From her sophomore runway presentation at London Fashion Week to the launch of a pop-up store in Dublin’s Havana boutique, and garnering stockists and plaudits in equal measure, this young Irish designer’s star is in the ascendant.
Given the fickle nature of fashion, and notwithstanding the economy and comparisons with her designer dad, John Rocha, this is no mean feat, since she has only recently graduated from London’s Central St Martin’s College. Simone’s ‘overnight’ success is a not-so-tiny triumph, a testament to her credibility and cool.
“It’s a complete shock how much has happened in a year,” says the 24-year-old as we chat in her familial Ely Place HQ. “It’s been so much more than I expected.” The hoopla of being featured in French Vogue by former editor-in-chief and industry tastemaker, Carine Roitfeld, not to mention style tomes Elle, Twin magazine, i-D and Women’s Wear Daily, is in contrast to this unassuming girl and the stark tailoring that informs her winning aesthetic.
Given the Dublin native has been shadowing her father at fashion shows since the age of 12, one would think her a seasoned veteran of the catwalk circuit. “Until you are doing it yourself,” she says, “you have no idea.” Despite such obvious humility, this raven-haired hipster leaves nothing to chance — or genetics. Having interned for Marc Jacobs, Dazed & Confused and British Vogue during her BA studies at NCAD, Rocha says she spent a huge amount of time really immersing herself in the industry, yet still reels from the speed with which success has greeted her.
Rewind to February, 2010 when Simone was spotted and signed by Fashion East — an organisation championing London’s new design talent, with success stories including Richard Nicoll, Meadham Kirchoff and Gareth Pugh.
It was Rocha’s MA collection, entitled Les Corps, which caught the visionary eye of Fashion East founder, Lulu Kennedy, and the rest, as they say, is fashion history.
“Lulu is one of the people, apart from my parents, that I don’t think I’d be where I am today without,” says Rocha. “Not in a million years did I think I’d be at Fashion East and the support has been brilliant.” Such coveted patronage ranges from PR and mentoring to being put on schedule at London Fashion Week and the opportunity to show in edgy venues like Old Billingsgate and Waterloo station. Not bad for a fresh grad.
Fast forward a year later and Rocha has added stockists as diverse as Curve, Miami and LA, Colette, Paris and Antwerp’s avant-garde RA boutique, not to mention Dublin’s own Havana, where her SS/11 womenswear offering recently took pride of place in a pop-up shop and self-styled window display.
Inspired by the Francis Bacon studio and featuring photographs from fittings, castings and hair and make-up tests, the installation was devised to provide “a real insight to the collection and where it’s coming from,” she says. Not only that, its juxtaposition was a clever showcase of the pared back line of masculine tailoring, anchored in white and shot through with pops of pink and playful peek-a-boo cut-outs. Power dressing redefined.
Just what is it then that informs this fe-masuline interplay? “I’m not about the girlie girls,” says the designer, suitably clad in red ponyskin brogues. “I love men’s clothes and I think you can take that and romanticise it, so it is still appealing to a woman,” she says. It’s this clever contrast of deconstructed shapes with diaphanous mesh and tulle that secured her SS/11 standing with fashion press and buyers alike. Many have tried to reshape tailoring, but Rocha’s attempts whisper intelligence and bravery in the same breath. “What excites me is to expose parts of the body that in a traditional garment shouldn’t be exposed,” she says. In an industry coming out of the grips of the Celine effect, it’s refreshing to see new talent embrace risk and redefine the prevailing aesthetic. Speaking of which, just what feeds this curiously intellectual creative process of hers?
“A lot of my inspiration comes from real people and art,” she says, warmly, citing influences from artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois to Dublin’s Meath Street and her grandmother’s grave in Birr, Co Offaly.
Although seemingly disparate, these elements all combine in defining her body of work and capturing the essence of the Simone Rocha ‘woman’ — a skill which she honed in London’s Central St Martin’s. “It’s so much more than just the frock,” she says. “It’s about visualising your woman — what music she listens to, what room she is standing in. Even though you don’t see that, I think that’s how you really get to know what your identity is.”
For many, the quest for identity is a journey; for Rocha it seems an imperative, especially when constant comparisons with father, John, loom large. So just how has she managed to create that necessary, singular space? “I think it’s obvious in our design aesthetic that we’re related, but it’s definitely gone two different places,” she says of her minimalist signature. “I’ve learnt so much from dad, but I think being in London has really allowed me to have my own identity.” Despite being thrilled at sharing floor space in John Rocha’s Dover Street store, the growing number of edgy boutiques stocking Simone is a testament to her coming-of-age. “Now, it’s definitely two labels,” she says, “which is good.”
Tea-dyed gingham, floating Perspex brogue heels, and tulle/mesh-covered hand knits are just some of the innovative highlights from Rocha’s recent AW/11 London Fashion Week presentation. Despite obvious design dichotomies, it would appear that this focus on craftsmanship is an undeniable part of the Rocha DNA — one shared by father and daughter alike. “I’m really glad all my hand-knit was done here in Ireland,” she says. “The resources here, such as tweeds and linens, are amazing and it’s great to be able to showcase such tradition and craftsmanship.”
And it’s not just her garments that subtly salute the homeland. Team Simone has quite the Irish head count, too. “I work with stylist Celestine Cooney, who is Irish, as is my assistant Alan. Even George, who took my photo for French Vogue — he’s Irish. I think it’s not even that we go looking for it, we just can’t leave it behind us,” she says.
Indeed, with so many Irish making waves on the international fashion scene (JW Anderson, Joanne Hynes, Merle O’Grady), the future for fledgling designers has never looked brighter. The risks inherent in launching a new fashion label are notorious, however, with many labels failing to get off the ground at all. Rocha, when asked, offers some empirical advice to design undergrads making that next critical step. “Aside from Fashion East and the British Fashion Council, a woman called Angela Quaintrell, at the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE), really helps me with things like sales support. No one teaches you these things in college, everyone comes out and is like, ‘business plan?’” she says.
Line sheets and order forms aside, the key to success, says Rocha, rests in the palm of experience.
“I think it’s so important to do internships and get as much exposure to the industry as possible. You need to see how the other labels do it, because every designer is so different and it’s great to see what’s right for you. I’m also really glad I did a master’s degree, it really shaped me in the best way possible. It is hard work and you have to be willing to put in the hours and it’s not half as glamorous as everyone thinks it is.”
Thankfully, Rocha is taking a well-deserved break to Brooklyn before returning to her Dalston studio (shared with designers Mark Fast and Craig Lawrence), where she will start working on her SS/12 collection. In the meantime, she’s got her eyes peeled for that crucial moment when she sees a passer-by wearing her garments. “I’m dying to see someone I don’t know wearing a piece from the collection,” she says. “I’ll be like ‘Oh my God, who are you? You look brilliant!’ I’ll probably end up chasing her down the street.” With the positive reaction to her work so far, something tells me she’ll be breathless.