Not just a material girl
She may have a famous father but Simone Rocha is forging a glittering career all of her own. The tomboy at heart chats frankly to Kate Finnegan about getting emotional after shows and being cut-throat with herself
After Simone Rocha's most recent catwalk show at London Fashion Week I thought twice about going backstage to see the designer. A few weeks earlier at her studio in east London she'd told me that after every show she bawls her eyes out. Why, I asked. "Oh, something's gone wrong. Something that nobody else will have seen and I just want to die," she said. "I'm not a weepy person normally, but, yeah, I cry."
And that will be the very moment the international press dive back to grill her about the collection. "Yeah, who came up with that idea?" she says, laughing. "It's like you've given birth. You've just given birth to 37 outfits, on 37 really skinny ladies and you're, like ... " She mimed a dramatic, heaving sob. "But everyone's there waiting, asking, 'So?' And I want to say, 'If you didn't get it, that's cool. Go away and digest it. That's fine with me!'"
Anna Wintour possibly didn't know this. Nor the veteran fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, when she and the American Vogue editor went in to congratulate the Irish 27-year-old on another knockout show. I did, but I went anyway and there was no mistaking the emotion in Rocha's eyes, flushed cheeks and barely audible voice. Out of consideration, everyone else was whispering too. It was an unusually fragile atmosphere and I left the poor girl to it, none the wiser about the reason for this season's outpouring but more than sure she had no need to worry. This star is only rising.
Back in January, in the studio, Rocha was her usual ebullient self: funny and self-deprecating with a croaky Dublin accent that made every sentence a charmer. Her adjectives were as emphatic as she could make them and she was enthusiastic about a gamut of stuff, from the choreographer Pina Bausch to Spike Jonze to the sea bass-for-eight that she was cooking that night. ("I told my boyfriend just to get the biggest one he can find!")
On my arrival the place was being purged of any clue to the forthcoming autumn/winter collection that she would show in February. A board of photographs was scurried away, and the place was left immaculate, a country-and-western soundtrack playing. On bar stools at a long smooth stretch of desk a man in headphones (Max, Simone's brother, a music producer who does the music for her shows) and a young woman tapped on laptops. Only a small ball of pink wool, some knitting needles and a curl of metallic trim tidied into a basket gave the suggestion that this space might have something to do with textiles. Meanwhile, from the wall, a phenomenal Francis Bacon triptych, flesh pink and disturbed, looked down on the calm.
Rocha had a fidgety energy. She sat at the glass table where they have buyers' appointments and meetings, her long curly black hair hanging loose. She was wearing a black neoprene A-line short skirt, black woolly tights and chunky leopard-print shoes from her autumn/winter 2012 collection and was proud to be the first person to sport a "pearly" cardigan from her new spring collection. "It's a little bit lady," she said, laughing.
"A little bit lady" is a phrase she often uses and, as vague as it sounds, it's a very precise and calculated measure for the Rocha aesthetic. Yes, she likes feminine things – pearly, lacy, woolly, shiny. She adores girly dresses, shortish skirts and 1960s-ish granny chic – last autumn's collection was an homage to the style of her Chinese and Irish grandmothers. But she's a tomboy at heart. She once told me it was good she had her own line to wear "because I was so scruffy before". Her teenage years are never far from memory. "I was a city kid. Lots of sportswear. There was a real-ness to it." Reebok Classics and tracksuit bottoms loom large in her sartorial vocab. Even now she says she'll wear a lacy dress "with me Adidas". In her collections, her sturdy riffs on the brogue are as treasured as her frocks. So "a little bit lady" is exactly right. "The look would be so different if people wore ... " She thought for a second. "Like, we wear a lot of trainers with the clothes. But if someone wore a stiletto we'd say, 'Oh no ... [she giggles] ... you look completely different. You're goin' somewhere else.'"
If it's not already clear, Simone Rocha is a big to-do on the British fashion scene right now. Since graduating with an MA from Central Saint Martins in 2010 she has designed nine commercial collections, produced a capsule collection for Topshop, won awards from the British Fashion Council and Elle and Wallpaper magazines, and later this year will launch a collection with J Brand denim. Rihanna has worn her Perspex floating brogues, Katy Perry has trotted around in "the chicken" (Rocha's description of a yellowish faux-fur coat from last year) and the actresses Saoirse Ronan and Chloë Moretz are often pictured in her clothes. She is stocked by some of the most prestigious stores in the world – including Colette in Paris, which showcased her autumn/winter 2011 collection in its window during couture week ("I wanted to die. It was unbelievable") and Dover Street Market in London and New York, which have the only two Simone Rocha shops.
