Walks of Life with Simone Rocha
Lucy Kumara Moore
Story from Issue 18
In every issue of the plant, we invite someone we especially admire to share a favourite walk with us. Irish-Cantonese fashion designer Simone Rocha chose a coastal walk on Cap Ferrat in the South of France, where her parents have kept a home for over two decades. Lucy Kumara Moore explores the connection between Simone’s work and the natural world, and speaks to Simone about the walk she shared with British photographer Nikki McClarron in the Côte d’Azur.
Imagine a brooding sky, streaked with clouds that stain it light pink and dove grey. Below are austere mountains that rise and fall with a gentle drama (if such a thing can be). The wind is blowing; the moss and grass of the terrain are moving as one. These are dun and bay: organic colours, the colours of horses. The clouds move at speed. Sunlight falls between puffs of vapour and slender skeins of mist. Painterly layers of light and colour interact. There is a beauty here, a strong, responsive beauty that seems to have its own sentient force.
This is the landscape of the Wicklow Mountains, just outside Dublin, Ireland. It’s a place that Irish-Cantonese fashion designer Simone Rocha visited as a child: her father John (who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Ireland in 1978) would often drive Simone and her brother Max there for day trips from Dublin. Family rituals and those typical of the places Simone calls home (Dublin, Hong Kong and London) often inspire her collections. But there are also what could be called atmospheric parallels between Ireland, especially, and Simone’s work. Indeed—her clothes are much like the Wicklow Mountains, in appearance and mood.
Constructions in sheer tulle, gathered or pinched to create ruffles and volume, are a Simone Rocha signature: for one of her earliest shows, at London’s Fashion East in September 2010, she created a sheer white tulle shirt with a ruffled back and a matching deconstructed top with a tulle attachment cascading as far as the model’s ankles on one side. In her recent spring-summer 2023 show, pink and white veils fell across the eyes of men and women as they walked down the runway, whilst tulle dresses were decorated with sequin daisies and silver zips.
Cap Ferrat is very, very dry, and the colours
are very, very muted
But these constructions—and Simone’s oeuvre as a whole—aren’t feminine in a conventional sense, despite their delicacy and embellishment. Instead, she invests feminine tropes with an earthy toughness and a sense of the capacity to resist—a sense of strength. This toughness is articulated quite literally in the materials and textures of her clothes: alongside satin, cotton and tulle, there is leather, Perspex and metal. The Simone Rocha spring-summer 2020 collection featured shoes covered in punkish spikes; a sleek cocoon-shaped black dress that was covered in rows of long black paillettes so that they appeared like feathers and intricately knotted straw macramé accessories and tunics. Inspired by the ancient Irish tradition of the Wren Boys who hunted a wren bird on St. Stephen’s Day, 26 December, and then paraded through their village in straw costumes, the collection enacted an encounter between humankind and the natural world, flecked with an unknown power.
Dualities are a constant in Simone’s work. There is always dark and light, hard and soft, the ancient and the modern, tradition and innovation, welcoming warmth and acerbic strength.
“Each collection I always feel very personally connected to,” Simone says, as I talk to her in her London studio, situated on the northern bank of Regents Canal. “Some are pretty much pure emotion. And it’s literally like a therapy getting it out. But with others, time and nature can really be an influence and it’s almost like I’m a spectator looking at something, and then translating that.” She mentions her autumn-winter 2020 collection, Riders, which drew on a play written by Irish Literary Renaissance playwright J.M. Synge called Riders To The Sea, and first performed in 1904. Set on the coast of the west of Ireland, the play is “about a family whose sons are all lost to the sea. It’s, like, really tragic. And I was like a voyeur looking at it and kind of dissecting it and translating it into textiles and silhouettes and fabrications. But then what was kind of amazing and really spooky was that on the show day, there was a huge storm—called Storm Claire—and everyone came into the show wet! It was the hardest show I ever did. It was apocalyptic. It was just incredibly stressful. Usually, my shows tend to be quite smooth because of the way that I work but this one was so stormy in its influence. It was totally influenced by the elements from the beginning of the narrative and then also on the day. And that just seems to happen sometimes. And you can’t predict it. The natural world definitely travels into my work, consciously and subconsciously.”
Floral motifs are also very much part of Simone’s design vocabulary—again signifying the coexistence of opposites and womanly strength. “I’ve always loved roses,” she tells me. “One, because they’re such a cliché of femininity, which I love. The rose is like the pearl, you know? It has so much connotation around it. But the rose comes with thorns, and I’ve always loved the prick of it as well and the violence behind it. And I love how they decay. They have quite a long lifecycle. I see roses like women, almost. The autumn-winter 2017 collection was about that. We called it The Marching Roses.” The show for this latter collection foregrounded the cross-generational reach of Simone Rocha, with models including Mica Argañaraz, Audrey Marnay, Adwoa Aboah, Jan de Villeneuve and Benedetta Barzini sharing the runway.
