Handcraft is at the heart of Simone Rocha’s studio, as revealed in a new tome that goes behind the scenes of London’s top designers.
To step over the threshold of Simone Rocha’s studio during London fashion week is to see that things might be getting a little crowded around here at De Beauvoir Crescent. On the left-hand side of her studio, temporarily screened off, is a long row of girls perched on high stools embroidering, stitching and clicking figures into computers. On the opposite side of the screen there is Rocha, dressing a couple of highly in-demand models who’ve found their way direct to East London overnight from New York for her show fitting. The space is packed with rolling racks of samples, tables laden with Perspex-heeled shoes, granny bags, chandelier earrings, fake-fur stoles and gloves. Rocha stands back, watches, puts her head on one side, goes in to smooth fabric, nods her decisions. Her mother, Odette Rocha, hands things in and out without a word: hems to turn up, trimmings to tack, sleeves to chop off. It’s like watching a piece of choreography.
“It’s always been about how I’ve seen clothes, my school uniform, all the teenage uniforms, thinking about how women dress, and always being attracted to classic femininity, but in an odd way,” Rocha says. Over time, Simone Rocha collections have tuned into a frequency – her quirky love for slightly formal occasion wear that can also be messed up as daywear – that has been picked up and cherished by girls, women and retailers. Which other designer has been able to make pink, lace, crochet and flouncy full-skirted dresses wholly acceptable to feminists? “I like to work in tailoring, masculine and feminine – it’s all about a contrast. It’s very personal. There’s always lace and crochet and handcraft somewhere in it. But I like synthetics. Plastics, too.”
Living in the middle of an extended clan of women and girls getting dressed for important family gatherings in church and at receptions and parties shaped all her signatures: her dresses with high waists and full skirts, roomy coats, white lace Communion dresses, black mourning suits, the occasional hats that hint at halos, or red flower-printed brocades suggesting Chinese New Year celebrations. “I definitely think if you’re wearing a huge frock, it’s just cooler to put it with a boy’s shoe, though,” she says with a laugh. “And if you’re going out, then you can dance better, too.”
That magical mix of allusive, poetic memory and girl-friendly pragmatism runs through everything she touches. Her breakthrough collection, the one that got her seriously rated by critics in autumn/winter ’13/’14, was based on the very different clothes worn by her grandmothers, Cecilia Rocha on the Chinese side and Margaret Gleeson on the Irish. She called it Respect Your Elders.
Her narrative grew even more powerfully resonant when she had her baby daughter, surprising and delighting her audience with a collection that touched on the full spectrum of a new mother’s experience – from fleshy pinks to fluffy dressing gowns, to nurses’ uniforms and swaddling baby blankets. “When I’m designing it has to mean something to me, otherwise it’s just clothes. That’s always the joy of it, when things come together, and it means something so personal to me – that and sharing all the highs and lows with my loved ones.” This an extract from London Uprising: Fifty Fashion Designers, One City, edited by Tania Fares and Sarah Mower (Phaidon, $140).
Simone Rocha on the runway. Right: the Phaidon release takes you inside the studios of London designers.