Simone Rocha: Riding on the storm

With a natural beauty and a toughness that reflects the landscape, Simone Rocha’s latest collection celebrates her native Ireland, the designer tells Paul McLauchlan.

Simone Rocha: Riding on the storm

With a natural beauty and a toughness that reflects the landscape, Simone Rocha’s latest collection celebrates her native Ireland, the designer tells Paul McLauchlan.

SIMONE Rocha is Ireland’s greatest hope. A fashion designer with the prowess of a skilled writer and the eye of a painter, her designs provide unfettered beauty at a time of darkness.

Like a beacon of light, her fashion is at once gritty and glamorous, tough and soft, masculine and feminine, guiding women through their daily lives with a sense of protection, a celebration of their selfhood, and a taste of fantasy.

On a calm Sunday evening in February 2020 during London Fashion Week, in the aftermath of Storm Denis, guests filed past security at Lancaster House, located at the back of St James’ Palace, flashing their IDs as they went, and into the gilded parlours of the Georgian mansion. Rocha’s held catwalk presentations here, on and off, for the past four years.

After a 20-minute wait, the audience is silenced by an ominous knell and the first model appears in swathes of white: a brocade coat with puffy sleeves over a white shirt and tulle skirt, festooned with ivory sashes tied around her body, a crystal crown adorning her crimped locks.

The ensuing procession of forty or so models are bedecked in Rocha’s typical fare of hand-embroidered tulle, hybridised Aran knit sweaters, structured tailoring and tweed coats shrouding slender frames, printed satin, and evening dresses, in a mostly pure palette of black and ivory, with flashes of lilac and purple, cobalt and red, and some floral print.

Throughout, there is a sense of the natural beauty and toughness of the Irish landscape, specifically the West of Ireland.

The collection drew on a wide variety of Irish influences from the work of artist Dorothy Cross, John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea, the attire of Catholic practice (baptism to funeral) and St Malachy.

At the end of the show, Rocha runs along the catwalk, her ageless glamour aglow and her sleek black hair pinned up loosely, in a white dress. There’s a certain shyness to her appearance which belies her confidence as a designer and straightforwardness in tone.

There’s a tapestry of knowledge in Ireland that’s part of my cultural identity and I try to use it in a way that I can celebrate the things I’m close to.

Rocha grew up attending fashion shows. She is the daughter of John Rocha, the retired designer from Hong Kong. He helps Simone with business planning, alongside her mother Odette. Simone studied in Dublin before completing her master’s in London.

With stockists dotted across the globe, including flagship stores in London, New York, and Hong Kong, the fashion industry was quickly besotted by Rocha who has won two British Fashion Awards. In essence, her global appeal is undeniable.

“There’s something about moving away from home that makes you almost lament or romanticise it,” said Rocha, who has lived in London for 12 years. “Every couple of years I find myself wanting to reconnect with home and when you have a personal or physical connection with a place it makes it easier to insert that into your work.”

The tale of Ireland Rocha patchworked for autumn/winter 2020 began with Irish artist Dorothy Cross’ production design for an opera adaptation of Irish writer John Millington Synge’s one-act play Riders to the Sea.

Rocha picked up a copy of Riders to the Sea, about a woman who has lost her husband, and five of her sons to the sea, touched by Synge’s exploration of the progression of life.

The opening act of the show rendered as it was in ivory and cream nodded to the iconography of early Catholic traditions: baptism, communion, and confirmation but set against the elements. She purposely obscured the religiosity, a visual reminder that a Catholic upbringing is not part of her personal history but the subject of her fascination.

“You can’t look at Ireland without looking at Catholicism,” said Rocha.

(Growing up in suburban Dublin, the designer wasn’t raised as Catholic, though she grew up watching classmates in primary school making their communion and confirmation. She describes the process of conjuring up similar imagery as an act of ‘an outsider looking in’. In the past, Rocha’s work has plumbed the depths of her Chinese heritage.) There were renditions on Aran knitwear, which spliced together hand-knitting, traditional stitching, and sailor knots draped over the body like aprons, oftentimes accented with pearl embellishments.

It segued into a more colourful section of exploded florals – ‘life’ – concluding with ‘loss’, a section defined by black suiting and tailoring, big shapes almost swallowing models as if they were lost to the sea like the characters in Synge’s play.

The third act gave way to a funereal procession of heavily layered ensembles, evening-wear, and tailoring, culminating in a slew of white lace looks which transpired to be a mourner’s outfit.

The progression of life is integral to Rocha’s designs, her clothes possess an ageless appeal.

“Wearability is most important when it comes to her design. She makes statement pieces without them being over the top. I think it gives them a universal, ageless appeal,” said Nikki Creedon, owner of Havana Boutique in Donnybrook.

Havana has stocked Simone Rocha since day one. Over the years, their offering has expanded from her fanciful dresses and knitwear to jewellery and accessories which have more accessible price points and, in turn, draw a younger customer.

“I could wear it as well as my daughter,” concluded Creedon.

Aileen Carville Mulligan, the founder of SKMMP, business-to-business fashion wholesale order management service, echoes her thoughts.

“Her clothes work on a cross-section of age groups which Simone embraces and celebrates. I pitch and present my work to luxury brands in Paris and Milan. I feel confident and myself when I wear a beautiful Simone dress,” said Carville Mulligan.

‘Beautiful’ is a word that recurs in conversations about Simone.

It’s there in the intricate craftsmanship. There was a reference to St Malachy. (Rocha’s uncle happens to be called Malachy.) She owns an old woven tapestry with St. Malachy on one side and the Sacred Heart on the other. In the collection, Malachy himself appeared, distorted, on hand-embroidered tulle as well as in crepe-de-chine prints, alongside an abstracted image of the Sacred Heart, owing to the beautiful delicacy within her work.

Upon closer inspection, Rocha concluded that the Prophecy of the Popes, a 12th-century proclamation which claimed that there would be only 112 more popes before the Last Judgment, is attributed to St. Malachy. Although it was declared a forgery by Catholic theologians in the 16th century, it would purport that Pope Francis is the last Pope before Judgement Day beckons.

“So that means the world might end right about now,” she said with a laugh.

To this end, there was an apocalyptic mood to Rocha’s collection in spite of its beauty. With the global outbreak of the coronavirus and various political maelstroms in all four corners, one could easily identify dark undertones in this collection.

Rocha’s heavy layers were intended to evoke the idea that the sea takes the life from the people in Riders to the Sea, describing it as a ‘suffocating, indulgent, visceral thing.’

“It’s impossible to ignore what’s happening around us and not to feel the effect of it in our daily lives,” said Rocha when asked whether the current sociopolitical climate influences her design process.

I’m interested in storytelling but I’m also interested in reality so it finds a place in my work.

The last model was veiled in white a lace headpiece to evoke a mourner. Originally, it was meant to be black but, “I felt it was too ominous. I wanted to bring it back to the beginning.”

Stylist Robbie Spencer, who works with Rocha on every show, including this one, said, “From the initial research stages of each collection to the actual show day it all comes from the heart. Simone has managed to create a successful family orientated business that is always on her own terms and always true to herself, she does not follow others she goes by her own instinct, allowing people to get a glimpse of her world and point of view and that seems to attract people to the brand.”

Rocha said: “I hope my work makes a woman feel secure, protected, and that strength within. My duty as a fashion designer is to make work that reflects the times while also making it about storytelling and escapism.”

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