This remarkable success is probably down to the fact that Simone knows exactly what she wants, never straying from her strong brand identity and personal values. Her work showcases a deep appreciation for all aspects of culture, exploring the many strands of her Asian/Irish heritage as well as the endless influence of the many photographers, artists and writers that she encounters.
But what really makes Simone stand out from so many other newcomers is the delicacy and honesty she brings to her vision of femininity, an approach that has captivated fans across the world from Rihanna to Chloë Sevigny. With a newly opened store in New York to add to her flagship Mount Street boutique in London, it is clear that Simone has reached a new stage in her career and there is no doubt that she has now graduated from the ranks of emerging talent to established designer.
Simone Rocha SS17 Campaign / Photo Credit: Jackie Nickerson
You come from a diverse cultural background; growing up in Ireland, your father was born in Hong Kong and a very successful designer in his own right, and now you have worked in London and New York. How do you think that diversity of experience has inspired your vision?
I think in one way it has made me very open-minded. I grew up in a mixed background, from two places that were very different from one another, so I think that has made me open to all different types of people, cultures, food etc. I’ve always felt lucky to be from two different sides of the world.
I’m interested in Ireland itself for you, because it wouldn’t be the first place you would associate with fashion.
Totally. It’s an amazing country and place to grow up, but you associate it more with storytelling than something like fashion, with all the narrative, the poetry and literature, the landscape. They’re all things that I think of with Ireland rather than being a fashion capital. But I think that it was actually great growing up in my household, because even though I got to travel a lot when I was a kid, growing up there was very far removed from the sort of London/Paris/Milan scene.
"I’ve built my world on contradictions."
Simone Rocha on her diverse background
Do you embrace the earthiness of Ireland in your work? You were talking about the storytelling and the narrative side, contrasted with the London/Paris/Milan world. They’re just total opposites aren’t they?
Totally. I love being Irish and I’m very proud of where I come from, but I think I’ve built my world on contradictions if you know what I mean.
When it comes to designing, it’s always about contrasting hard and soft or manmade and organic materials, like one of my first collections, where it was all sheathed wool that was then trapped in plastic. They are the things that really excited me as a designer so I think growing up in Ireland and now living in London I still feel very connected to the earthiness of home and it’s about trying to translate that through all the electricity that’s here.
Backstage at Simone Rocha AW17 Show / Photo Credit: Jacob Lillis
That’s a nice way of putting it. Do you have a favourite Irish writer?
Seamus Heaney, I love his poetry. But I’m also obsessed with this new writer called Donal Ryan. He writes lots about the Celtic Tiger and the recession with a realist approach to Irish literature, which is really modern but nostalgic at the same time I think.
You seem very passionate about culture; you take in and absorb from many different strands. How does culture influence your creative process?
For me I have to be in a space to feel personally from it. For example I recently went to the Tate to see the Wolfgang Tillmans show, which was great, but then when I was walking out I ended up going to the bookshop which had all these lithograph Picasso prints with these little coloured men, and I just loved the way that they were so linear and yet so playful, so I thought it would be really interesting to see if I could translate that into embroidery, to link all the men up together and that would make a pattern which I could put on a fabric so you have this design that from far away looks like flowers but it’s actually all these little men.
So it all just kind of breeds like that. It’s about how a piece of work makes you feel when you see it, or when you’ve been somewhere how that makes you feel. Say I’ve been to somewhere random like Japan, and that made me feel isolated, I’ll translate that into designs by making loads of outerwear because you want to feel protected, and then you start to work on tailoring and padded fabrics and all that.
I was looking through some of your show notes from past seasons, because I think it gives a really good insight into your mindset when creating. For AW16 there were some really interesting ideas like baptism, birth, rebirth, Victorian, mothering…can you explain that for us?
