A Chat With Simone Rocha
Simone Rocha spent the past 12 weeks dreaming of a remote corner in the west of Ireland. In reality, the 33-year-old designer from Dublin has passed the time in her lovely garden in London, planting, weeding and seeding. But such activity might prove to be the inspiration for a future collection – her Spring/Summer 2020 show stemmed from a local Irish festival in which men dress in hay and raffia, after all. These are clothes that bear the mark of the hand of their maker – full of the subversive femininity at the heart of Simone’s independently-owned brand. Penny Martin speaks to the designer about travel, her (almost-all) female team and exactly where and what she calls home.
Penny: When we first discussed doing this interview, you said that you, your partner, Eoin, and your daughter, Valentine, were spending lockdown in your garden in Hackney in east London, “pretending to be in Ireland”.
Simone: To the point that Eoin said, “This is like a bad holiday!” We’re now working, but the first month was spent in our lovely back garden, planting and weeding and seeding, pretending we were in Ballinskelligs, a really remote area in County Kerry. So, Eoin did his watercolours, I did loads of cooking and we were just dreaming of Ballinskelligs.
P: You’ve been 12 years in London but Ireland is still the motherland.
S: It is. My partner is an Irishman and we’re both very connected to home: the people, the landscape, the attitude. I’m British educated – I came out of the MA at Central Saint Martins under Louise Wilson, which I loved – but I’m Irish, I’m an Irish designer. Obviously, Jonathan Anderson is also Irish, and Richard Malone – I think it’s wild that it’s become a “thing”. What’s incredible about home is the influence of the hand. I think you can see that in anyone’s work who comes out of Ireland.
P: Do you mean handcrafts?
S: Things being made by hand, an understanding of textiles. It is manifest in the old, traditional mills – things like Carrickmacross lace or Waterford crystal, which I know isn’t fashion, but the use of water in the mill; there’s some connection between the landscape and the end product that makes it very special.
P: If we were discussing wine we’d be speaking about “terroir”. I’ve noticed Irish-looking things creeping into your social media recently – a bit of linen here, a Perry Ogden picture there. You’re sitting in front of a portrait of Shane MacGowan as we speak.
S: The big Shane! Well, Perry Ogden is a really old family friend; he and my dad used to play football together. But probably the most Irish thing Eoin and I do is listen to a huge amount of Irish music, like Lankum – drone music; it must sound so twee to the neighbours! And I read Irish novels nearly all the time.
P: What are you reading now?
S: I’m on the third part of Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy, which was originally banned in Ireland. It’s an amazing book.
P: Who or what is the “Ming” of your @simonemingming Instagram handle?
S: My middle name is MingMing, which is my Chinese name. I am Simone Cecilia MingMing Rocha. I was called “Ming” for years, and still am, it’s kind of my code; and it became our version of Rocha, which is why our daughter became Valentine Ming McLoughlin.
P: Your Irish-Chinese-Anglo identity encapsulated beautifully. Tell me about this curious St. Stephen’s Day festival that inspired your Spring/Summer collection.
S: In Ireland, we call Boxing Day “St. Stephen’s Day” or “Wren Day”. The tradition is that you hunt a Wren, but it’s evolved into a day that’s almost like trick or treating – it can be a bit raucous, all the lads from the countryside come into town, knocking on doors, asking for money. Traditional Wrens dress up in camouflage – in hay, and hats and raffia, all wrapped over their bodies. And I go through phases of doing collections that are so personal and then phases where I need a little psychological break. I felt I needed more of a “grass-roots” collection this spring.
P: And that’s when you came up with Wren Day?
S: My mum is from Birr in County Offaly and we started talking about the punky Wren boys we knew. I ended up speaking to lots of women, like the Irish actor Fiona Shaw, about their memories of the Wren boys and the actors Simone Kirby, Olwen Fouéré and Jessie Buckley ended up walking in the show.
P: What have you and your mum, Odette, your business partner, learned through opening your shops – first in London, then New York and last year Hong Kong?
S: Learning about retail has been good for me as a designer. What I do isn’t for everybody, but it is in touch with all different types of women, and with a store, you see that straight away. When we look back, I’m like, “Was it all short skirts?” and my mum is like, “Yes, Simone, it was ALL short skirts!” We have a few longer skirts now. Then, in the past three years, a new, younger customer came through doing jewellery and the hair slides, which started as embellishment on the clothes.
P: Is there a Simone Rocha type?
S: There is a running joke around here, because a lot of designers work in the area, that if you see someone in a big skirt with long hair – there’s maybe a hair slide, a cotton shirt and a practical shoe – they probably work at Simone’s. There’s femininity there, but it’s slightly provocative. No matter what I do, if you asked me to design a ballgown or a post-office uniform, that sentiment would run its way through it.
Simone is wearing a white broderie anglaise lace dress with red crystal beaded drop earrings; both are from her eponymous label, SIMONE ROCHA.
Interview by Penny Martin
Photography by Esther Theaker