Simone Rocha is often cited as a successor to Rei Kawakubo. Her London Fashion Week show confirms she is one of the most creative designers of her generation. By Lucianne Tonti.

Simone Rocha’s London Fashion Week show

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in the middle of London Fashion Week, Simone Rocha presented Spring/Summer 2024 at the English National Ballet in the city’s east. The 37-year-old, arguably the most creative, commercially successful independent designer in the world at the moment, sent 50 looks down the runway loosely inspired by the rituals and decorations of traditional white weddings.

Rocha is often quoted as saying every show tells a story. Her narrative tools on this occasion are two recurring motifs: roses and cake. Both are reminders of childhood that can enchant and delight. While they are symbols of comfort and luxury, beneath the theme of marriage they represent something more amorphous. The show notes left on each seat read: Procession, obsession / Declaration (of love) / decoration, tension. The show’s title is The Dress Rehearsal.

The first three looks on the runway come out as music plays, a dramatic mix of strings and opera. The colours are the kind of pale pink and nude often worn by young ballerinas, a nod to the usual habitués of the show’s location. The looks share a loose-fitting silhouette with dropped shoulders, a knee-length hem and a slightly tapered waist.

Look one is two separate pieces. A cropped, zip-front hooded jacket and pencil skirt made from a shiny technical fabric with lots of body. Both are adorned with ruched swirls of the same material, made to look like large, strange roses and fastened to the shoulders, chest and upper thigh.

The third look shares this material and styling but is a knee-length anorak zipped up at the front, with an elastic drawstring waist. The effect is multidimensional: sporty with a twist, romantic but practical, a combination that feels like something new.

Rocha’s genius is in her ability to play with dichotomies. She creates hyper-feminine garments from layers and layers of tulle, adorns them with flowers and pearls and then styles them with a chunky, sturdy shoe. For this collection, she collaborated with Crocs, embellishing the clog-shaped slides with jewels and coating them with an iridescent finish.

Her talent for construction and pattern-making allows her to create garments that move on the body with ease, without being revealing. The clothes are sexy but demure, pretty but tough, unexpected but nostalgic. Her use of roses in SS24 reminds me of a line from the poet Ocean Vuong: “I place your finger on a flower so / familiar it’s almost synthetic red.”

In this collection there are several dresses that have real, long-stemmed pink roses sewn between layers of fabric. The first of these is cut like a knee-length anorak but made from a nude-coloured tulle that looks so soft it could be chiffon. The use of transparent fabric, in what would normally be a technical garment, accentuates its practical details. The seams around two large square pockets on the front of each hip are opaque compared with the body of the garment, as are the two pockets on the chest, the line of the drawstring waist, the ribbon around the hood and the gathered cuffs of each sleeve. The roses have been sewn in vertically so the soft heads of the petals sit above the model’s chest, while the long green stems reach towards her waist. There is also a rose sewn into each sleeve.

These real roses will appear later in a black tulle cropped cap-sleeve tee and a mid-length pencil skirt. The transparent fabric is gathered in architectural, ruched pillows along the waist and the neckline. Four roses have been sewn into the front of the top, another five into the front of the skirt, and even more are tucked into the fabric along the back. The look is styled with black leather mary jane ballet flats and the model holds a single rose in her hand.

The collection’s colour palette feels distinctly nostalgic. The pink anoraks with the fabric roses also come in baby blue. There are pops of fire engine red, another Rocha signature. A few outfits are brown-gold and there are several silver pieces. Although black, white and nude make up most of the collection, the impression it leaves is distinctly pretty and pastel. This is aided by the long streams of ribbons tied into some models’ hair, the tiny bows fastened around arms and wrists, or strands of pearls held loosely in hands.

Rocha was born in Dublin, Ireland. Her father, John Rocha, was an award-winning fashion designer from Hong Kong who in 1978 moved to Ireland, where he met Odette Gleeson, Rocha’s Irish mother. Having closed his last boutique in 2015, John and Odette now work in their daughter’s business.

Rocha moved to London after graduating from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin with a BA in fashion. In London, she studied for her master’s at Central Saint Martins under Louise Wilson, who is credited with shaping a generation of British fashion designers, including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Rocha debuted at London Fashion Week in 2010, just after graduating. In the 13 years since, she has opened four boutiques: in London, New York, Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the end of last year she expanded into menswear, presenting it alongside her womenswear.

In SS24, about a third of the looks are worn by male models, including a pants and shirt set in a bright white cotton adorned with white ribbons tied into bows. Rocha’s signature small daisies are embroidered in neat, sparse lines along the fabric, and waves of semicircles run horizontally around the body. Beneath the collar there is a lace doily that has been decorated with pearls. The effect is an outfit that looks distinctly like the elaborate piped icing of a wedding cake, and in the model’s left hand there is a small clutch in the shape of one. It’s made from a luminous satin material and is covered with strands of pearls.

Despite this, and the intricate details on the shirt and pants, the silhouettes are streetwear, utilitarian and wearable. The pants have a cropped, straight leg. The shirt is cut wide and has a loose sleeve that finishes at the elbow. The outfit is styled with white sneakers.

This ability to create clothes in shapes and materials that feel both whimsical and accessible is increasingly rare in the fashion industry, since shock and theatre guarantees attention on social media, and men are often designing for women with little thought for the comfort and practical needs of their customers.

Rocha’s ability to make clothes that are resonant, sensational and wearable speaks to the depth of her thinking, references and technical knowledge. She cites artists such as Ren Ri, Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois as inspirations. She draws on the rituals, traditions and landscapes of her heritage, including the time she spent as a child in her father’s atelier. She is often described as a potential successor to Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons. In January, a couture collection Rocha is designing for Jean Paul Gaultier will be presented in Paris.

For SS24, Rocha, who has two daughters, has made a collection from the core of female experience. Its practicality and beauty speak to the needs of a woman running a business, but it draws on the fantasies a child might have about her grown-up wedding or the thrill of attending ballet lessons for the first time. As a woman of about the same age, the collection feels like something made from my own memories – a commentary on the often-contradictory desires of modern feminism.

The second-last look of the collection is made from a pale mint tulle. It is a sleeveless day dress with a scooped neckline and vertical panels through the body that widen into a floaty A-line skirt. Roses are sewn into all the panels along the bust and deep into hip pockets below the waist, giving it so much volume it appears to defy gravity. It’s worn with silver flats with a nude ribbon wrapped around the ankle, like a ballet shoe. This final detail makes me wonder about The Dress Rehearsal, and for how many different things Simone Rocha is preparing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Marriage materials".

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