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Dressing the artist — an interview with Simone Rocha

19 April 2022

In 2010, fashion designer Simone Rocha showed her graduate collection at Tate Modern. Fresh from Central Saint Martins and under the sage tutelage of the late Louise Wilson, Rocha quickly developed a reputation not only for clothes that were seen as dreamy and romantic, but also for her fashion shows that were in close dialogue with something more aligned to art. This year, instead of seeking inspiration from artworks, Rocha has been challenged with responding to the artist as an individual as she dresses Simone Leigh – the first Black woman artist to represent the United States – for the opening of the Venice Biennale.

Rocha’s work appeals to artists – the likes of Cindy Sherman and Hope Atherton are fans – and it’s not hard to see why: interests in femininity, creativity and freedom abound. There is also something unusual about the form her clothes take in comparison to more mainstream designs: they appear to afford their wearer a shape of individualism.

Rocha is, of course, more used to designing collections rather than pieces for individuals, let alone for specific events. ‘With a catwalk show,’ Rocha says, ‘I work on a collection for roughly six months, and it’s very much that there’s an inspiration and narrative that filters into these garments, and influences the fabrication, the silhouette, how you wear them, what they reveal, what they hide.’

Simone Rocha dress

The original dress from Simone Rocha’s SS22 collection, which has been customised Simone Leigh, was presented at London Fashion Week in February 2022. Photo: Ben Broomfield

Speaking to Rocha about her work is a surprisingly reassuring experience as the softness of her Irish accent and deep practicality work together to dispel any notion one might have of high fashion antics. She is a designer who pays close attention to the particularities of design. ‘I always think it’s easier to talk about a specific collection because each one is different,’ she says. Her most recent collection for Autumn/Winter 2022, shown in February, for example, was both an evolution of work she had done before as well as a honing of details. ‘I was in the physical headspace of the previous collection, Baby Teeth, which was definitely a dark tale. I really wanted to elaborate more on that to get it out of my system, in a way.’

For Rocha, the process of elaboration is both metaphorical and technical. ‘With this latest collection, I wanted to explore the anatomy of tailoring, and how to interpret tailoring for this season through different coats and jackets, and materials, and then to break it down into how that has evolved into dresses.’ Dissecting the different aspects of craft is where, according to Rocha, ‘a collection essentially starts’ before she adds layers of imagination. For this latest collection, she ‘started reflecting on an old Irish fable called the Children of Lir which is also a very dark tale, and a lament about four children who were turned into swans when they were very young. When they turn back, they die.’

Rocha is not glib about her treatment of such a story and the narrative is as important as technique. Time and its passing, innocence and its disappearance all came to be reflected through the collection. ‘I really wanted to have this beautiful naivety running through it, but a sense of an old soul at the same time,’ she says. ‘This influenced the silhouettes as I wanted some to be incredibly short, very naïve and playful, and others to be more layered, to signify time passing.’ Then there are the details: ‘the blue velvet representing the lake that the swans flew over’ and ‘the red wool embroidery that was hand embroidered onto jewels and blankets to symbolise the blood line, the family’. As Rocha puts it, ‘There are all these little things that make up the tapestry that becomes the final piece or the collection.’

Simone Leigh

Simone Leigh wearing Simone Rocha at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Image: Shaniqwa Jarvis

This way of thinking stitches together the imaginative and the technical in a way that seems condign with an artistic process. But this is when the focus is on shaping a narrative rather than responding to specific individual. The challenge of dressing not only a single person but someone whom Rocha considers ‘an incredible artist’ required a different approach. As Rocha says, when you are dressing a person, they have ‘their own natural character, and their own personality’. She had to find a way, as she puts it, of bringing Leigh ‘into the story of a particular collection’.

Leigh’s dress evolved from the Baby Teeth collection, which sprang from Rocha’s examination of mothering. Comprised of black layered tulle, embellished with a sequinned floral pattern that extends across the sheer bodice onto the billowing sleeves and down the skirt, the design evokes a kind of gothic romance, where strength and fragility coexist on the same plane.‘I think, maybe subconsciously, it worked with what [Leigh] would naturally wear as a mother,’ she says.  ‘[Simone and I] discussed different pieces that I thought would be right for the event, and what would be right on her at this very special moment in her career. So, I was even more nervous when she saw the piece and was like “This is what I want to wear, that will make me feel really strong.”’

While Rocha admits to being ‘enamoured by art and artists’ – to the extent that she recently curated an exhibition at Lismore Castle titled girls girls girls, examining the female gaze – she is under no illusion that there is a fundamental difference between making art and designing fashion. For artists, she says, ‘The work is purely them. It is a physical thing that remains honest in its own entity.’ But fashion cannot remain so aloof.  ‘It can be influenced by artworks, but I then interpret them so that physicality becomes the focus,’ she explains. ‘Ultimately, you have to be able to wear it.’