Although every fashion capital is defined by its own strength – Milan by its corporate clout, Paris its couture creators and New York its casual luxury – a London identity is a relatively new phenomenon. Mention "London designer" and the first thing that comes to mind is a young, up-and-coming Central Saint Martins graduate with a penchant for unbridled creativity and a certain lack of business acumen. In the last couple of years, however, the rebels of London Fashion Week have begun to tone down their antics, coming to the realisation that in this cutthroat industry you need market savvy to balance flights of fancy.
Simone Rocha, the Irish-born and London-based designer, daughter of Hong Kong-born and Dublin-based designer John Rocha, is part of this new generation of creators who are making a name for themselves by marrying creativity and a strong sense for what sells.
In spite of her connections, Rocha is far from fashion royalty. She did grow up going to shows and surrounded by clothes – her mother, Odette, helped John Rocha establish his label and is now doing the same for Simone – but her father, who recently retired, was a self-made man at the head of a small and independent brand, which is a business model that Simone is also planning to follow.
Rocha studied art before discovering that fashion was her calling and enrolled at Central Saint Martins, where she trained under the tutelage of the late Louise Wilson, the legendary professor who mentored designers such as Alexander McQueen. "Originally, it was very natural; it wasn’t like a eureka moment," says Rocha in a Paris showroom two weeks after her London show. "I was just always around fashion and always kind of worked in it and was very aware of fashion and design. When I finished school in Ireland I knew 100 percent that I was going to an art college and when I went there I originally thought I wouldn’t do fashion because it’s a little clichéd, but then I discovered when I was 18 that the best way for me to show my creativity was through design, through dress, through clothes, to help people wear clothes and that was really when it kind of clicked."
Clad in a cocooning coat embroidered with pearl appliqués from her spring/summer 2014 collection, which was the show that put her on the map, the low-key designer is not a glamorous girl-about-town. Now based in a studio in the East End, she was aware from the outset that building a viable business had to be her priority.
"Straight out of college, I was in Fashion East and then the London shows and I started to realise that I would need to start selling and producing," explains Rocha. "So after Fashion East I showed off schedule and it was the first time that I got Dover Street Market and Colette to order my line, which is how I started learning how I needed to build my business to get everything moving along so I could get my deliveries to them, set up for the following season ... and that opened a lot more doors. You don’t get told in college, so you kind of organically pick it up and what’s great in London is that there’s a lot of advice and a lot of support, so that really helped me figure out how to build the business."
What attracted retailers such as Colette was Rocha’s ability to build a signature aesthetic that made her stand out among the sea of digital prints and daring dressing typical of the London scene. Building upon a romantic and feminine signature of A-line dresses and quirky details such as those widely copied pearl accents or a modern and unexpected use of tulle, Rocha has found a following among offbeat ingénues who love nothing more than pairing their embellished frocks with a pair of mannish brogues.
Those tomboyish shoes, however, aren’t actually borrowed from the boys. Featuring Perspex stacked heels and coming in an array of colours from classic black to fluorescent green, Rocha’s brogues became a runaway hit and an instant classic, updated every season. It’s not often that an emerging designer is able to create a successful accessory at the start of her career but Rocha did it, clearly aware of the importance of bags and shoes when it comes to the bottom line.
As a female designer, Rocha also knows that women want to look beautiful but not at the expense of comfort and ease. "I think of a dress on a woman; how they would feel in it so they’re not wearing something uncomfortable," she says, adding that the lesson she learned from her father is "that things should be beautiful and not aggressive. To make things that are beautiful even if they’re interesting or alienating at first. It’s very important that there’s always beauty."
But perhaps it’s her father’s Asian background that has in more than any other way shaped her aesthetic. Growing up in Ireland but often travelling to Hong Kong to see her grandmother and relatives, Rocha is gifted with a truly global outlook, which is an invaluable asset in this ever more connected and international business.
"I absolutely love the city," Rocha says of Hong Kong. "I love going up the mountain and then looking down at the city and I used to do that a lot as a kid. Last time I was there I went up on the tram to the Peak with my brother and that really reminds me of being a kid in Hong Kong. When I was younger I was obsessed with cutesy, schoolgirl uniforms and I’m really inspired by that kind of thing and the local fruit and all that. More recently I’ve been looking a lot at the elderly, because I think they’re amazing. There’s a lot of twin sets, a lot of matchy matchy. I’m into the whole matchy matchy look. I get a lot from looking at Hong Kong."
Spring/summer 2015 is a clear homage to her Asian heritage, with Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love and its atmospheric setting the starting point for the collection. "The film’s title was The Flowery Years before it was translated into English and I kind of ran with that and that’s where the whole idea of all the florals came from. I was looking at my Chinese heritage and my grandmother, her skinny trench coats and trousers and silk pyjamas," explains the designer.
"I absolutely love being independent and to get to be part of this whole world," adds Rocha when asked whether she would ever consider taking the reins of a bigger house, as many fellow Londoners have done in recent years. The fashion industry has no doubt embraced her with open arms but it’s all those girls snapping up her pieces who are helping Rocha’s world grow bigger every day.