Simone Rocha creates beautiful contradictions. The Irish designer, now based in London, excels in crafting pieces that are diaphanous yet solid, youthful yet mature, Western yet Eastern. With well-placed draping here or a strategic piece of sheer fabric there, Rocha adds movement to hefty coats and a lightness to dark gowns that in anyone else's hands might feel funereal. Her well-honed identity extends beyond her clothing collections and into her stores, the newest of which opened last month in New York City (the other is in London).
To enter Rocha's retail space is to enter her world, where you encounter her signature Perspex furniture pieces, sculptures and other favorite art (the New York store has a piece by Louise Bourgeois) in addition to her clothing designs. The New York shop even has the same custom rose-patterned cornice that Rocha and her partner have in their London home. The idea of the completely immersive retail experience is one she shares with the very first store to carry her pieces: Dover Street Market. Here, Rocha reflects on her relationship with DSM's founders, Adrian Joffe and Rei Kawakubo (also of Comme des Garçons), her grandmothers' enduring influences and the importance of emotion in fashion.
When did you first know you wanted to be a designer?
I've been around fashion my whole life, so I was always interested in dress and uniforms like my school uniform or nurses' uniforms. I was interested in how people dress and how it makes them feel. So I was always interested in clothes, and then it evolved when I was a teenager into making art. I went to art school and realized when I was there that the way I interpreted things was through clothes.
How have your tastes evolved over time and what has remained consistent?
I'm always attracted to historical clothes and also quite masculine clothes, which sounds crazy because I'm really known for my femininity. But it's how I can translate [masculine pieces] into feminine [ones], whether it is a classic peacoat or a trench.
Spring/Summer 2017 collection; photographs by Jackie Nickerson
You've previously talked a bit about the enduring influences of your two grandmothers -- one who is Chinese and the other Irish. How do they continue to inspire you?
My Irish granny was a real tomboy and was always in trousers and was a real practical woman, and I loved the idea of functionality in clothes as well as the decorative quality of it. Then my Chinese granny was much more reserved and very lady like. My Chinese family grew up with very little means, but their outlook in life was always to turn themselves out well and be proud of who they were. My granny would always be in a twinset, and I always try to put some of that femininity and elegance into my clothes.
Their two styles and personalities seem to perfectly encapsulate your love of blending masculine and feminine elements into your work. There's a personal connection to these more abstract ideas.
Designing is so emotional. It has to come from something personal; otherwise, it's just clothes. When someone sees my work, I like that it makes people feel something or reminds them of something or makes them feel comfortable or makes them feel uncomfortable enough that they want to challenge themselves. I think all of that is pretty important.
When did you first meet Adrian Joffe and Rei Kawakubo?
We met when I had graduated college after my M.A. I was showing off-schedule, and I showed my collection to Adrian and Rei. It was a real honor because I'd always been a huge admirer of Comme des Garçons as well as Dover Street Market and their whole ethos. When I was starting out in the industry, I felt a little bit out of place. I wasn't like a lot of the British designers who were around at the time. There was a lot of bodycon and it was very colorful and my first whole collection was black. And my second whole collection was white. And the third one, which was the one they came to see, was see-through. The whole ethos of the collection was that I was feeling so exposed because I didn't know how I fit in and at the end, that was the collection that brought me to DSM. Once I started working with Adrian and Comme des Garçons , I was like, "Oh! These are my people!" It was the first time I felt like, "It's ok. This is how it can be."
Photograph of Simone by Emmanuel Giraud