Well, I’d just had a baby and when I write the show notes it’s kind of like a vomiting vocabulary, trying to articulate all the many things that have brought the show together. But in particular, I was coming through this whole stage of having a baby, where I didn’t take any time off from working on the collection, so I couldn’t help but let it influence me. In one way it started influencing all the textures and the silhouettes, you know I was learning how to swaddle (wrap a baby in garments) so I was swaddling all these clothes and then I was thinking about all the hormones and the blood so we started doing all this beaded, bloody jewellery. It turns into how I can articulate those feelings into fabrications or silhouettes.
Backstage at Simone Rocha AW17 Show / Photo Credit: Jacob Lillis
So how would you describe the translation of the vision you have prior to the show into what we see on the catwalk? I know you take your shows very seriously, and in an interview you said you actually cry after each show. Is that still true?
For sure, it’s very emotional! For me, it’s impossible for it not to mean something because I’ve gone on a journey to create all these clothes that tell a story, along with all my team and family who I’ve of course put through all the blood, sweat and tears as well.
It’s such a privilege that I get to do a show every 6 months, and 400 people come to be a part of it, so I think if I put emotion into it then they will feel something from it.
So let’s talk about your latest collection for FW17, which was stunning and a lot more serious. A lot of people focused on the diverse casting choices. Was that a reference to your mother and grandmother, and by way saying you think fashion should be more inclusive?
For sure, and I’ve always found all types of women inspiring. I don’t think it matters what age you are or what size you are, you can still have your own personal style at the end of the day. With this season in particular, I was thinking about all the different types of women that wear my clothes, and how my mother looks just as good in them as my little cousin. So that’s why in the casting I wanted to have women of all generations, and even though we had established beauties like Benadetta Barzini, we also had brand new girls just to be really inclusive and show it on all different types of bodies.
"Obviously there are people that you admire who wear your clothes, which is extremely flattering, and then sometimes there are people you don’t admire."
Simone Rocha on Melania Trump wearing her wears
Were you surprised by such strong feedback to the casting?
Yeah it was funny because it’s just so natural, and it felt totally the norm when we were doing the show and then afterwards we had drinks at my parents’ house and all the ladies came who had been in the show, and we were just talking about life. Then when all the reviews came out the next day and throughout the season that were so amazed I was like ‘woah!’ It was really nice for it to be marked like that.
Is it weird when you see that Melania Trump is wearing your designs?
Very much so. The reality is that what I do is create something and release it to the world. Anyone can go out and buy it so you have to relinquish some control. Obviously there are people that you admire who wear your clothes, which is extremely flattering, and then sometimes there are people you don’t admire. But you just think, they chose to spend their hard-earned cash on it so you have to just leave them to it.
Do you think fashion can be or should be political in having said that?
Personally, I think what I do is a trade, so I think for some designers it can be very political but I would prefer to leave politics to politicians.
Where do you think fashion is at the moment, because it feels like it’s in a little bit of a stalemate?
There is a lot of fashion happening right now, and it doesn’t seem like things can be disposable, and that’s because the world is such a small place now where everyone knows everything about everyone all the time like when a product has been released, or you’ve done a show or a collaboration. I think honestly that people are always going to be digging out about something or complaining.
So I think it’s really about focusing on you and what you want to do at this moment in time, rather than succumbing to the pressure of what the press perceive that the industry is doing. I think you really have to nurture your own path.
Flowers and Cars Photo Series, a collaboration between Simone Rocha and Jacob Lillis
You have been developing your career since around 2010. You won Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 2016, which is an amazing achievement. Gone are the days of being an emerging talent, you are now an established designer.
I know! Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.
How do you feel about that now? Does it scare you at all? We were talking about the saturation of fashion in the market so do you have conversations with your team and your family about your brand identity and staying relevant?
My view is that I only want to do what is right for us right now, so for example I only do 2 collections a year and also I have 2 stores, so it’s like a garden that I keep nurturing and tending to. But I want to do anything that will support that show, like these printed matters that we do in collaboration with friends who are artists and photographers. But it all comes back to what works for the brand and what model will suit us. It’s still an independent, family-run company, you know, we’re not a big label like Fendi, so it’s really about satisfying our customer as well as me being able to put across my creative vision.
