The perfectly imperfect designs of Rokh
From caravans in Texas to deconstructed tailoring genius, meet Rok Hwang - the man behind the clothing label Rokh.
At first sight, Rok comes across as painfully shy. Even his passion cannot overcome his humility. You wouldn’t necessarily scout him out as a fashion designer, but the second you walk into his hideaway, all white North London studio space and see his latest collection immaculately lined up along the back wall, you sense he’s destined to be a serious player.
Rok talks calmly and quietly trying to find the exact words to express his vision accurately. As he carefully wafts along the rail to show me his current collection he offers modest smiles, while explaining the detail and craftsmanship that goes into getting even the inside of the garment looking perfect. It would be easy to forget that the designer talking to me has not even officially launched yet, but he takes a deserved sense of pride in his work – about which he talks with such knowledge, clarity, confidence and professionalism.
Rok’s goal from the start has been to create desirable, wearable yet timeless garments, entwining craft and quality. Exploring the existential teenage experience gives Rok’s work unusual emotional depth, producing collections that hone in on Rok’s conception of the “Rokh woman.” We have all lived that youthful exuberance combining total self-belief with continuous self-doubt. The vulnerability of this existential moment is what Rok’s work aims to encapsulate. They are familiar yet unique renditions of classic garments like biker jackets, trench coats and suiting. Creating pieces that add to, and transform, existing collections by giving the customer’s current wardrobe a touch of what you could consider raw attitude and unique detailing.
Can you start by telling us a bit about your upbringing and what lead to you coming to London to study at CSM?
I was born in Korea and educated in London and the USA. I never considered fashion as my end goal growing up. I had a very normal upbringing living with my family in Austin Texas. Random, I know, but I loved it. My father studied there and he was such a hippy. We lived in a caravan amongst nature. I moved back to Korea to complete my studies and stayed until I was 18 before moving to London. I had no idea what CSM was, as I was not interested in fashion at all. I did the foundation at CSM and fell into fashion that way, but music was originally what made me come to the UK.
During you time at CSM you completed the BA in menswears and then did the renowned MA, where you developed an interest in womenswear. Can you describe how your student years inspired you and what you learnt?
I loved every second at CSM, developing myself as an artist around such inspirational people. It was a natural progression to go from mens- to womenswear. I know my work is very masculine, and I work with a lot of tailoring. The contradiction of masculine tailoring and using very fragile women excites me. I love to use menswear finishes in all my work.
After graduating you worked as a designer for Celine under Phoebe Philo, then as a freelancer for Louis Vuitton and Chloe. Can you tell us what is was like working at such highly regarded companies?
For me it was such an amazing experience to work in those studios and be able to see how they do what they do. It has helped me to understand the process, the attention to detail and the workmanship. I learnt about what it truly meant to be a luxury brand and how to really construct a justly luxury piece of clothing. That experience was priceless. There is no right way to start your own brand but for me learning from such talent has been what has helped me on my journey. It helped me to understand my design philosophy, developed my point of view, and gave me different ways of approaching garments.
With thousands of fashion graduates all chomping at the bit to create their own brands, it’s only the persistent who can translate from messy art school studio to establishing a fashion brand from the ground up. Fewer still can make it last. Did being able to get a comprehensive understanding of development to execution of an idea gave you the confidence to go it alone?
Yes. After working I felt ready to go out and create my own brand. It gave me confidence in my vision, and I saw a place for it in the market. Learning about production and factories and all the things you need to create a successful brand meant I knew how everything worked and where to go for what I would need for my own brand. The companies and friends I made there still show me a lot of support and guidance. I also learnt about the importance of having a brand muse – a woman that encapsulates what you want to project to the world. My experience made me see first-hand what a difference that makes.
Determining the importance of the woman you identify with the brand is clearly very important to you. Who is she?
Rokh was launched in 2016 emphasising on timeless, deconstructed clothing as wardrobe staples. The Rokh woman is fragile, unapologetic, questioning, intelligent, confident but rattled by that uncertainty of youth. I envision her as that young woman we all once were, representing a generation. That young woman trying to find her place in the world, fragile and beautiful. Blissfully unaware.
Your garments seem to have been designed with longevity in mind, crafted to last season after season. What is the most important part of the process for you?
Fabric is fundamental as it is what you first see when you notice a garment on the rail. That is what you will always notice first, not the cut and construction. We will only use the best fabrics. For me it’s the feel of the fabric not just the look. We really study our fabrics and they are always our starting point. We weave our own as well as create our own colours, and we also spend a huge amount of time and effort to source perfect fabric. We will then see what fabrics work with what construction we are experimenting with that season.
Owning your own brand and being your own boss will never be easy, have you ever contemplated giving up?
Never. This is my path and I love every second of it. Yes, it can be hard but that is all part of learning and my journey. What keeps me going on a daily basis is my team, and my love and belief for my brand. I love the whole process and the development of the brand, the good and the bad. I have taken it slow and it has all be gradual, so luckily we have not had any crashes.
It is refreshing to experience this humble and kind attitude which can so often be lost in the fashion world!
The reality is, I work for myself and also for my team we all have the same goal to really made this brand work. We are a unit and that’s what keeps me going. I am lucky to have them. I started with zero, but I have taken my time and really enjoyed the whole process of developing my team and brand.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you first started Rokh?
Leaving my job was a huge decision and a hard one. It was a big risk. I am design trained so initial challenges came with understanding sales and press. Getting my work to the right people was of course a challenge to start with. I have always been very selective with who shoots, styles and sells my work. I think these aspects are very important to an authentic vision.
By keeping your work only available to selected stylists, magazines and stores it appears you have been able to build a very loyal and dedicated fan base. Have you always known the importance of this selective attitude?
Most of the people that have been involved are here because they love what we are doing and as long as I am true to me then the people who support me are the right people. We have now started getting a lot of traction from places I love, and therefore I am really excited to be involved with them. Now feels like the exact right time to do a show or presentation. I have always been aware of how important it is to be selective in the choices I make and I will always be careful. In my mind, there has been no rush to publically launch. I am more concerned about making amazing clothes and brand longevity. I want my customers to be happy and to want to keep their purchases and be in love with them forever.
Would you be able to explain the thought process and the inspiration behind your work?
I write a lot but I live and breathe the Rokh woman, and I am constantly dreaming of who she is what she would be doing in different situations. That’s where collections start. I always go back to her. Creating the Rokh woman’s wardrobe is always on my mind. Who is she today, what is she wearing, how would she wear it? I want everything to be relatable and understandable.
It feels like the Rokh woman represents that uncertain time we have all felt or perhaps still do, that beautiful but often scary time, that nomad stage. It seems all your research, collections and work is focused on creating this woman authentically, is this true?
Everything is created based on this emotion and trying to represent it in clothing. Nothing I create is polished, it is always unfinished. The deconstructed garments I make take hundreds of fittings to get right. I don’t always know when to finish a garment but it’s almost always mid-process. It’s a difficult thing to get right. I never want the pieces to be fully finished so I have to know when to stop working on a piece because I feel it is just the right amount of finished.
In a way, you’re striving to make perfectly imperfect garments?
That’s exactly it, Naomi. Perfect imperfection!