Before we’ve ever met, Rok Hwang manages to come across as accommodating and kind. He is extremely cooperative as outside forces cause numerous changes to our schedules and meetings, just telling me not to worry and wishing me a lovely weekend. When we finally meet at his studio, he is just as calm and considerate in the flesh. He and his wife Stella, the joint creative powerhouse behind the brand, offer cups of tea and apologise for their barking Japanese Spitz puppy before we’ve even sat down.
The desire to make others comfortable spills happily over into Rok’s everyday working life; he explains that one of his main priorities is to make the working atmosphere a positive one. “We try to make it a fun experience, and enjoyable, we just laugh a lot… I wanted to make the team really happy.” This goal has come from Rok’s own journey in the fashion industry. Moving straight from graduation to a position at Céline, he explored dynamics of teamwork, finding it a completely different process, compared to working on his own ideas in formal education.
Despite following on with stints at Chloe and Louis Vuitton, and now launching his own label, Rok remains ambitious and humbly admits he still hasn’t had that moment of thinking “this is really happening.” He chose to pursue work with famous French houses, largely because it had always been a personal goal, but also as he didn’t feel ready to start his own brand at that time, “…and I still don’t,” he laughs.
“Louise Wilson always said you have to be really brave to start your own thing and there’s really no right time… It really struck me. There’s no time to do it perfectly… So let’s give it a go, let’s start the game!” I ask how he feels about the path he’s taken to set up ROKH studios, and whether he would recommend other graduates to take the same route. He seems unsure, because of the huge depth of knowledge he gained from his time at other brands, but then he talks about the excitement of finally establishing his own brand, and his sentences are punctuated with smiles. “It’s more fun and exciting,” he exclaims, “If you’re going to do it, maybe just do it straight after graduation. There are a lot of support systems in London. It’s the best place to start.”
He remembers his time at CSM with a certain amount of nostalgia, but acknowledges that it was also a difficult period. He’s changed since then, he believes, not least in terms of dress. He gestures at his practical black jumpsuit and tells us that his wardrobe used to be a lot more dramatic; himself and his classmates changed their ways once they entered the world of work. “My friends are all grown up now, all cleaned up now… I hate the word chic, but that’s how they are.”
At ROKH studios, this process of transformation into maturity has been harnessed as inspiration for the current collection. Any sense of sadness disappears when Rok and Stella invite us to take a look at the clothes themselves. “We try to keep classic shapes but with different structures and lots of focus on details…you can play around,” Rok explains as he shows us some pieces. Their beauty makes the atmosphere Rok captures seem incredibly positive, and subversive in its own quieter way. The range definitely has a widespread appeal; Rok has created some edgier garments along with very classic pieces. “It’s not very radical, it’s really subtle, but there are flashes of skin.”
Rok and Stella are both reserved and gracious, unable to artificially pose for the camera. Lies starts to take photos as we sit and talk and they both relax, yet still Rok looks uncomfortable every time he hears the shutters click; he’s much happier when she’s shooting the studio or the collection itself. Despite the emphasis Rok puts on the brand as a joint collaboration between himself and Stella, she shyly declines to appear in the photos. The couple both went to Central Saint Martins but never met during their years as students, only getting to know each other afterwards. Then just as Stella was considering a move back to New York, the two met and got married. They are just as discreet and modest about their relationship as their considerable talents. They smile at each other as they decline to tell the story of how they met. “It’s private…and quite funny,” laughs Rok. In an age of over-exposure, it’s admirable that they keep these memories for only themselves. Even the brand name, ROKH, was a purposeful decision in line with this discretion: “I didn’t want to project my image. When you think of some labels, you think instantly of that designer, that person. I didn’t want that.”
The studio itself is bright, airy and beautiful, filled with natural light and a collection of vintage clothes Rok has collected since his student days for inspiration, alongside piles of i-D and Dazed from the late 90s and early 2000s. Despite living and working in the same space, Rok and Stella have set rules to keep their professional and personal lives separate. They don’t read emails outside of working hours, and they try not to talk about their business plans or collections. “It took a year to find the atmosphere we wanted for the brand, but we’re on the right track,” Stella tells us.
Having just showed at London Fashion Week for the first time, Rok and Stella plan to grow the brand slowly, to keep their business sustainable over time without burning out too soon. As they look to the future, I ask Rok what he would do if he could relive his MA at Central Saint Martins. “If I could go back, I would try out more extreme stuff. After graduation it’s much harder to do whatever you want to do,” he says, and repeats this also as his advice for current students: just to be as extreme as possible.
Words by Elizabeth Brauders
Photography by Lies Scheps