Fashion Is in Her DNA
c.2014 New York Times News Service
Simone Rocha attended her first fashion show at the ripe age of zero and ever since has followed up the experience no less often than every six months.
She went to that first show, she said, “in a basket,” having been born less than a month before, a fashion week baby for a fashion week family. Her father, John Rocha, is the Hong Kong-born, Dublin-based designer who was, until February, a mainstay of the London runways; her Irish mother, Odette Rocha, a partner in her husband’s business.
A career in fashion seemed a foregone conclusion: But Rocha, 28, insists that, despite growing up in her father’s studio, learning to knit and crochet at the arm of his textile designer and fulfilling every role from dyeing socks to seating guests at runway shows, a life in fashion was not the one she had planned.
“It sounds like when I was 8, it was all written down,” she said over tea at Dover Street Market in New York, where she was overseeing the installation of her fall collection. “Not in a million years did I think it would be like this. But it’s worked out really well.”
Since introducing her first collection in 2010, Rocha has in short order become one of the highlights of London Fashion Week. She has won the backing of the retailers whose support makes others take notice, like Sarah Andelman of Colette and Adrian Joffe of Dover Street Market; swept fashion awards in Britain, being named Emerging Women’s Wear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in December; and come within a hair’s breadth of the inaugural LVMH Prize, a 300,000-euro young designer’s trophy for which she was considered a front-runner. (Rocha was one of 11 finalists; the prize went to her former classmate Thomas Tait.)
When Rocha presents her spring collection Tuesday, it will be her most independent outing yet: her first as the sole Rocha on the fashion calendar; her first after the boost of the LVMH Prize, which confirmed that she is a designer companies (and her fellow designers) are watching; and her first without her mentor, Louise Wilson (who died in May), seated front row beside her father, ready with congratulations and habitually unminced words.
“Who’s going to tell me ‘terrible shoes’?” Rocha wondered aloud.
With her tumble of jet-black hair and penchant for cat-eye makeup, Rocha suggests a hardier Anna Karina. In her new two-story studio on the Regent’s Canal just outside London’s Dalston neighborhood, she oversees an expanded team, and, on a recent visit, led a reporter through a workroom staffed by young women stitching or crocheting, wearing their Simone Rocha ball skirts lightly, with scuffed Vans sneakers.
The contrast reflects Rocha’s collection, which is unabashedly feminine — she prefers fabrics like tulle, and dresses to trousers — but deflated of primness or prissiness. One collection of dresses came in lace trapped within wet-looking plastic; another, peekaboo cutouts and cutaway panels revealing flashes of flesh. Her inspirations are strong women (like Elizabeth I, the heroine of her new fall collection), but her earliest hit was her take on a men’s-style brogue, elevated on Perspex blocks.
About the gains of the past year, she is modest and grateful, savoring details like Karl Lagerfeld, one of the LVMH judges, telling her that he had bought one of her dresses for a friend. But she has had to live out both expectation and disappointment in public.
Following her graduation from the master’s program at Central St. Martins, Rocha spent two seasons showing with Fashion East, the young-designer incubator, creating collections that sold to no one. A small selection from each collection went to her father’s London store, where they met a similar fate. The suggestion of nepotism hung over Rocha’s head.
“I wasn’t classically a ‘young designer,'” she said. “People already knew who Dad was, so they’d know who I was. Loads of people were like: ‘She shouldn’t have done Fashion East. Does she need it?'”
But she had a staunch defender in Wilson, the course director of the Central St. Martins master’s program, under whose tutelage Rocha leavened the femininity that ran through her work with a current of odd eroticism.
Wilson’s characteristically frank advice, Rocha said: “Stop looking at girls in Victorian dresses. Go look at porn!”
After her second season with Fashion East, Rocha decided to show on her own, off the official ` Fashion Week schedule. It was a gambit that worked. Joffe of Dover Street Market was in the audience and picked up the collection for his London store (and later, his Tokyo and New York stores as well).
“You can see something and know it’s a Simone Rocha dress,” Joffe said. “She has a very strong vision.”
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The first collection at Dover Street Market sold out; Joffe estimates that the store now buys three to four times as much.
In November, Rocha’s first collaboration, a capsule collection with the U.S. denim company J Brand, arrives in stores.
“The irony is, she’s never actually owned a pair of jeans,” said Lynne Koplin, J Brand’s president.
Even so, retailers bought more than double what the company had expected.
“We were quite surprised,” Koplin said.
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Her business and profile enlarged, Rocha finds herself in the position of taking the family name forward into fashion alone. John Rocha quietly retired after his last show, in September; her mother joined her operation as a partner, overseeing sales and production, as she once had for her husband. John Rocha’s Dover Street store, where Simone Rocha’s first collections had hung, will close.
Rocha is adamant that she stands apart from her father and his work. She notes that her studio is in London, his is in Dublin, and she has not worked for him since decamping at 20 for her M.A., although she does wear his clothes. Nevertheless, a family connection is central to her designs.
Her grandmothers, one Irish, one Chinese, provide a durable inspiration for the collections.
“They kind of creep into every one,” she said.
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On a recent trip to New York, she wore her mother’s mother’s panther ring, and her new collection is inspired by Hong Kong, where her father’s mother still lives. She visits every year. She has made a habit of repurposing grannyish totems for a younger generation. An earlier collection used faux pearls and knee-high nylons; one of her first handbags was modeled on a hot-water bottle.
The family backing has also made it possible for her to be that rare thing: a truly independent young designer.
She admitted that she had been approached by “a variety” of backers and companies, “but nothing has felt as good as independence does.”
In some ways, the near miss of the LVMH Prize has its upside: She is insulated from the malign potential of corporate intrigue, at least for the time being.
“Fashion from my point of view in the last 10, 20 years is so dominated by all the big groups,” said John Rocha, speaking from his Dublin offices. “Either you join them or they buy you. ... They’re always circling.”
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Having grown up in her father’s studios, Rocha is more aware than many of her contemporaries of the fickleness of fashion’s spotlight.
“His career has been so up and down,” she said. “You do take it very personally. Sometimes you go, ‘But this is an amazing show!’ At the same time, I do respect the industry.”
John Rocha made clear that he chose to leave on a high note, with a recent run of shows he considered the best of his career.
“We’re two different generations,” he said of his daughter, in his first interview about their parallel careers. “I’m old school. I started in 1980. Fashion was totally different then and now. What she does is so current, it’s so her. It’s very much clothes for her generation and for herself.”
He added: “I think what she’s achieved in the last three or four years is almost as good as what I’ve achieved in my lifetime.”