IN THE WAKE OF HER GLORIOUS, ELIZABETHAN-EDGED AUTUMN COLLECTION, YOUNG LONDON DESIGNER SIMONE ROCHA CHATS WITH COMME DES GARÇONS’ ADRIAN JOFFE ABOUT CONTINENT-HOPPING, SHOP SPACES AND THE IMPORTANCE OF OLFACTION
Adrian Joffe has known Simone Rocha since she was child, and so seemed uniquely placed to talk to the young designer, whose show has become of London’s most talked about. In addition, Comme des Garçons, of which he is president, now has shops-within-shops dedicated to her work at three of their locations, and they’ve worked on various projects together. When we join them however, the pair are debating the very important topic of pets: Adrian has just revealed that he and his wife Rei Kawakubo used to have six cats at home in Japan.
Adrian: We liked cats, but there’s none left – they’re all gone. So nothing at the moment. But with travelling and everything it’s sad to leave animals alone, isn’t it?
Simone: That’s exactly what happened to me. We ended up moving around so much. They really need company.
What do you think about all the travelling involved with your job? Do you enjoy it?
I really do enjoy it. I love going to other places and feeling kind of alien.
Did you used to travel a bit before you started travelling for work? Were you ever a backpacker?
I did go backpacking once, to Thailand, when I was in college with an old boyfriend – it was a terrible experience! Thailand and Cambodia. I always travelled, obviously because dad’s from Hong Kong.
So you went to Asia a lot?
I’ve always come and gone from Asia. We always took Easter holidays there. Our summer holidays were always Easter holidays because of the seasons – we’d always go to Hong Kong to see family and then we’d stick somewhere else on the end of it.
Oh lovely. So you’ve seen all of South East Asia then?
Yeah – Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam. And more recently I’ve got to go to places like Japan. It’s nice to be able to go there and it doesn’t feel super alien. Which I enjoy.
What about this feeling of being alien? Being half Chinese, half Irish – does that influence your work do, you think? Do you feel Chinese or Irish? Or does it not matter?
I think it does matter. They’re so different. But one thing that is very important in both Irish culture and Chinese culture is family. So both my mum and dad have really big families and really important relationships with all their family. I love being Irish and not looking Irish, and I love going to Hong Kong and knowing that my granny lives there and my aunts and uncles, and I can go out and they’ll all speak Cantonese and play Mahjong. One of my collections was about both my grandmothers – Irish and Chinese – who are really different. I was trying to make a contrast – they are both women of a generation but in completely different places and they had a completely different relation to dress.
I’m guessing though that you don’t like to be referred to as Simone Rocha the half Chinese, half Irish designer. That limits you, doesn’t it?
I’d rather just be a designer. But I am very proud. I don’t mind being called an Irish designer because a lot of people call me a British designer. I can feel the whole Ireland of Ireland kicking off when that happens!
What’s your least favourite question? ‘Why are you in fashion’? Or is there a worse one?
‘How does it feel to be a fashion designer’s daughter?’ But then it doesn’t even annoy me – because I am, and I’m super proud of who I am. it.
From what I know and from all the years we’ve known each other, I don’t think you’ve ever been burdened down by that problem, by being John’s daughter. You’ve always had your own voice and you’ve always been very free in your sense of yourself from the beginning.
Well, I’ve been so lucky. My parents gave me all that freedom. They were like, ‘We’re in fashion – don’t do it, it’s a nightmare.’ And when I said it was what I really wanted to do, they said I should do it my own way. And I have a really wonderful relationship with them, as you know.
Do you remember your first memory of liking fashion? Was there one thing that set your love of fashion in motion?
It actually just felt totally natural being around fashion, being around clothes. I absolutely love the smell of plastic bags – you know, when everything’s being hung up and shipped out.
Did you pack boxes for dad and do that kind of thing?
Well, originally I made forts out of the boxes. The insides of the fabric rolls were really great for the chimneys. I pretty much grew up in the studio.
It could have gone both ways. You could have rebelled and said this wasn’t what you wanted to do.
