It’s almost like a play,” Simone Rocha says of putting together a fashion collection. “There’s a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative.” Rocha has had narratives on her mind lately—beginnings and middles, though certainly not ends. She’s looking back on slightly over 10 years of shows, an eternity for an independent fashion brand. Sitting in the lobby of a celebrity-frequented downtown New York hotel, she nurses a cup of tea, unmistakable in ruffled, voluminous all-black and chunky jewelry, and remembers the beginning.
It was 2011, and the “tough girl” ruled fashion. It Bags practically came standard-issue with studs, and sludge-eyelinered models were the street-style flavor du jour. Rocha’s first solo show at London Fashion Week struck me, then a baby ELLE writer, as a breath of rose petal–scented fresh air. Some of her models wore textured white meringue-like confections that appeared to float down the runway. Being a girlie girl was then the antithesis of cool, but Rocha didn’t care. Femininity, she say sin her sound bath–soft Irish lilt, “has a kind of undercurrent to it, this idea of strength beneath, and I’ve always been intrigued by the combination of both.” When she showed Perspex-heeled shoes the previous year as part of the Fashion East group show, for example, they were masculine brogues. She wanted to contrast the shoes’ heaviness with “something light and sensitive and almost fragile,” she says. “And it just so happened that at that time, it wasn’t the zeitgeist. So it felt very alien.” Designers were in thrall to the new craze of digital prints, but she was a DIY girl. “What I’ve always done has been very hand-focused from the beginning,” she notes, whether that’s embroidery or crochet or hand-painting on garments.
Rocha has evolved a visual signature that relies on a few key elements: not only femininity and handcrafting, but also a palette that feels all her own. She’s always been attracted to the drama of red, she says. “It symbolizes love, but also blood and pain. I love mixing it with other colors to see how that can create a new tension and friction.” Her reds stand out against a background of mostly black and white, chosen because “I’ve always loved exploring the light and dark together.”
And then there’s the intensely intimate quality that makes her work almost more like autofiction than a play. For Rocha, the personal is, if not political, then at least sartorial. Smuggling elements of her own experience into a collection, she says, “makes it more than just clothes off the rack.” The daughter of a Chinese fashion designer father and an Irish mother who managed his business, Rocha has put both sides of her heritage into her work, showing collections inspired by the Chinese tradition of Ancestors’ Day (the Qing Ming Festival) and by traditional Irish techniques like Carrickmacross lace and Aran knits. “I always found that connection between history and family and how it’s translated into garments really interesting,” she says.
Her excursions often lead her deeper into her home country’s lore. “I will go down a wormhole and find a fable about Ireland that’s really interesting the more I look into it,” she says. “It could be from the turn of the century, but you feel it’s very relevant today.” She’s drawn from the natural landscape of Ireland as well, evoking the sea with wet-look Lurex yarn and turning the straw traditionally worn on Wren’s Day festivities into hay macramé embellishments. And she often looks to the trappings of Catholic ritual, from christenings to weddings to funerals. “I do think it comes from growing up in Ireland and the weightiness of things like wakes,” she says. (After we finish our conversation, she urges me to check out part of an installation in her SoHo store around the corner: an archway with Perspex panels that resemble stained glass. Two Rocha employees who share the designer’s ethereal warmth guide me under its rosy arches, and I feel at that moment like I’m in fashion church.)
Of late, since Rocha has two young daughters, her narrative has expanded to include motherhood. Her spring 2022 collection evoked swaddling clothes and nursing bras, shining a light on garments that usually belong to the closed world of the maternity ward, not the runway. She had an impulse toward “the exploration of these things that are not really discussed,” deciding to give them a catwalk-worthy glamour. Case in point: a heavily embellished maternity bra. That collection, which marked her first in-person show in a year, “felt almost like a baptism for myself.”
Her children’s birth really has brought a rebirth of sorts for Rocha. Having daughters, she says, “made me want to be very strong for them and really [show] them what you can do. I’m very proud of my work, and it’s made me take it much more seriously. But at the same time, because one of my girls is six and she has this amazing innocence, the naïveté of that has also inspired me. So it’s a mix of the severity and then the naïveté, and I’ve found that really inspiring as well.” Innocence and experience, severity and softness: It might just be the ultimate metaphor for Rocha’s life’s work.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of ELLE.
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