Simone Rocha hadn't set out to make a statement in this way. It just happened, over time. At the reception desk in her East London headquarters, a lithe, terribly attractive woman with light brown hair answers phones, accepts courier packages and greets incoming guests while dressed in Simone's neoprene midi dress, oversized cardigan and furry slides. A few feet away, an equally gorgeous woman, arms full of binders, strolls towards a nearby desk, wearing Simone's beaded faux-fur stole over a cotton dress and Perspex faux-fur mules, the light catching the Lucite on her shoes just so. Further back in the atelier, I spy another stunner bent over a table in Simone-designed tulle and beaded drop earrings.
The place is filled with women of varying heights and backgrounds, all blessed with killer bone structure, all wearing Simone's quietly glamorous clothes and shoes, all going about their work day. It feels like I've stumbled into some kind of fashion-based performance art. However, this is just an average day in the 31-year-old's world.
'It's been this way from the beginning - my design team has been the same for the past six years, and it's completely female,' Simone says later in her office, which overlooks one of the leafier corners of De Beauvoir, a neighbourhood with a fashion fanbase (Craig Green and Peter Pilotto have studios nearby). Her soft Irish lilt gives away her Dublin upbringing, but everything else about her - her slightly skewed sense of polish, and eccentric cool - is all London, where she's lived for the past 10 years.
Her black reclaimed Fifties table-turned-desk looks out over a sleepy canal and idyllic ivy-covered building. Behind her, three enormous, heaving bookcases sourced from the Oxford Library, painted black and filled with books about Eva Hesse, Francis Bacon and Julian Schnabel, stand guard. Simone, who's also dressed in black (with two crystal clips in her hair), adds, 'We're like a family.'
There's a strength that comes from being a woman designing for women
An incredible chic family. 'It's really nice that the team's uniform comes from things they've been working on,' she says. 'That's important because for me, everyone is involved in the design process. You want people to be a part of that. They all wear it with their own style, and they always look amazing. Everyone has a totally different take on it.'
Femininity has been central to Simone's work since she launched her business in 2010. That was the same year she graduated with an MA from Central Saint Martins, where she studied under the late Louise Wilson, the lecturer who taught and mentored many of Britain's fashion design A-list, including John Galliano, Phoebe Philo and Alexander McQueen. Back then, Simone had a team of five. Now, she has 27 employees, two stores (one in Mayfair, London, and another in SoHo, New York), an ELLE Style Award (she also won the first ever ELLE/Cointreau Bursary, a prize of £1000,000, in 2013), three British Fashion Awards, and an ever-growing list of famous clients, including Rihanna, Julianne Moore, Chloë Moretz and Alexa Chung. But her dedication to exploring womanhood remains.
'It's not like one day I thought, "I want to focus on women,"' she explains. 'But there's a strength that comes from being a woman designing for women and putting my personality and emotions into my pieces - but also having the awareness that it's not just about me,' Simone says. 'Louise always said my work is very feminine, strong and modern, so I've strived to keep those three things in place.'
When Simone had her London Fashion Week debut, during Lulu Kennedy's Fashion East, a launch pad for designers including JW Anderson, Gareth Pugh and the late Richard Nicoll, her work had a youthful, organic fragility that was the polar opposite of the bold, digital graphic prints reigning at the time (think the late Naughties work of Peter Pilotto, Mary Katrantzou and Basso & Brooke). 'My aesthetic at the time was very much going against the grain. But it was something that felt very natural to me', she says.
For me, the most important thing is your own identity. If you have that, the rest will follow
Hugely influential retailers such as Dover Street Market, Colette and Ikram took note. And Simone began to broaden her study of womanhood, diving deeper into Victoriana (a recurring theme in her work), and refining her trademark sense of shape and volume. She's also developed the idea of romanticism and femininity beyond the young ingénue.
For AW17, she made headlines and earned nods of approval from women's magazines, such as this one, when she cast silver-haired legends, including 72-year-old Jan de Villeneuve, to walk alongside younger girls-of-the-moment Adwoa Aboah and Yasmin Wijnaldum in her show. Her SS18 collection that followed was softer and, in her words, 'the antithesis of the season before, which was all about armour and protection and camouflage.'
Simone says her far-reaching idea of femininity began with her family: her mother, Odette, with whom she works closely, her grandmothers, Margaret Gleeson and Cecila Rocha, and her two-year-old daughter, Valentine. 'I've learnt about respect and gusto from my mother. Her mother was a very strong-minded, practical and funny character, whereas my Chinese grandmother, who lived in Hong Kong, taught me all about grace,' she says. As a small child, she honed her personal sense of girlhood as one of three in a class with 13 boys. 'It was nearly all lads in tracksuits. So it made me really girly - dresses, skirts and knee socks. Femininity has always been important to me.'
You'd think that Simone's world is a real-life Themyscira, the fictional matriarchal, Amazon-only island in Wonder Woman. But that would be too clichéd. 'The irony is that all of my external collaborators are men!' she says. 'People such as photographers Jacob Lillis and Colin Dodgson, stylist Robbie Spencer, and James Pecis, who does the hair for my shows.' Then therein, of course, her father, the Hong Kong-born British designer John Rocha CBE.
'He's my earliest memory of fashion. I remember being in my dad's studio, in this fabric room that had rows and rows of fabric, which I thought were the most amazing climbing frames. It was all very tactile: my dad used a lot of tweed and wool, very traditional Irish fabrics, so there was a real weight and texture to everything. I used to just crawl up and down the fabrics. Years later, I thought, "That was probably really important stuff."'
It was her dad who coached her when she decided to study fashion design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. 'He sat me down and said, "If you want to dot his for real, you really need to get the absolute best education in this you can, and you have to do a master's degree."'
The fashion business has radically changed since her school days. And that's why, in part, Simone clings to what she knows: family and her singular creative vision. 'For me, the most important thing is your own identity. If you have that, the rest will follow. It will be easier to grow your business because you know what you want rather than struggle with what other people think you should be doing,' she says.
So she doesn't waver from her two collections per year or give in to fashion's angst-filled changes in direction. 'I am very committed to two collections a year. When I started, a lot of young designers were under pressure to do pre and cruise collections. But it never felt right for my business. And now, quite a few are dropping pre and cruise. People were doing "see now buy now" and I was like, "No, that's not my customer." I want her to see the dress in the show, and then in the press and finally in the story. I want it to feel special, a commitment. In five years' time, I want you to still be able to wear it. You can't give too much too soon, because it devaluates that commitment,' she says.
She also doesn't see herself giving up her independence and taking on a creative director role at a big house anytime soon. 'The people I admire are independents, like Res Kawakubo, Minuccia Prada. Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens; people who have their own labels and still produce exciting, signature work,' she says. Does that mean she'd say no if a luxury titan came calling? Who's to say one hasn't already? 'You can never say never. It's always nice to be asked, but at this moment I'm proud to run my own brand. It's really important that you hold on to what you're about.'
It's time for Simone to join the women at work in her studio, where they are already producing her next collection. 'The world is a funny place right now,' she says, thoughtfully. 'That and being a mum has made me realise how much of a privilege it is to get to have an amazing team that feels like a family and have my own family, too. Life is good; it evolves.'
This article was originally published in the February issue of ELLE