Simone Rocha remembers cramming into Hong Kong’s trams with her extended family every Easter to visit the hilly cemeteries, where she laid cigarettes, ginger cake and tea in front of her grandparents’ headstones.
Easter usually coincides with Ching Ming, the Chinese “grave-sweeping” holiday when people pay respect to family members who have passed away, and the 34-year-old designer would fly in from London, where she lives, for this sacred tradition. “We’d speak to [her grandparents], have whole conversations with them, then head down and have a large lunch,” says Rocha, smiling at the memory.
The idea of ceremony, be it confirmations or even funerals, is a constant source of inspiration for the Irish-Cantonese designer, who draws reference from both sides of her heritage. One might never know Rocha had roots in Asia, given her heavy Irish accent. For an interview over Zoom, she wears her customary all-black uniform, her hair swept into a side ponytail and her large, round eyes looking serious. The books on a shelf behind her include titles by the likes of Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon and Picasso.
“I always need to feel something in order to create the work,” she says. “It ends up being subjects that can sometimes be disturbing or that I find harrowing so that I can take that weight and work it into this idea of femininity.”
Her eerie-pretty aesthetic, in which elements of the macabre are woven into frothy confections, has earned Rocha renown since she launched her label a decade ago.
She was a finalist for the first LVMH Prize in 2014 and was named womenswear designer of the year at the 2016 British Fashion Awards. A typical design might contrast a surface of almost Victorian formality—a ruffled bib, vaporous tulle and strings of pearls affixed to organza gowns—with a layer of ravaged swaths of cloth or red crystal earrings made to mimic drops of blood.
“The balance of the hard and soft, good and evil, romantic and hurtful, that’s what I find most stimulating, because nothing is one-note in life,” she says.
Rocha became fascinated by dichotomy after seeing the fabric sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, who turned her own clothing into sculptures. “They really shook me, seeing those pieces in real life; I was taken aback by their vulnerability,” Rocha says. “Textiles are naturally soft and tactile but she made them so solid and strong.”
Rocha channelled this idea into some of her early, raw designs of dresses that combined tulle with technical fabrics, which were presented in Milan at Vogue Talents, a showcase for new designers. They caught the attention of none other than Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo, who invited Rocha to join the exclusive ranks of designers carried by Kawakubo’s elite Dover Street Market (DSM) stores.
“It was a huge moment for me, getting to meet someone I admire for her rebellious, iconic, thought-provoking wearable works of art,” says Rocha. “The designers I always respect are women who haven’t necessarily made pretty dresses; they made intelligent clothes, like Miuccia Prada, Phoebe Philo and Rei. I’m just so content to be a part of the DSM tribe; it’s been absolutely pivotal to my career.”
The admiration is mutual. “When I first met Simone, I immediately felt that there were shared values in the way she approached her work with all her heart and soul,” says Adrian Joffe, CEO of Comme des Garcons International and DSM International. “It has been an incredible delight to watch her grow and evolve, never compromise and always tell a human story, which only deepens her vision and creations.”