My family values John Rocha’s rags-to-riches story
From a poor but loving childhood, John Rocha has gone on to become one of
the most influential homeware and fashion designers of his generation
Almost 60 years ago in a tiny Hong Kong high-rise apartment shared by a family of 10, a young boy would curl up on the floor each night and dream of sleeping in an actual bed. When he was 11, his wish came true.
John Rocha’s memory of growing up in poverty while surrounded by family and love, colour and chaos, spawned his extraordinary talent and relentless drive. It turned him into a designer who continues to influence the way we look and live.
‘I was the fifth of seven children, and our apartment was 350 square feet. There were no bedrooms, just partitions separating us from our parents and grandmother,’ recalls John, now 63. ‘We had one bunk bed, so the eldest two children had a bed each – the ultimate luxury. I had to wait until I was 11 for one of my older siblings to leave home and I took my place on the bottom bunk.
‘I’ll never forget that simple pleasure. Now, every night when I sink back into my bed, I consider myself lucky to have such a luxury. I also take huge pleasure in designing beautiful bedlinen to make people feel pampered.’
It’s not the only memory that’s inspired John’s work. ‘I used to yearn for space, and now when I work on architectural projects, I love creating that space,’ he says. ‘Also, until I left home at 17, I’d never had a hot shower. To wash, we simply shared a bucket of water. Now, every evening I soak in a beautiful Italian stone bath and I feel blessed.’
Despite the poverty, John’s childhood was happy and he credits it with making him the man he is today. Dressed in a trademark black shirt with his famous long hair he’s instantly recognisable, and his enthusiasm for life and joie de vivre is infectious. It’s simply impossible not to smile as he gushes over pictures of his granddaughter, and laughs out loud at how besotted he’s become.
Despite the long years he’s lived away from his native Hong Kong, his accent is still evident. A childhood with nothing was a ‘gift’ that helped him learn. His grandmother was a seamstress and guided him on his way to fashion design. ‘The Beatles changed my life,’ he says. ‘They were so cool and I loved their style. I used to buy material cheaply from the market and ask my grandmother to make it into a shirt without collars.
‘I didn’t know people could make a living from designing clothes until I flew to England on a £13 ticket at the age of 17 to train as a
psychiatric nurse. I started dating a girl who was a fashion designer from Paris, and she helped me apply for art college.’
John began in fashion but branched out into homeware, including crystal for Waterford and bedlinen, furniture and tableware for Designers at Debenhams. He also worked on property schemes in Birmingham and Liverpool.
Following a brief first marriage that gave him daughter Zoe, 32, he met his wife and business partner Odette, 57. ‘Our first home was an early Victorian house in Dublin. It cost £150,000 when we bought it in 1992. Renovating the kitchen took us a year, but we learned to take it one step at a time, eventually adding a conservatory and dining room.’
By then the couple had Simone, now 29, a fashion designer, and Max, 26, who works in the record industry. Eight years later, the family found a large Victorian house that had been divided into 11 bedsits. ‘I knew instantly we’d be happy there – and we are,’ says
John. ‘I love the high ceilings and original cornices. It looks like a traditional Victorian house at the front, but at the back I knocked out a ceiling to create a modern triple-height glass extension, where we have our kitchen and dining room. I love light and the extension and glass balcony allow it to flood into the house. When I’m sitting down for dinner I can relax and watch the sun going down.’
Over the years the couple have made adjustments to their four-bedroom home. ‘We had Max’s bedroom soundproofed and created a sitting room area for him outside his bedroom,’ says John. ‘My daughter had a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room on the ground floor with her own entrance.
‘In the kitchen we used the same stone for the units and on the floor. We have a large island, a stone top and a sink for preparation, but also a smaller back kitchen because I don’t like clutter. The main kitchen is where my wife loves having the family all around her.
‘When the children were younger, we’d always eat together at six for an hour. That family time was sacred. We’d also come
‘In truth, happiness for my family is all that matters to me,’
together at Christmas, and still do. Now we have a new addition – our one-year-old granddaughter Valentine.’
John and Odette have kept the design of the house open plan ‘so we have the sense of always being together. The only doors are for the bedroom and bathroom,’ says John. He cherishes simple pleasures, such as real fires, as well as the more opulent, including the mosaic and black crystal bathroom he created for guests. ‘It’s an indulgent surprise.’
Once a little boy who washed in a bucket of cold water, John’s greatest joy is his Italian stone bath. ‘It was so heavy it needed a crane to lift it in,’ he says. ‘We had to reinforce the floor. I can soak in the bath every evening and gaze outside at the stars. It’s the ultimate way to relax after a busy working day.’
Inside, the walls are white. ‘Stark white is too cold, but this is Jasmine, a warmer shade with a hint of cream,’ explains John. ‘As I don’t like clutter, I don’t want hundreds of family pictures all over the place, although for Christmas I bought Odette a framed picture of Valentine.
‘I mix furniture. Our sofa is a design I did for Debenhams in 1995; it’s so comfortable I won’t replace it. I designed our glass dining room table myself in 1995, and I’ve collected furniture from Kenya and New York.
‘I can’t stand televisions dominating a room, so we have a small TV. I’m a huge football fan and recently invited friends over to watch England play. They piled in and then couldn’t believe it when they found themselves crowded around a tiny screen!’
John’s designs have influenced the world of clothes and interior style for decades. So what changes has he seen in the way we live? ‘Life’s about convenience. People want homes that are simpler to maintain, and smaller furniture to give them a sense of space. For younger people, WiFi is more important than the kitchen and eating,’ he observes.
In May 2015 John’s beloved mother died, one day before her 96th birthday. ‘I’d just retired from the catwalk shows that had dominated my life, so I was able to spend the last Chinese New Year with her,’ he says.
‘She was so proud, although she didn’t quite understand what I did. I go back to Hong Kong with my family regularly and I don’t think my siblings know what I do either. They see I’m happy, and that’s all that matters to them.’
John pauses and flashes a joyous smile.
‘In truth, happiness for my family is all that matters to me too.’
John with his wife Odette
Their beautiful home in Dublin retains original features including the wooden shutters
Familiar territory, on the catwalk
Light streams through large windows
Coral bedding adds colour
Neutral colours and pared-back design
John collects modern art
The glass triple-height extension is one of John’s favourite spaces to relax in