There is a real femininity to your work and we’re not talking about feminism here.
Well I think feminism is thrown around way too much these days, and in some ways I think it becomes demeaning because I think we should all be equal and that just puts us on a lower peg if you start throwing that word in. However I do think that femininity really does describe my ethos towards dress, because it’s not in a girly way; whether you are a hard woman, a soft woman, a practical woman or a frivolous woman, there is a strand running through the work that you can relate to. And I think that is what makes it ‘femininity’ because it is woman to woman.
Was there ever a moment since showing your first collection where you just felt like you had arrived?
I have to admit, the first collection I showed in the Tate Modern was in the tanks [pic], and it was all this pink neoprene perforated fabric, which is a really techy sports fabric that I kind of manipulated into these little suits. And to be in a building that had inspired me so much, and be able to show my work in a space where so many other great people had shown their work, in a completely different context, I just felt like, ‘Wow, this is the shit.’ So that was a really proud moment for me, and also in London at that time things weren’t really girly and feminine or practical, which is how I work.
"I don’t need to be Louis Vuitton or a worldwide luxury label, I’m very happy to carve my own path."
You mention the really tactile side of your work, and I wanted to talk to you about the installations you do at Dover Street and also your own stores. It’s more than just visual merchandising for the stores, it seems like you really want to offer something more from the Simone Rocha brand.
Totally, and it all started with my very first window for Dover Street Market, probably 7 years ago now. It was amazing that they had come on board and were buying the collection, and then they said they wanted to offer me a window. At that time visual merchandising, bar DSM, was very classic. I was a very new designer and not a lot of people knew about me, so I was trying to work out how I could convey my world and what my collection stemmed from, to give people a history. With this collection I was originally looking at Teenage Kissers by Ed Templeton, and then I was thinking about myself as a teenager, running around the lanes behind my house in Dublin so we created this huge model of a mossy glen to put in the window.
We still do it a lot for DSM and now with my own stores, and it’s just about translating where the collection comes from. In the windows of Wooster Street now, the collection was shown in Southwark Cathedral, which I wanted to interpret for the window. So we did these big arches, almost like the church but we interpreted them into embroideries.
Simone Rocha Window Installation / Dover Street Market
Dover Street picked up your line very early on. Has Rei Kawakubo been a real mentor to you?
Yes I have to say that Adrian Joffe and the whole Dover Street family have been a huge support to me, and really gave me my first opportunity to be stocked with them. They gave me my first shop in shop when they were on Dover Street and now in the new Haymarket store I’ve got a beautiful space on the ground floor. It’s amazing to have grown up being so inspired by a movement and then to be able to work with them has been a real privilege.
Rei is a remarkable business person, and now you have opened up stores in London and New York, which is very rare for an emerging talent, so it seems like you have that business element as well. How do you balance making a good business decision with your creative vision?
I think it’s about having a practicality and a reality, almost splitting your head like that. The show and the collection is pure creativity, but in order to balance that you have to make strides in other areas. I think possibly, having grown up around it, I’ve seen the highs and lows of it, so that has made it all less dramatic for me and I take it with a pinch of salt. But I never thought that I would be heading up my own company.
I take every day as it comes, and I want to do what we do really well. Sometimes that can be growth in different areas like opening retail spaces or sometimes it can be spending 3 weeks on a sleeve to make it perfect.
It sounds so frivolous but honestly I don’t need to be Louis Vuitton or a worldwide luxury label, I’m very happy to carve my own path.
Astier de Villatte
This is the most beautiful shop in Paris, with the most beautiful shop front. I love all their Delft pottery, furniture and smells.
The first dance I saw in person was Pina Bausch Der Fensterputzer, which was set in Hong Kong and I was so moved by how I could be transported back there while watching it. I adore her work, the human emotion is provocative and humorous, it always moves me – the music, clothes and set are always perfect.
There is no nicer place to buy your vegetables and flowers for the day than this open market in the town square under the trees, and then a coffee afterwards in the Gran Caffe.