“I don’t carry a handbag, so everything I design gets pockets,” Simone Rocha says in a sweet Irish lilt as she shows me a gamine cocktail dress: sleeveless, tailored from simple nude silk organza, with a tiered petticoat skirt made of soft black neoprene; the pockets in question are slashed into the seam and lined in see-through black silk tulle. It’s beautiful to look at and easy to pull off—a modern, lady-like frock with a splash of avant-garde. But the dress is even more fun to touch. When I press the skirt, it bounces back with a spring. Suddenly I’m mushing and squeezing it so fiendishly that I’m having a hard time putting it back on the rack. “I know,” Rocha says with a laugh, her heart-shaped face blushing. “It’s like bubble wrap, isn’t it?”
In its tactile quality, yes, but there’s nothing disposable about this dress, nor any of the pieces in Rocha’s eponymous collection. The clothes are impressively structured, and though they mix a lot of elements—retro and vanguard, handmade and techno, sweet and tough—none of them is overpowering. For such a young designer (she’ll be 28 in September), Rocha seems to be surprisingly aware of who she is and what she likes. In her ability to create wearable pieces that are just out-there-enough for Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Rita Ora, she’s well beyond her years.
Rocha, who graduated with a master’s from Central Saint Martins in 2010, has been showing at London Fashion Week for a couple of years, but her real breakout happened last season when she sent out, among other highlights, an egg-shaped collarless faux-leopard-fur coat; extra-wide-legged trousers paired with Perspex-soled brogues; and a stiffly structured Pepto-Bismol pink topcoat that ended up in virtually every indie fashion magazine. When Rocha collected her British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent in Womenswear in December, she wore a skirt suit in the same fabric as that coat, with black patent leather loafers. “It was fun to wear pink!” she says. “Normally I never do. It’s quite naïve.”
Rocha has been backstage at fashion shows, she says, “since I was a baby in a basket,” at the side of her father, the Hong Kong-born, Dublin-based designer John Rocha, and her mother, Odette, who is John’s manager. (John Rocha may not be a household name in America, but in the UK, and especially Ireland, he is everywhere, with high-end ready-to-wear, a richly minimalist line of design furniture, silver jewelry, and an in-house collection for the behemoth British department store Debenhams.) Practically as soon as Simone was out of diapers, she was expected to make herself useful backstage. “I started out making tea and buying tights and underwear. Eventually I learned to knit and crochet, and I spent some time in the pattern-cutting room with the interns. I did that right alongside going to college.” Though she initially studied art, she quickly switched to fashion. “People always ask me if it was glamorous growing up,” she muses. “You know what? It wasn’t. That life is hard. I marked my entire childhood in show seasons.”
Now it’s her parents who are helping her out. Odette is Simone’s business partner, and John acts as a sounding board. For father and daughter, fabrics are of paramount importance—whether they are natural and obsessively embellished like John’s, or coated, treated, and blended like Simone’s. But where John’s work is poetic and woozily romantic, Simone’s has a whiff of Japanese-inspired intellectualism. In fact, when Simone isn’t wearing her own designs, which is most of the time, she is in Comme des Garçons. Fittingly, her line, which has recently expanded to include sober leather handbags, is carried at Comme des Garçons’ Dover Street Market multi-brand stores in London and New York; it just hit Saks Fifth Avenue, too. It’s an impressive roster for a woman who is in the early stages of her career, but so far she’s taking it all in stride. “The original plan wasn’t a label of this scale,” Rocha confesses. “I’ve never before learned so much so quickly.” That’s saying something.
Hair by Chi Wong at Julian Watson Agency; makeup by Mathias van Hooff at Julian Watson Agency. Models: Li Ann, Helena Bickley, Imogen Rochester, and Stina Olsson at Storm. Digital technician: Tom Weatherill; photography assistants: Edward Singleton, Lindsay Watson; fashion Aassistant: Philip Smith; production: Belinda Foord at Shiny Projects.