Simone Rocha’s Irish-Cantonese Heritage is an Inspiration Behind Her Fashion Collections
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.
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“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.”
Rocha’s father is the now-retired, Hong Kong-born designer John Rocha, who put the family name on the fashion map when he moved to Ireland after college in the UK and began to design intricate collections filled with textured crochets, delicate embroideries and girlish appliqués. He became well known beginning in the 1980s with the Chinatown label he established with his wife and Simone’s mother, Odette.
Growing up on the outskirts of Dublin with her brother, Max, Simone remembers crawling over spools of her father’s fabrics as he toiled and she began to absorb his work ethic, ambition and “his absolute understanding of fabrication, textiles and handwork”. Rocha spent her teenage years in his studio, learning to paint and crochet as she began to contemplate her own career in London.
After earning a master’s degree from Central Saint Martins, Rocha showed for the first time in 2010, coincidentally on the same day as her father’s show on the fashion week calendar. “It was mad,” Rocha recalls. “We were both showing at Somerset House—he was in the tent like the big, established designer he was, and I was showing upstairs in a gallery. So I went to see his and he came to see mine after. Now he’s at all of my shows.”
He continues to be Rocha’s greatest supporter, but also her critic. Is he an honest one? “Uh, yes!” Rocha says, breaking into a giggle. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. My father always thinks I do spring-summer better than fall-winter—and I think so too,” she says. “But he does fall-winter better, so there’s no competition.”
Nevertheless, her fall-winter 2020 collection was a critical triumph. J M Synge’s tragic play Riders to the Sea, which reveals the resilience of a woman who has lost the men in her family to rough waters, formed the centrepiece of her narrative. The show took place in London’s ornate Lancaster House on a storming February evening, as models in Aran wool jumpers and oyster satin ribbons walked to a haunting operatic soundtrack. “It was almost like the weather was a part of it,” she says. “I loved that the models felt like they had almost washed in from the Atlantic into the regalia of this mansion.”
As it does in Ireland, the sea plays a large part in the landscape of Hong Kong. “They’re both islands and I find that they’re actually very similar,” she says. “There’s a practicality to the way people dress—it’s playful but never frivolous. But mostly, what’s the same is the importance of family and this real respect for all the generations before you.”
Rocha often credits her paternal grandmother Cecilia Rocha for being an early influence on her style. “She was very elegant and proper,” she says. “She taught me that no matter where you come from or what you have, you have to put yourself together with pride.” She wore skirts and blouses in slightly varied micro-floral prints with practical socks and shoes, a style that is echoed in the way Rocha’s models are styled on the runway today, with boyish brogues under tufted tulle dresses.
Her grandmother was the inspiration behind a 2015 short film Rocha created to document Hong Kong’s grannies’ styles—pyjama-style twinsets of clashing florals worn with sweater vests, hair pins and sneakers. The video opens with a blurry shot of draped white fabric rippling in the wind, but as the focus sharpens, the fabric is revealed to be the plastic covering over the city’s iconic bamboo scaffolding.
“I think it’s amazing the way the buildings are wrapped in Hong Kong,” she says. “They’re almost like Christo sculptures and those gauzy materials are what I like to use. That has definitely influenced my collections.”
During her visit to Hong Kong last year, Rocha headed to Central, the bustling heart of commerce, and down Ice House Street, to visit her standalone store that opened that July. Rocha was able to land a shop in her father’s hometown when John never could, an emotional full-circle moment they both acknowledged, but also a testament to how much the world has changed. When John first met Odette’s family in Ireland, they had never seen a Chinese person before.
“I feel like his time was very different; he felt like one of the only Chinese designers in Europe, but now there’s an amazing spotlight on Asian designers,” Rocha says. “The world is a much smaller place now.”