Simone Rocha invited ieStyle into her London studio for an exclusive look behind the scenes as she put the finishing touches to her acclaimed collection for Fashion Week.reports
Enjoying someone’s work over the course of a decade teaches you about yourself. Why did that author's protagonist speak to you? Why did that album sustain you?
The same is true of favourite clothes, I think of designer Simone Rocha — now ten years into her career — as I trip past the houseboats and outdoor diners along Regent’s Canal en route to her North London headquarters last month. Her team work out of a large studio in De Beauvoir.
A fortnight before her Spring/Summer 2020 London Fashion Week show, it is filled with sunlight and the hum of benign endeavour. There are cute pointed flats all over the floor. Racks of diaphanous dresses line the corridors.
The brand new collection is inspired by Irish “Wren Boys,” who traditionally dressed up, killed the wren and them went door-to-door singing for money. The designer also imagines the interiors of the homes they visited and anyone with an Irish grandmother will recognise the china-like like patterns of her blue embroidery.
I was still at school and had been doing lots of paintings of birds and feathers and he suggested I paint them on a cream taffeta skirt.
The studio’s vibe is eminently more peaceful than that of any fashion business I’ve ever visited and when she emerges — calm and lovely in a sky blue dress and pearls — I recognise the source. Her office is the only room with four walls and door, which I’m assured is usually wide open.
There’s a floor-to-ceiling bookcase with art and photography tomes. Simone doesn’t create a mood board for shows but there is a wall of inspiration that includes photos of Valentine, her tiny daughter, and Rufus, the family’s dachshund. Everywhere there are bits and bobs from family and home, as well as furniture made by the lady herself.
It all feels very true to a customer’s experience of her stores in London and New York, both of which feature her own installations and furniture.“I hesitate to call this a job because it’s really my life,” she says thoughtfully.
A Kindred Spirit
Simone has an enduring connection with Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist who used large-scale installations, sculptures and paintings to work herself out externally. She collaborated on a fine jewellery collection with Bourgeois’ estate earlier this year. “I can’t seem to get away from her, maybe because her work is so influenced by her familial relationships.”
The designer discovered her as a student during Stitches in Time, a 2004 show of her textile work at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art. Key themes including childhood, her parents and the female body’s synchronicity with the planet are woven into her. Bourgeois died in 2010 but did lots of pleasingly forthright interviews.
In my favourite she says that art guarantees sanity, that as long as you have it you will never go crazy, a soothing message to people who can’t fully express themselves in words or simply can’t make others think of them. That makes her work sound like quite heavy going but in that multi-faceted way of women, distress and loss are patched up with what’s pretty, provocative and even funny.
Simone has a picture of her Mamelles (1991) cast of giant pink breasts on her wall, a representation of the balance between softness and sculpture she tries to strike in fashion. Bourgeois grew up in a tapestry gallery, which tracks with Rocha’s own description of growing up in her father’s studio.
She has glorious memories of custom couture dresses made for her parents’ wedding and her debs ball at home in Dublin. The first ready-to-wear piece she herself worked on was for a collection by John Rocha CBE.
“I was still at school and had been doing lots of paintings of birds and feathers and he suggested I paint them on a cream taffeta skirt.”
Giving her the confidence to spread her wings in fashion was a joint effort. Her mother, Odette, is her father’s manager. She introduced her daughter to Louise Bourgeois at that exhibition and is a constant muse and collaborator.
“We’re very close and I have not only great respect but a great kinship with her,” said the designer, who attributes the refinement and attention to detail in her collections to mother-daughter conversations.
A Unique Voice
Detail is what everyone remembers about Simone Rocha clothes, it gives her style so much substance and firmly established a brand identity distinct from her famous father’s. This was most perhaps most clear in 2011, when they became the first father and daughter to show on the London Fashion Week schedule.
Though always a designer first, she seeks to make clothes look “as beautiful on a wall as they do on the body. I put a lot of time into fabrication, I want clothes to tell a story. I don’t like anything to be disposable.”
Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1994), a giant sculpture of an arachnid that stands on the floor of the Tate gallery, embodying the artist’s mother (a weaver), made Rocha think of intricate crochet.
