Simone Rocha shows how sticking to your guns triumphs
Words Alysha Lee
Simone Rocha has risen to fashion prominence through diligence and sticking to her ethos at all times. In an industry where press too often lauds handsful of emerging designers as ‘the best things ever to have happened to fashion’ and conversely drop them two seasons in, it is admirable to see how Rocha has employed the same design principles in each collection, and critics are over the moon. From her MA graduate work to the Fashion East years, and ‘flying solo’ since 2012, it is reassuring to know that one doesn’t need to change every season to gain success. Perhaps Simone’s purity is what led her to win the British Womenswear Designer award at the Fashion Awards this year, which previously has been taken home by CSM graduates including John Galliano (1987), Alexander McQueen (1996), Hussein Chalayan (2000), Phoebe Philo (2004) and Christopher Kane (2013). Quite a remarkable list to join indeed.
We spoke with Simone Rocha and Maarten van der Horst for our fourth issue, and to celebrate this wonderful Award news – we would like to share an excerpt with you, in which they discuss the MA Fashion hardships (Louise Wilson and ‘pussy placement’), the important mistakes to make running your own brand, and why she is still 100% the same designer as she was when she first walked into Central Saint Martins.
“When you are a student, although everyone is trying to make their own way and battling really hard, there is a camaraderie where you all just feel down together.” – Simone Rocha
Maarten van der Horst: How long ago did you graduate? Was it five or six years?
Simone Rocha: I think it was six years, one year before you.
Maarten: Because I spent an extra year there for “special” reasons. I just have this horrible memory on my Facebook – you know they sometimes give these memories and it says “5 years ago today…” and it’s just so bizarre, because you realise how many different people you’ve been in the past five years. It’s crazy how that goes.
Simone: I miss it actually.
Maarten: What, being a student?
Simone: Yeah. I miss the individuality of it. Because obviously now, I have a company so everything is 20 people. Every decision has to go through a lot of people. I mean, there aren’t a lot of people involved, but everyone has to know what’s going on. When you were a student, it was just you.
Maarten: Yes, but a big contrast is that when you were a student, or at least when I was a student, we were fighting for our own individuality and finding out who we were, but we were less lonely. For some reason, I feel that being a designer, your ideas have to go through so many other people and it’s so much lonelier.
Simone: It’s way more isolating. For sure.
Maarten: Why is that?
Simone: When you have the realities of being a living, working designer in the industry, it creates a lot of responsibility and I think that can be isolating. Whereas I think, when you are a student, although everyone is trying to make their own way and battling really hard, there is a camaraderie where you all just feel down together. I don’t know, maybe I now have a more romanced memory of it – the good and the bad.
Maarten: Well, I don’t have a romanced memory of it. One of my most painful memories is when we were both in Louise’s office and she was screaming at us about the placement of embroidery!
Simone: She was SCREAAAAAMING!
Maarten: I will never forget that! There’s nothing romantic about that, when she screamed “On the pussy! On the pussy!” I guess there is a part I miss about it – but also when I had my own label, and we would see each other in the showroom.
Simone: Remember that dinner in Paris?
Maarten: Exactly! I would be so excited to see you, and you’d feel that camaraderie again. I felt so lonely as a designer. So lonely. I hated it.
Simone: I have to admit, if I didn’t work with my family, I would find it incredibly more difficult. Because I’m with my family, there is that feeling of support – there are people close to you who understand. If I didn’t have them, I would find it incredibly alienating.
Maarten: Yeah, because you have that automatic sense of belonging as well, of course.
Simone: The fancy dinners are not the same without you.
Maarten: Yeah, that was always fun. But that is also such a big difference for me being a stylist. I love working in the moment with a team, and that it really comes down to the mood on the actual day of shooting. Obviously, it takes so long for you to find out who you are; it’s a constant process of self-discovery.
Simone: I have so much respect for stylists, because one of my best friends is one, and when I worked with Dazed and Vogue, I found it so difficult. I think it is so impressive that you can meet and work with different photographers, hair stylists and makeup artists all the time. I think that is so impressive. I would find that so intimidating, I have to admit.