I started off dyeing tights and socks, and then learning how to crochet and knit – this was all when I was in college and at the shows working backstage like a runner. I decided to do fine art originally, because I thought fashion would be a cliché. But after a year in college I’d done sculpture, ceramics, print – and then the very last discipline was fashion. And then I was like, ‘Oh no, this is it – this is how I can translate my creativity.’
Did it feel like a way of expressing yourself, or was it about make a living? Did you have that dichotomy?
It’s funny, because I didn’t really care about any of it till about seven years ago. I didn’t care about school, and even when I was in college I didn’t really care about it. I was actually a terrible student. I was abysmal in my BA. None of my teachers thought I cared. And I didn’t. But I was still producing work and there was obviously something in it!
You were having fun I hope then!
That was the problem! I was having far too much fun – far too interested in socialising. But then got in on the MA, and around two weeks into it… Well, I’d never cared so much about something in my whole life.
Do you take into account any kind of commercial factors when you’re making a collection? Do you have mum and dad telling you to add a couple of easy T-shirts?
My mum [who works on some aspects of Simone Rocha] is more aware of it than I am. But we’ve been able to do a balance [so] that even if I add in some more product like T-shirts and whatever it still has to be something that makes sense, belongs to the collection. I can’t wear every piece from the collection but sometimes I’d like to wear something more relaxed with it so it doesn’t feel like a show.
Do you go to visit the stores that stock your collections are?
Very much so.
That’s important too, I think.
So important. It can be very vain not to want to know where you are, and who you sit alongside in your environment. It’s really important because it’s the same thing [as desinging clothes]: it’s an emotion, its a feeling you get. I started travelling originally with Dover Street Market after London. When I got to go to the Ginza [Dover Street Market], that was my first big store trip away. Getting to do the exhibition for you guys was amazing. It was fun.
Working all night in the garage putting flowers and plants together – that was incredible. The grass in your hair!
We did the window in London and then it got transported to Ginza for your anniversary. Me and one of my assistants arrived [at the store] – straight into the lift, down into the car park, to pick up the flower sculpture and around eight pieces – and the whole thing had died! We were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s dead and we’re in Japan’, so we went to the Japanese B&Q to get garden wire and cutters, and then to the flower market, and we rebuilt it all overnight in the car park.
Overnight – I remember that. It was amazing. It smelt delicious.
It did smell delicious – thank God, because it meant it was alive. We did loads of eucalyptus and mimosa. It was all about the feeling, the smell, the whole environment…
Of the garden where you grew up in Ireland, right?
Exactly. That collection was all about when I was a teenager – something very personal again, which is why I wanted the work we made there to feel very personal.
So now you’ve done three shops with Dover Street. Did you always have a vision of how your clothes would look in a retail space?
I didn’t until you gave me the opportunity. That really opened my eyes to how it could be and how things could hang. It also made me think about the collection in a different way.
Can we do your perfume too?
That would be fabulous! I’d love that. I already know what it would smell like.
The garden in your back yard? Or something else?
Something else. Something real but something really special.
Well there’s an idea. A LOVE exclusive! On that subject, do you have any other new projects you’d like to tell us about?
Yes – I’m doing a collaboration with J Brand. it’s going to be a capsule collection. I wanted to do something completely surprising. For me, denim is such a different cloth – trying to balance that what I do and the femininity of it has been really exciting.
Denim and Simone Rocha don’t seem the most obvious pairing.
I don’t wear jeans. I don’t even own a pair of jeans.
I must say, our first reaction was, oh my God, no!
It’s good to get a reaction. And I would only ever do something that was a challenge and that I could learn.
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet here as this is about Simone, but I think we should also mention it’s Dover Street Market’s tenth birthday on 10 September.
The day before my birthday!
Which is why we’re going to have to have a joint birthday party. Can we mention that Simone is doing for us?
I’m going to do some very special things for your birthday. Ten years! I can’t say what it is yet. It’s a surprise, but it’ll be good!