The scarlet “mad flowers” and 3D, chinoiserie-inspired embroidery of her sprung from classical choreographer Pina Bausch’s dance physical interpretation of her father’s native Hong Kong. Her late grandmother’s mass cards (Odette is from Birr) were a starting point for patterned lace in 2013.
I did [my Spring/Summer 2016 collection] while eight months pregnant so it was impossible for it not to influence the clothes
There are sheer fabrics and elements of deconstruction in each collection, showcasing both body parts and how she constantly challenges the gender rules that are traditionally applied to garments. Major life events are also a theme.
“I did [my Spring/Summer 2016 collection] while eight months pregnant so it was impossible for it not to influence the clothes,” she says of a lineup that included earrings and embellishments that look like dripping blood. “It was all very disgusting but it’s a reality,” she smiles.
Naturally, the looks were exquisite. My favourite Simone Rocha collection was her Connemara-inspired offering for Spring 2014, especially as this began here love affair with pearls.
“I was thinking about using lacquered lace and dark wools to interpret the Atlantic and pearls are really jewels of the ocean.” Now her signature, these organic gems are hardly a rare sight in fashion but she always does them a little differently. “I’ve always used them in a modern, almost punk-ish way, never how you’d expect them.”
Their radiance is universally flattering and they decorate many of her entry-level priced accessories, including headbands, bags and jewellery.
A Woman’s Woman
You can fall in love with new clothes many times over while sitting through spectacular show but how many make you think “I could live my life in that.”
Prada, perhaps, and Diane Von Furstenberg, Celine…really every collection for which a designer seems to have put you first. Simone Rocha’s femininity is grounded in a practicality and reality that gives her clothes broad appeal.
Her almost entirely female team, many of whom have been with her from the beginning, provide customer-like feedback she can trust as well as elements true to her signature style.
Simone Rocha silhouettes are described as “cloud-like” in reviews around the world, and it is true she favours generous, protective contours over clothes that hug curves. She’s also been famous for great tailoring since the beginning.
Sarah Mower MBE, the British Fashion Council’s Ambassador for Emerging Talent, called her early pieces “a combination of the smart and the sweet that made her the programme’s “absolute star,” and women can always rely on the flattering structure in their softness. Her coats are certainly investment pieces but designed to reap years of happy wear.
Femininity and style is timeless and ageless and I want to keep showing that
She also kinder to our spines that your typical designer. She first fell in love with brogues at sixteen, wearing her Church’s so often there were holes in the soles. Her own takes are far less classic than those of the famous English shoemakers, starting with chunky perspex heels in that “put it on it’s tippy-toes,” elevating it to something classic and feminine.
Since then they’ve had kitten heels, pearl trims, laser-cut flowers and colour ways to suit the changing seasons. Marabou-trimmed slippers, another nod to her Asian heritage, are often presented as an evening alternative.
The clothes alone are internationally acclaimed but her shows have also won praise for model diversity since 2017.
”Femininity and style is timeless and ageless and I want to keep showing that,” she says of famous choices like actress Chloe Sevigny, Jan de Villeneuve, a former model who posed for Norman Parkinson and David Bailey at her peak, and androgynous beauty and Peter Lindberg muse Marie Sophie Wilson.
Last month’s crop of models were mainly homegrown. Irish actresses Jessie Buckley, Olwen Fouéré, Simone Kirby, Charlene McKenna and Valene Kane walked her September catwalk, highlighting how diverse Rocha's designs are when it comes to age and body type.
Lots of high profile ladies choose to give Simone Rocha a platform through their personal style. Emilia Clarke called a pink tulle coat “one of her favourite things ever" in a 2015 Harper’s Bazaar interview, while Alexa Chung and Victoria have shown love for their fellow London designer with their accessories.
Joining her gang is a simple as wearing pearls in your hair or, taking a tip from Lady Hale, the 74-year-old head of the UK’s supreme court - interest surged in the Simone Rocha Spider Beaded Broach, €299 at matchesfashion.com, after the judge wore a similar design to declare Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament “void and of no effect”. And the designer’s own key buy for autumn? “Definitely a pair of brogues. They keep you grounded.”