'I've been going to fashion shows since I was zero. It's always been part of my life'
Simone Rocha has stepped out of her father John's shadow to become a highly sought-after designer in her own right. Alexander Fury meets London fashion's next great hope.
It's impossible to talk about Simone Rocha without mentioning her father. Because unlike other London designers, her father isn't an engineer, a plumber or a cab driver: he's John Rocha, a London Fashion Week fixture whose clothes reached a swathe of the population via lucrative licensing deals with Debenhams. Mention him, and Rocha doesn't sigh, or curl her lip. But she does admit: "I didn't want to do fashion - because everyone knew I was John Rocha's daughter".
When Rocha shuttered his business this year, the implication was that he has passed the baton to Simone. That isn't true - Rocha is her own woman, and her own designer, a much fêted one at that.
Nevertheless, her 'daughter of' upbringing has a lot to do with that, because fashion is nothing new, nor nothing special, for Simone Rocha. "Fashion was always there: it didn't feel glamorous. It was just our life," states Rocha Jr pragmatically. "I've been going to shows since I was zero. I started working on them when I was 11, I started assisting when I was 14, then I worked with dad until I was 17 when I went to college."
It sounds like the perfect background for a nascent career as a designer, but Rocha wrinkles her nose at the insinuation. "I grew up in Ireland," she deadpans. "It was never very 'fashiony'. It was never what people perceived the industry to be. It was the norm."
Normal is the word that comes to mind, repeatedly, when you meet Simone Rocha. She's resolutely, refreshingly normal - grinning and laughing naturally. She has a honking great laugh and an Irish accent straight out of Father Ted. She's great fun, and never seems on show. Rocha is curvy - her clothes frequently are, too, cut to fit a variety of body shapes, celebrating the female form as well as challenging it - and she rides to her studio on her bike every morning down east London's Kingsland Road. Given the nature of this cool enclave, quite a few people probably know who she is. But that doesn't go to her head. She always has her feet firmly planted on the ground, and even when she wears something like an amoeba-shaped Comme des Garçons frock edged in piecrust ruffles, she manages to make it look natural. Not nondescript, mind, but not try-hard either.
That's something Rocha brings to her own designs as well, when she manages to grab themes such as Tudor dress, or her grandmother's clothes by the scruff of their neck, shake them until the stuffing falls out, and make them feel fresh and modern. Those Tudor costumes are a great example, the basis, as they were, for Simone Rocha's autumn/winter 2014 collection.
"I saw a show at the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabeth I And Her People," recalls Rocha. "I thought: wow, I really feel like I can translate this into something that I can relate to... I didn't want it to feel costume, I wanted it to feel like you would want to wear it today. It's young, but it has a strength to it."
Young and strong isn't what everyone would think of when confronted with images of Good Queen Bess in pearl-embroidered farthingale skirts, but Rocha synthesised the silhouettes into voluminous ruffles, sketching fullness across the hips, delineated with resin beading. Velvet and brocades were replaced with Rocha's favourite hyper-modern fabrics, like neoprene or embroidered PVC, but she says: "I was really getting quite deep into each garment, rather than doing something classic and just reworking it with a new innovative fabric". She grins. "I was trying to put a lot in the pot."
What Rocha cooks up each season is of great interest in the fashion world. Last year she received an Emerging Talent Award for Womenswear from the British Fashion Council - basically, best new designer. It was a forgone conclusion for all that she would scoop it - except Rocha herself, of course. But her career had been building to that point for a number of years - following her BA at Ireland's National College of Art and Design, she graduated in 2010 from the Central Saint Martins MA course run by the late Professor Louise Wilson OBE.
Wilson's renown as an educator was matched by the repute of the college - Rocha was, of course, convinced she would never get in. "My mum and dad didn't want me to do fashion. They know how difficult it can be," states Rocha. "But my dad said - 'Well if you're going to do it, it's a really difficult career, you have to be the best you can be before you go into it... you need to go and do the MA with Louise Wilson'. And I was like, 'Okay. I'm never going to get in, but I'll apply.'" She did. "And it changed everything."
After graduating, she was immediately snapped up by Lulu Kennedy, a fashion king (and queen) maker, for her Fashion East scheme. "I first came across Simone at the MA show," says Kennedy. "Her collection jumped right out at me from the catwalk; its appeal was massive and instant ... I was blown away."
Fashion East gave Rocha a two-season showcase straight out of college and an 'in' on to the packed London Fashion Week schedule. Then she decided to strike out on her own, for spring/summer 2012. She had none of the sponsorship usually awarded to young designers - although she had created a capsule range with Topshop, based on her MA, that netted her enough money to stage the show. "I always call it my first collection - because it felt like my first collection," she says of that show. "I'm going to do exactly what I want to."
I remember attending, dragged off-schedule to a bombed-out, Robert Adam-designed townhouse. Rocha showed latex and lace T-shirts and plastic rain-macs with crochet trapped inside.
Rocha has always been a bit of a family affair: for that spring 2012 show, her flatmate did the security in a suit she rented for him, while her brother Max provided the soundtrack (he still does today). Her father John and mother Odette sat front-row, rightly proud, as their daughter presented one of the stand-out shows of the season.
Such was the clamour for that collection, Odette began to help Simone with her sales - when retailers such as Dover Street Market snapped her up for the first time, and have continued to order ever since. "She really believes in what I want to do," says Rocha of her mother - the former commuting back to Ireland to oversee production and staying at her family home in Dublin.
Of course, with her business soaring, Rocha could stay anywhere. A no-doubt lucrative accessories line was added this year, alongside the already bestselling shoes, and a collaborative range with J Brand launches imminently, following in the footsteps of names such as Christopher Kane and Proenza Schouler.
But for Rocha, home is where the heart is. And heart is what she always puts into her clothes. "I always wear the heart," she says, tugging at a python-embossed ruffled sleeve as if it were a heartstring. "If you put your heart into something you sound much more powerful."
Dad John's famous fashion career
- Born in Hong Kong, John Rocha moved to the UK over 30 years ago, before relocating to Dublin. Having graduated from the Croydon School of Art in London, he first established a name for himself with his Chinatown label in Dublin during the 1980s. He later designed clothes for both men and women for Irish high street chain A Wear and department store Brown Thomas.
- As well as running his own John Rocha range, he also designs a diffusion line of clothing, homewear and accessories for Debenhams. He also designed the interior of the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. In 2002 he was made a CBE for his contribution to British fashion.
- His designs are classic and he tends to work with wool, silk and cashmere. His Autumn/Winter 2014 collection was his last for London Fashion Week as he has decided to stop showing at the biannual event.