PHOTOGRAPHY BY TARA DARBY
WORDS BY CLARE COULSON
Sometimes a designer’s moment of affirmation can come at the most unexpected times. For Simone Rocha, it was on a journey back home one night recently through the urban grit of Dalston. “I was walking with my headphones on and this girl started calling across the street. I took them off and heard her shouting, ‘Am I wearing your dress?!’ Then I realised it was one of my pieces from Fashion East. She was so excited,” says Rocha, with a laugh, recalling the impromptu shout-out.
“It’s fabulous when you see your clothes in editorial, but when someone has gone into somewhere like Dover Street Market, seen something on a rail and decided that they want that in their wardrobe, that is really exciting.”
It’s been a swift trajectory for the youngest daughter of John Rocha, who is only 26 years old, and has shot from college to catwalk acclaim in a few short years. She studied for her degree at home in Dublin before moving to London to do an MA at Central Saint Martins and, after graduating in early 2010, was plucked straight away to do two seasons with Fashion East. The call from Lulu Kennedy – which came right after her final Saint Martins show – was a bolt out of the blue. “I had never met Lulu and I didn’t know a huge amount about Fashion East, as I had only been in London for a year and a half, so I was completely surprised. My degree work was all black and a little bit restrained, but Lulu saw the potential in it and those two seasons of Fashion East, especially coming straight out of college, were such a learning curve.”
Her first few years in London have clearly provided a springboard for Rocha – not only to establish herself as part of a new guard on the city’s fashion scene, but also to break away from her family and forge her own path. “For me, what was so great about coming here was finding my own identity and to move myself from home and all that’s there as well.”
As soon as she decided that she wanted to be a designer her parents were wholeheartedly supportive. Understandably, Rocha is frequently asked about the relationship between her aesthetic and her father’s, and while she admits that there has to be some design DNA, their aesthetics are actually far removed.
“There is definitely an understanding of craftsmanship, but whatever we are influenced by, we see it in completely different ways. What he does is a lot more organic. And I’m a woman designing womenswear and he’s a man designing womenswear collections – that changes things as well.”
Could she ever have imagined working alongside her father, rather than branching out on her own? “I have so much respect for him and what he does, he’s been showing for 30 years and he’s so true to his identity, but he sees that I am going down a different path,” admits Rocha. “I felt like I had something to say and I really believe we have different visions.”
And that has been apparent to all who have followed her nascent career. “She knows exactly who she is and what she wants to be as a brand, and has communicated her message really clearly,” says her early mentor, Kennedy. “I immediately loved the strength of vision and the girl she was proposing. Simone is incredibly focused, she doesn’t faff around.”
With her last tightly edited, highly praised show, Rocha continued to develop that vision, playing on mannish proportions contrasted with super-feminine details. “It was definitely a stand-out for London Fashion Week,” says Browns Womenswear Buyer Rebecca Osei-Baidoo. “And Simone stands out because she brings a new look, especially with the colour palette and her use of fabrics and texture. Her detachable collars have been a best-seller and we already have a waiting list for her signature brogue.”
For Spring/Summer 2013, showing as part of the Topshop-sponsored NEWGEN, she’s taking all that one step further, continuing to play with volumes but delving deeper into her texture mix. “It’s very much about looking back to my youth, which I know isn’t that long ago,” she says, with a smile. “The innocence and independence that comes when you have nothing to lose and you are quite headstrong.” She also looked once more to the late Cy Twombly, although this time it was his cake sculptures that have fed into her creative process. “They are beautiful, really fresh and delicate; but they are really dense.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of Twombly’s work for Rocha, whose focus on texture is always paramount in her collections and her fabric choices, which often involve contrasts of super-modern materials set against more crafty materials, which this time around include hand-embellished and hand-crocheted waffle knit in lurex yarns and softly checked tweeds. The Twombly sculptures have also inspired her to build on last season’s volume, too, with full leather skirts and tiered shapes worked into heavy embellished lace pieces.
“It’s definitely a development of my volume shapes from last season, but I wanted to keep it crisp and fresh at the same time. Using feminine fabrics can make the collection sound very soft, but making them feel sharp was the challenge for me this time. I still want that tough-girl feel so it’s not sweet, but I want there to be a sharpness and a uniformity.”
While Rocha is not known for a bold use of colour, she’s building it into her collection more and more. “I love colour and I don’t use a lot of it, but I’m specific with the colours I do use. When you just drop in one or two, it’s a lot more powerful than saturating half the collection.” For S/S 13, her largely monochrome palette is highlighted with yellow plastics, bright green lace, pink and gold ‘paper’ – a material that Rocha likens to a party hat – as well as some soft checks.
Those sell-out brogues will also reappear on Rocha’s catwalk this season, worked, this time, in coffee patent and monochrome, as well as versions that will incorporate some of the embellished fabrics from ready-to-wear. And there are heels, too. “I’ve done a heel for the first time, which I am really excited about. It’s something classic but it’s got that boyish feeling, to bring that harder edge.”
As Kennedy points out, Rocha represents a new generation in the wake of London’s print supremos. “I enjoy the fact that she’s so into her textiles and details that she hasn’t felt the need to do digital print. Her type of minimalism feels fresh and modern.” And for Rocha, too, it’s a relief to be slightly removed from any kind of clumsy grouping. “Its great to be a part of something, but I always find it difficult when people group designers together, because we are all so different.”
And while she doesn’t feel the need to be aesthetically bound to anyone, her contemporaries have definitely provided moral support as they all start their careers. Rocha studied alongside Thomas Tait and Jackie JS Lee at Central Saint Martins, and they remain firm friends.
“We are all in Paris in the [London] Show Rooms together and we hang out,” says Rocha, who last season also shared a catwalk show with Lee. The camaraderie is tangible to anyone who has taken a tour of the Show Rooms on its biannual trip to the French capital. “They are the only people who understand what it’s like. It’s really hard work,”
“But, you know, I feel so lucky that I get to do it – that I get to make clothes, sell them and people wear them. It’s just amazing.”