A decade after graduating from CSM, the Irish designer shares a few pearls of wisdom at The Sarabande Foundation.
Tousled hair tucked back by pearl-encrusted clips. Billowing fabric framed by hyperfeminine frills at the collar and cuffs. Matronly silhouettes shrouded in graphic floral prints. This is the paradoxical prism through which Simone Rocha sees the world. Her designs could be described as feminine and tomboyish in the same breath: “I love the mix of hard and soft, manmade and natural,” she says. “I think that stems from being from a mixed background.
The daughter of Hong Kong-born, Ireland-based designer John Rocha, fashion runs in Simone’s blood. As a child, she would dart around backstage at her father’s shows. It was here that she first met fashion journalist Sarah Mower. Their paths would cross again, years later, in the cramped and colourful office of esteemed CSM MA Fashion tutor Louise Wilson. “I was petrified of it, but always gagging to get in and hear what Louise had to say,” remembers Simone. A decade later, on a balmy evening, the pair are rapt in the conversation for the Sarabande Foundation’s Inspiration Series, Sarah in a cream blazer and Simone in a ruffled white shirt of her own design. Here is a round-up of what they had to say.
“Home is where the heart is. If you put your heart into your work, that’s when people will respond to it because people respond to emotion.”
Rifle through the Simone Rocha archive and you’ll find direct lines to the people and places who have inspired her. Swimming in the sea off the west coast of Ireland inspired her to create a lacquered lace, and spotting Ireland’s first female President, Mary Robinson, wearing pearls in an airport cemented the stone of the sea as a Simone signature. Her long-time love of Louise Bourgeois – whose estate Simone collaborated with in May this year – started when she visited the Stitches in Time exhibition with her mum, aged 16. But closest to her heart is the first window display she created for Dover Street Market in 2013, inspired by the lanes behind her childhood home: “I remembered smoking fags, kissing boys, pigs running after me. The whole thing, I put into that collection.”
“Have a bit of patience. Just because it’s not happening for you right now doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen.”
In 2013, just a few short years after graduating from CSM and Fashion East, Simone topped the Emerging Talent, Ready-to-Wear category at the British Fashion Awards. The following year, she was promoted to The New Establishment Award. And it was at the BFC’s NEWGEN showroom in Paris that she was first spotted by Rei Kawakubo, who would become a firm supporter. When you’re feted as an emerging talent, when do you fully emerge? For Simone, it wasn’t until she exhibited a collection in the Tate Modern. “That was the first show Anna Wintour came to,” she says. “And so many great artists have shown in that space, I really felt that I’d made it.”
“When your aesthetic is innate to you, it’s really important to keep challenging it.”
Finding your look as a designer is only half of the battle. How do you maintain it without it feeling stagnant? “I think that’s something I learnt from Louise Wilson. She told me to go out and look at things that you want to look at that don’t feel like something you should be interested in. She said, you’re making all these beautiful dresses, who cares? Go look at porn, go look at Indian movies…The reality is that whatever I design is going to go under my guise because it’s in my DNA. I’m going to go in and out of fashion, and I’m okay with that. I just have to make an effort to push myself out of my comfort zone. ”
“Get to know back-of-house and get a good accountant”
Before starting her own label, Simone did her fair share of internships, but she didn’t limit herself to design. She worked under her father, Marc Jacobs and Dazed to name a few. “The way our company has grown has been really organic and slow, and we work very closely across all departments. Production is very important and it shouldn’t be separated from design.” Her team now boasts more than 40 members, and she’s keen to make each feel valued. “Your pattern-cutters are the technical graft that bring your ideas to life.”
“If you want to show alone, you really need to figure out what you want to say”
For Simone, family and femininity are the two pillars around which everything else forms. Her mother, Odette, is her business partner, she collaborates with her partner on videography, and her daughter plays a crucial role in keeping fashion in perspective: “Having a young child really takes the edge off,” she laughs. Even her grandparents have played a part, albeit in mindset rather than mucking in. “My grandparents had this ethos of making the most of what you have and that has stuck with me. We always try to incorporate fabrics that we over-ordered into the new collections.” When it comes to femininity, inclusivity reigns. “I think a bit of macabre running through the femininity is realistic, but it is not one age, shape or size,” she professes. “Even though I have a very specific aesthetic, I don’t want it to be alienating. I want my casting to reflect my customers.”