Creative inheritance

From the IAR Archive

Fashion designer Simone Rocha’s rise to fame by Deirdre McQuillan

Fashion was bound to determine Simone Rocha’s career.  The young Irish designer’s rise to international recognition has been rapid and sure-fire, her collections continuing to wow buyers and press alike. The daughter of veteran designer John Rocha and his wife Odette, she grew up in a creative household in Dublin inheriting a family interest in fine art, music and design. As a teenager, she was a regular presence at her father’s twice-yearly London catwalk shows, usually tottering around on impossibly high heels, but all the while developing her eye.

Her graduate collection at NCAD entitled ‘Les Corps’ inspired by the artist Louise Bourgeois earned her a first class honours degree and this was followed by the notoriously demanding two-year MA fashion course in London’s Central St Martins (CSM).  Like Philip Treacy and other Irish designers, London is now her base and her support centre, though Ireland and her mixed Irish-Chinese heritage continue to inform her work. From the moment she made her catwalk debut as one of the 21 graduates of CSM at London Fashion Week with a collection drawn from the Aran Islands and Perry Ogden’s images of pony kids in Dublin’s Smithfield Market, her work displayed a hard-edged elegance that characterized her style and marked her out as a talent to watch. ’It’s about romance with a bit of grit’ she commented afterwards.

Later that year she presented an all-white collection drawing from her Celtic and Chinese roots featuring masculine tailoring softened with net and wispy tulle and launched a capsule range of accessories for Topshop. That same year she was one of 21 young designers selected by the British Fashion Council to present their winter 2011 collections in Paris and received further funding in 2012 to enable her to host a show at London Fashion Week.

That show in February 2013, its starting points Cy Twombly’s sculptures and photographer/skateboarder Ed Templeton’s images of teenagers, was the surprise hit of London Fashion Week. With its roomy silhouettes, gold-flecked Linton tweed and futuristic tulle trapped in plastic, the boyish shapes were sharply tailored in white lace or broderie anglaise. ‘Youthful and unruly’ she called it. The patent leather brogues elevated on wood and coloured Perspex became something of a trademark.

Since then her rise has been meteoric, her collections daring yet always striking at the heart of modern femininity. Particularly notable was the winter 2013 collection called ‘Respect Your Elders’, a tribute to her Irish and Chinese grandmothers. Its mannish Lucite loafers offset the prettiness of its pink neoprene coats and tinsel tweed dresses in her signature way of connecting a feminine sensibility to a masculine aesthetic. A wedding in Connemara ‘soft and rough, balance and constraint’ informed her spring 2014 collection where pearl-laced dresses and pop socks were toughened up with punkish hair and silver loafers.

The twenty-eight year old designer is now steadily acquiring star status. Her collections are stocked in luxury department stores and boutiques around the world, her clothes worn by celebrities from Saoirse Ronan to Rihanna and Katy Perry. Her latest collection for winter 2014 launched at Tate Modern was another knockout show, her former fashion professor Louise Wilson OBE remarking afterwards that the designer had not lost her youthful spirit.

This one saw Rocha explore historic ideas of femininity and translate them into a modern idiom following a visit to an exhibition on Elizabeth I and her people at the National Portrait Gallery. ‘So I came home and thought how can I translate that for someone today who is young and rebellious but still feminine – my thing’, she told Vogue. The results: swag-hipped yellow snakeskin dresses crusted with amber beading, shearling and faux fur coats, silver skirts, brushed wool dresses and pointed pony skin boots. It was elegant and romantic, but also fun and practical in a Tudor-for-today way. Her next commercial challenge is more prosaic and will test her creativity; she is to create a collection for the US label J Brand later this year. That will be one to watch.

Deirdre McQuillan is fashion editor of The Irish Times.

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