Designer John Rocha has retired from London Fashion Week after almost 30 years. Rachel Marie Walsh remembers his fashion highlights
LONDON Fashion Week turns 30 in September and John Rocha, one of the few designers we claim as our own, will be missing from the calendar. The sad news comes just three months after one of his most successful shows to date. “If I stay, I want to have something to say and I always want to keep the standard high. The last couple of collections I looked back on and I thought to myself, ‘that is really the best work I can do’,” Rocha told Vogue.co.uk. “For the last few years I can see lots of talented people and designers coming up and with so much young talent you have to work so much harder, and I’m not going to do it until I drop!” said the 60-year-old.
The “young talent” he mentions includes his daughter Simone, whose show remains one of the week’s hottest tickets. Three Moon Design, his Dublin-based studio, will continue to produce crystal, eyewear and high street clothing collections. The business will also engage in “exciting new projects in architecture and interiors,” according to a spokesperson.
The son of a Portuguese financial clerk and Chinese homemaker, Rocha left his native Hong Kong in 1971 to train as a psychiatric nurse in the UK. He found an Irish girlfriend, Eily Doolin, who studied fashion at Croydon College. Rocha quickly decided that design was a more interesting métier. The linen he found for his graduate collection on a visit to Ireland sparked an enduring love affair with Ireland and its textiles.
Christie Turlington in 1994 wearing a Rocha design.
They married and moved to Ireland where they started a fashion business that met with some success, selling through department store and their own Irish boutiques. The couple’s business venture and marriage fell apart in 1983. Rocha was then hired by Odette Gleeson, his new love, to design for her Chinatown clothing label.
Shortly afterwards, he began showing at London Fashion Week under his own name. Odette became and remains his greatest inspiration, as well as his wife, business and design partner. Style.com’s Tim Blanks wrote of the John Rocha Spring/Summer 2014 collection that “to the litany of great Irish artist/ muse relationships —W B Yeats and Maud Gonne, James Joyce and Nora, Oscar Wilde and Bosie, Francis Bacon and George Dyer — we should probably add John Rocha and his wife, Odette.”
Rocha’s romantic, earthy style was at odds with excess-driven Eighties trends but he was unwilling to compromise his artistic integrity. Chinatown went bust in 1987 and Rocha moved to Milan, where he worked freelance for designers Dries Van Noten and Martine Sitbon.
Sinead O' Connor sported one of Rocha's dresses back in 1995.
In 1988, John Rocha began collaborating with A-Wear on a well-received high street line. He returned to Dublin in 1990 and once again began showing at LFW under his own name.
Before Rocha left Hong Kong as a teen, he visited a fortune teller who warned him life would be difficult until he turned 40. He was reportedly dismissive at the time but he won the British Designer of the Year Award in 1993. The following year, he took a much-prized opportunity to show on the Paris Fashion Week alongside the world’s finest couturiers. From 1997, his collaborations with Waterford Crystal yielded instant classics.
Autumn 2000 saw the launch of five diffusion ranges for Debenhams. In 2002 the designer received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace.
In 1995, he undertook his first interior project at his Dublin studio and has worked on numerous interior and architectural projects, including The Morrison Hotel in Dublin. In 2007, he converted an 18th century pub on London’s Dover Street into his UK flagship.
The John Rocha look is distinctly Irish, inspired by textures he sees in rural landscapes and fashioned into fine-tailored, very wearable garments. The fabrics are always organic and luxurious, begging to be touched.
In recent years, time spent at his home in the south of France has inspired a blend of bolder colours with his signature knits, silks and tweeds.
Celebrity approval has always been strong. Rocha dressed Robbie Williams for his ‘Angels’ video. Tilda Swinton has posed in his designs for W magazine. Sinéad O’Connor graced his catwalk in 1994 and a host of other Irish stars, from Van Morrison to Ronan Keating and Anjelica Huston, have John Rocha in their wardrobes. Recent collections have brought Rita Ora, Saoirse Ronan and Lady Gaga into the fold. Bono is a friend who summed up the designer’s appeal: “Around the din of choices that is the way we live now, his work is quieting. Not noisy. If the job of art is to chase away ugliness, John Rocha is an artist for sure.”
Rita Ora at this year’s Brit awards.
John Rocha’s Design Highlights
* 1980-3 Meets Odette Gleeson, his wife, business partner and long-term muse. Begins designing for Chinatown fashion label.
* 1985 Makes London Fashion Week debut.
* 1990 Collaborates with A-Wear on a high street line. Begins showing at LFW under his own name.
* 1993 Wins British Fashion Council Designer of the Year Award.
* 1994 First of four John Rocha shows at Paris Fashion Week is held in September.
* 1997 Begins design collaboration with Waterford Crystal.
* 2000 Launches five diffusion ranges with Debenhams, including home and interiors products, accessories and clothing for men, women and children.
* 2002 Awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for contributions to the fashion industry. Launches John Rocha Jewellery.
* 2013 Launches eyewear collaboration with Specsavers.
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