I made my final collection in college in London using Irish handwoven wool. That is how I discovered Ireland first; I just fell in love with it really."
And so he has stayed here, despite the undoubted incentives to leave. "It is hard to have a fashion business in any country, but even more difficult in Ireland," says John with a twinkle. "It has been a lot of ups and downs, as we all know, but I had a vision when I first came here, to base myself here and to create what I create from this country, and sell it to the rest of the world. I didn't realise it would take me 30 years!" he laughs. The "ups and downs" he refers to were assuredly more dramatic and challenging than he makes them sound. Just like John Galliano and so many visionary designers, his road to success has been stalled by financial disaster more than once -- but it is a measure of Rocha's scope that these are just bumps on the path, never lasting impediments.
"Fashion people, the creme de la creme, don't come to Ireland," he says now. "So we have to bring everything we do to them. Logistically, it's a nightmare."
And what are the benefits, other than the obvious commercial good sense, of broadening the base of activities? "They all have different satisfactions for me," Rocha says. "Fashion is instant -- after six months it disappears and you have to start again. That's the nature of it. When you work in crystal, architecture, interiors, they live a lifetime, and beyond me. There's a particular satisfaction to that.
"I'm very lucky in the sense that having a great part-time job allows me to do my daytime job, and that's how I see it," he says of the commercial realities. "I'm lucky. It wasn't even a plan, it's just the way things worked out. And maybe destiny."
And so he walked to work this morning, along St Stephen's Green, at 6.30am, thinking, "How did I end up here? There must be something, somewhere, to make this happen." But taking the rough with the smooth, he has learned along the way "from every mistake I ever made. That is very important."
Something else he has learned is the value of treating his team well. "I treat them the way I treat my family, that's the way it is. And it works for me," he says. This is, as he rightly points out, unusual in the fashion business, where people are often horribly expendable, worth less than the fabrics they work with. Rocha's way, he says, is "the Irish way. I'm very proud of that."
With this team, which displays a unity forged in the fires of intense pressure, John considers himself as "the conductor. We all make music together. The day I can't do that, can't conduct them, I will be happy to walk away from it." But so far, he is still intimately involved in everything that happens. He designs the full collection himself and has huge input into every single item the house of Rocha produces. "One of the reasons we have lasted so long and can diversify into other products," he says, "is because it all comes back to me. There is a common thread running through, so it doesn't look schizophrenic."
On the subject of Monday's exodus, followed by Saturday's catwalk show in Somerset House in London, he has a patience and amusement born of long practice; the understanding that, in the end, it's only fashion, while passionately believing that fashion, still, is everything.
"The nerve-racking thing is, by this time next week, the show is over; one 12-minute show, with everything you did for the last six months," Rocha says. "There are 600 people there, and most of them have come from New York, so they have seen already 150 shows, the best in the world. And they come to London. We have to compete in those 12 minutes.
"After London," he continues, "they go to Milan, and then Paris. So by the time the circuit finishes, there have been about 500 shows. You want to make a big impression, so that after the season they remember you." It's pressure of a particularly intense kind -- six months of business resting on those few short minutes, but you'd never know it from John's demeanour.
And John is lucky, because at the heart of this loyal team who stand around him, is Odette, his muse and soulmate, whose sensibility matches seamlessly with his. "I work with Odette all my life now," he says. "She is very much my inspiration, my design partner almost. As a heterosexual designer, it is really, really important to have a woman's point of view. Being a designer is a lonely career, because there is no objective definition. You can't listen to everybody, but you have to make the decisions. At least I have one voice I can always trust, and that is Odette."
There is now another house model waiting, a young man, for the menswear collection, not to mention half a dozen other people hovering, wanting John's opinion, and so I leave him to the immense task that are these final few days before showtime.
Up one more flight of stairs are Gareth Moloney, head of menswear, who has been with John for more than 10 years, and Sinead Garcia, head of jewellery and accessories. Here, too, the order of the day is completion of the collection destined for London. On the wall is a framed dress from the very first John Rocha show in Paris, painted by Clea van der Grijn; it is a reminder of how far they have come, and of how precise and wonderful are their roots.
Back down to the ground floor, and I can feel the energy of the building changing yet again, moving up a gear as the clock ticks down the hours. It's time to go, to let the momentum now gathering in the house of Rocha take form, to let the London show begin, and the waiting world decide on six months of hard work. Underneath the bustle of final things, I feel I can already detect the faint stirrings of the next phase, a gentle breeze of inspiration start to blow.
PS -- The waiting world does decide, responding with enthusiasm and respect to the colours, shapes and patterns, to the Irish and Eastern influences so subtly evident. Spring/summer 2010 is a success. Was there ever any doubt?
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