She happens to be the daughter of Ireland's most famous fashion designer, the Chinese/Portuguese, Dublin-based John Rocha, although her lineage is largely forgotten by people until they see John sitting proudly on the front row, next to Odette, his wife and Simone's mother and business partner. It's certainly never been held against her because Rocha's talent was evident from the off. "We've believed in her since the very first collection," Adrian Joffe, the CEO of Dover Street Market, told me. "She was a young designer who had a beautiful and clear aesthetic vision that showed a maturity beyond her years."
Well, she has been attending fashion shows since she was a dot. She's keen to point out, though, that life chez Rocha wasn't what you might think. "It wasn't glamorous. It wasn't 'darling', because that's what people always assume. I grew up in fashion but I wasn't in fashion." In fact, there was a strong element of hippy in the Rocha household. "We were really artsy-crafty. We used to go to a place called Pine Forest, an arts camp in the woods." She laughed. "All the hippy kids went there and did potato paintings. I worked with my hands and learnt to crochet and knit when I was very young. In my school you were either arty, sporty or academic and I was arty. I loved it."
Fashion was just an extension of this, even when they lived in Milan for a while. Textiles, crafts, photography, art (the Rochas have what sounds like a pretty phenomenal collection, which is where the Bacon triptych springs from) and parties – "Lots of our friends are musicians so there was always lots of music, lots of singing and dancing in our house. Not so many parties now, actually – cannot handle it. But it was brilliant. I had a really amazing childhood."
Rocha started assisting her father when she was 14, crocheting pieces for the shows, "dyeing the tights, buying the pants". She developed her eye.
"You kind of train yourself into what's really right. Even when looking at other people's shows when I was younger I was always thinking, 'I'd do it like that.' It's built into me to look and dissect."
Eventually she rose to doing fittings and running orders, loving every minute. But she couldn't stand the cliche of father 'n' daughter fashion designers, so she did fine art at the National College of Art and Design, in Dublin. And then had to admit the truth. "Fashion was always in me and I probably did want to do it but you have to find your own identity," she said. "Ireland is very small and insular, Dublin is tiny. I needed to go to London."
At Saint Martins, under the stern eye of Prof Louise Wilson, Rocha found out who she was. Her love of tailoring emerged early on – you'll always find plays on men's Crombies, jacketing and shirting in her collections. She never felt like a star pupil, didn't attract any sponsorship awards, but then the fashion talent-spotter Lulu Kennedy saw Rocha's all-black tulle collection of tailoring for her MA and offered her a fashion-week show as a part of Kennedy's Fashion East collective. "I was gobsmacked! In Ireland I didn't have a huge knowledge of all that. My family's time was so different. I knew the old-school way. But I said, 'I'd love to.'"
Each season since then, Rocha has explored her handwriting just a fraction more. The past three collections in particular have seen her blossom. This spring's, now in stores, was inspired by a trip to Connemara and by the Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki and numbers structured black and white dresses in lace and wet-look textures, tulle skirts with pearl-lined slits, cocoonish coats, see-through granny handbags and variations on the brogue. Generally a relaxed person, Rocha said she's different when it comes to work. "I'm very precise and headstrong. It's very funny working with my mum because we're completely different." How? "She's, um, really nice!" She laughed. "I'm very yes or no. I know what I like and I don't like. That's how I work on my collection. I can be quite cut-throat with myself. I'll say, 'I know it's a good skirt but it's out. It's out!'" She kills her darlings then? "Oh, that's good," she enthused. "I might keep that."
Her biggest thrill, alongside the excitement she always feels at the dress rehearsal for a show (not the actual show: we know how she feels about that), is seeing the women who choose to wear her clothes. Yes, when it's the famous people, of course that's "nice" and "funny", but what she really likes is the women who "just go in and buy bits and pieces". She was at a Comme des Garçons show in Paris when she saw a woman in one of her skirts. "I was like, 'What a ... what a compliment!'"
She ducks behind her hands. "I'm so embarrassed!" Which I translate as: I'm not worthy. In New York recently she met "an amazing 50-year-old woman in head-to-toe Comme who said" – she puts on a good New York accent – "'I have four of your shoes! I'm too old to wear your clothes but I've got four of your shoes!'" She shakes her head, amazed.
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