You feel feminine, but you don’t feel fragile
Alongside roses, daisies often appear: “We do a daisy embroidery on collars, and one of our pearl motifs we’ve made into a daisy. It’s almost like our logo,” she laughs. And there’s a duality here, too: the rose is a cultivated flower, a powerful symbol of beauty, that’s often given to loved ones, especially on Valentine’s Day – and not incidentally, Simone’s first daughter is called Valentine, her second Noah Roses. Daisies meanwhile are ordinary, common, growing in public parks and even as weeds among paving stones.
“And that’s something that I love,” Simone says. “I’ve always been attracted to contrasts, and also that thing of something very rich and something very humble and bringing them together. What I actually love about Hong Kong, is the fact that it’s such an industrial city, but it’s,
like, set on this mountain. All the green and foliage, the cherry blossom is literally coming through the cracks.”
“This idea of nature wrestling with a more industrial feeling is also there in our first printed matter campaign, Flowers in Cars, which I did with photographer Jacob Lillis.” Back in 2015, to coincide with the opening of Simone’s flagship store on London’s Mount Street, Mayfair, the brand ran magazine adverts featuring documentary photographs by Jacob Lillis depicting cars stuffed full of flowers that he’d happened across. These images also appeared in a limited-edition book released to commemorate the new store, and were later the inspiration for a physical installation there, for which a real car was cut in half and filled with both cut and dried flowers.
“I just felt like this was exactly what my clothes were saying. This kind of wrestle between things that were very natural and very manmade. And so that was, stereotypically, very feminine—the flowers—and the very masculine—a car. And I do think my clothes are like that. You wear them and you feel feminine, but you don’t feel fragile. And that’s really what my work is about, you know, embracing that femininity and strength. So, it actually decreases the fragility, which is the connotation sometimes of those very feminine things like flowers or curls, etcetera.”
Just over twenty years ago, Simone’s parents bought a house in Cap Ferrat, a tiny cape protruding into the Ligurian Sea just south-east of Nice, France. A paradisiacal outcrop, she has spent time there almost every summer since – initially with her parents and brother, and more recently joined by her partner, Eoin, and their two daughters. “The Cap,” as she fondly calls it, is a place of unexpected contrasts, too. In this case, artisanal and architectural works by some of the twentieth century’s most significant European artists are integrated, without preciousness, into the broader environment. Culturally unique artefacts exists in humble symbiosis with day-to-day life. Sites of pilgrimage for Simone include the Chapelle Saint-Pierre de Villefranche-sur-Mer, a Romanesque chapel restored and decorated by Jean Cocteau from 1956 to 1957; La Colombe d’Or restaurant and hotel in Saint Paul de Vence, once frequented by early modernist artists including Picasso, Braque, Calder and Leger, and the Chapelle du Rosaire just outside Vence, designed and decorated by Matisse.
“I think the fact that all these things are nearby, meant my parents felt really at home. And the thing that’s really amazing is that it all feels so natural, so low-key. Nothing’s behind ropes, nothing’s pre-booked. All these amazing things are just part of the habitat.”
“The thing about the Cap is you can walk the whole Cap, which is amazing. All along the rock. But this particular walk is the only bit that’s not exposed. It’s under all these pine trees. And at the end, you arrive at Paloma Beach. It’s our favourite walk to do that’s not a whole-day-
hike type thing. It’s my parents’ favourite walk, although they don’t swim afterwards, and then it’s a walk that I started doing with my daughters because it isn’t as long as the whole cap. I do it more with them actually, because it’s kid-length friendly, and you get to get into the sea at the end.”
Although Simone says she has never made a collection directly inspired by this particular place, it’s clear that her senses are heightened when she is there. “It’s very, very dry and the colours are very, very muted. So, it’s almost about texture rather than colour. It’s dry rock and then wet, wet sea. It’s very different to walking through a beautiful garden. It smells dry, and the sea is really salty, which is mad because it makes you feel like you can really float. What’s interesting about the walk is that it has a very tac-tile, natural feeling rather than a visual feeling.”
Another thing Simone mentions about Cap Ferrat is the market produce, and this feels significant: she has collaborated on more than one occasion with Egyptian food artist Laila Gohar. For the 10-year anniversary celebration of Simone Rocha in New York, in 2021, Gohar presented bread and sausages alongside butter moulded into the shape of a fish, and pink and white confections realised as breast sculptures, complete with little caramel-coloured nipples. Simone’s brother, Max, is a chef who recently opened his own restaurant, Café Cecilia, in East London, to instant acclaim. Max often conjures food and drinks for Simone Rocha events, providing sustenance that is at
once elegant and generous. It is the ritualistic communing around food that I imagine is important to Simone—it’s clear that she is attuned to the grounding potential of activities repeated cyclically, especially those that are social, and therefore shared.
Sharing a walk, sharing a swim, sharing food. Creating clothes that accompany a woman as she moves through her day. The exchange of things, the way these things make you feel, whether it’s food or clothes or roses. There is a modesty and generosity in Simone’s mien, and
you sense that her capacity to create connection through what she does is deeply important to her—and perhaps the core reason for why she does what she does, and does it so well. “When people ask ‘who would be your muse?’, you know, it’s never a person; you’d be better off saying ‘a bunch of roses’. A bunch of roses on their way to somebody is literally like...that’s what it’s about.” §