Maarten: That’s interesting.
Simone: Each season we do a photo project, and it’s just me and a photographer because I find it really intimidating otherwise. I really admire people who can bring their vision to an image with all those people, and in a single day. I mean, I’m sure it’s more than one day…
Maarten: But you know, it also depends on your own perception of perfection, which changes when you’re a bit older. I wouldn’t have been able to do this work when I was 22 or 23, because it’s such an organic process and you need to accept that. Especially with the way I work, for me it’s all about the mistakes. Once you figure that out, it’s much less intimidating to work with strangers, because it’s all the little imperfections that, for me, make it. Always. Personally, what felt so suffocating about being a designer was that there was no space for mistakes. Whether it was London, or working as a designer, I’m not exactly sure, but I know that here in Berlin I can make mistakes and I can learn from it, and it’s fine.
Simone: Yeah, if I make a really big mistake, there are definitely consequences. [Laughs]
“I remember the conversations with Louise, thinking: what is uglier together? Let’s go for that.” – Maarten
Alysha: Maarten, when working so organically, how do you define a mistake?
Maarten: Well, obviously, a mistake is not something readers of magazines will notice, because we edit them out, but when it comes to the actual process, it’s very much about getting to that vulnerable moment, which actually makes the model look very very strong, and never passive. That’s always the goal for us and you can easily see in a photo when you haven’t achieved that. What I meant by mistake was that it almost comes down to a certain language you develop on set, or for you to work with a certain spirit. Mistakes that can work in our case are simple things like accidentally wearing something inside out, or standing on the dress – then it might look incredible. I just felt that when I was a designer, there was no room for mistakes. Not financially, obviously. Because I started in the minus, and you constantly invoice and people think you’re a criminal, so making mistakes becomes very expensive!
Simone: Yes, mistakes are costly.
Maarten: But as a stylist, you also live more as a person because you’re no longer a company. Well, you’re still a company, but you’re not going to go bankrupt by making one mistake, which obviously releases so much pressure in those situations. If you are trying to discover who you are and find out interesting things about yourself that you haven’t seen before, it’s nice to have a bit of extra space so you can explore stuff. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s great. But we come from Central Saint Martins, so we are always questioning if things are right or wrong.
Simone and Alysha: Yeah.
Maarten: Yes, but there are also consequences that help because you’re doing it on your own.
Simone: Oh, totally! I mean, we make mistakes every day. We are a small, independent, family company and we are quite practical and very collaborative. People change their minds all the time. We change our minds, mistakes happen, you just have to work around it. There’s a little more risk in the day to day dealings of it.
Maarten: Sure. I’m not saying it’s a risk free area, and you can totally make mistakes, but I think as a designer, you work towards a collection that’s months away, so obviously you still work with your mistakes and you improve and change it, and that’s a big part of it. At the same time, I feel like your mother has such a strong presence in the company as well. Because it must be difficult to work on an idea and I feel your collections are all connected to each other, and that’s a huge idea that you’re trying to accomplish. It’s not that every season is the same, but you can tell that it’s your vocabulary. That takes a lot of discipline!
Simone: Totally. You also have to be confident to know that it is. You also have to be brave in pushing yourself out of it as well. But I am 100% the same designer that I was when I walked into CSM.
Maarten: Into CSM or out of CSM?
Simone: I think in, and out.
Simone: Still making those tulle jackets!
Maarten: You do love a bit of tulle, don’t you?
Simone: Like, it’s actually embarrassing! Let’s pop a tutu underneath this. In college, I’d put it on the head. But it’s a natural vocabulary. I’m always on a personal exploration, because I do believe you have to do it for yourself. There are so many designers, so many labels, so many houses, so many opportunities, that if you don’t do what feels sincere for you, I believe you’ll burn out. You just have to know that they’re not gonna like it all the time, but you still have to like it.