Education Fashion

Simone Rocha on Being Part of Fashion Week in a Pandemic

The designer on the challenges of fully digital fashion weeks, as well as her new collaboration with H&M.

The Irish fashion designer Simone Rocha has been busy celebrating 10 years in business. This week she presented her fall 2023 collection as part of London Fashion Week. And on March 12, a long-awaited collaboration with H&M will hit stores. As part of a special fashion week series, she spoke to The New York Times from her studio in East London.

This interview has been edited.

Elizabeth Paton You presented your latest collection this week, but London Fashion Week was a fully digital experience. What are the big differences compared to a putting on a physical fashion show?

Simone Rocha There were challenges given the current lockdown in London. We had only eight models to show 32 looks, but I still wanted to approach it as I would any collection. I wanted it to have a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. And I really wanted to give a sense of place.

So I staged a show — with no audience, of course — in a Gothic church near Hyde Park with amazing stained glass windows. Given that we would be shooting the whole day, I thought it’d be nice to do it somewhere with windows so that you could really see time pass from morning to noon and then dusk.

EP You touched on the idea of winter roses as an inspiration.

SR Yes. I was inspired by this idea of its strength and fragility. You have the fragility of the petals, but then also the thorns, which kind of made me think of rebellious spirits and fragile rebels. I worked a lot in leather, which I sculpted into more feminine shapes — really waisted and with amplified hips. But then slowly that breaks down throughout the collection to a fragility beneath, which is these embroidered flowers on tulle and nets.

I haven’t worked with leather before, but I always do a lot of historical research and love looking at clothes in a historical way. I like to look at a completely different type of garment, like a leather biker jacket, with its connotations and symbolisms and see how I can translate that in my way.

EP Does the design process change when you’re approaching something that isn’t going to be seen as part of a physical runway show?

SR From the very beginning, we knew we wouldn’t be able to show physically. This made me want to make the garments really tactile and physical and to manipulate the fabrications so much that they almost bled through the screen.

It was also really important to me that the handwork was taken to another level. By the end, we were hand-painting roses onto pearls for jewelry — things that you can only really see up close. But we knew they were there, and I wanted people to have that visceral feeling and to feel it in the hand. It pushed me and my team to go even further, I think.

EP Do you miss the runway fashion show?

SR I do really miss it. I miss the energy it brings. I miss the crescendo of everyone working on something together. I miss the energy in the room, the smell, the light, feeling excitement in your bones. So I would like to go back to a show.

But I think it will be a very different type of show. I think it will be more focused on intimacy but, at the same time, more aware of the need to share things with people who aren’t there physically. I’ve learned how important it is when you’re sharing in 2-D that the show still have emotion behind it.

EP This year you’re celebrating your 10th anniversary in business, and you have an H&M collaboration, which launches March 11.

SR It’s a real milestone, and the collaboration feels like a serendipitous opportunity to share my signatures with a broader audience. I’m also breaking new ground by doing men and children’s wear. I felt that if I was going to do something on that scale, I wanted to do it for a real variety of people. Almost like for everyone in a family.

With the children’s wear in particular, it was absolute indulgence and really joyful to go through all my archive and see pieces that I felt would be great for kids. I have a daughter myself, and I wanted to make sure the collection was beautiful but also had a reality running through it.

EP Are the considerations different when you’re doing a more affordably priced line, or for kids, given that your focus is normally on luxury and craftsmanship?

SR Absolutely, and especially with kids. I do a lot of embellishment, and suddenly my focus here was on what kids might swallow and what might fall off. It was a big learning curve, but wonderful to take on a new challenge.

EP When a designer decides to do a collaboration like this, there are tricky issues to navigate around sustainability and accessibility. How do you do that?

SR My business is independent. I have three of my own stores and a relatively small footprint. I don’t have thousands of stores like H&M, so it was something I was very conscious of. But I didn’t want to shortchange the customer. I wanted to make sure they were getting something that I was proud of, that could sit alongside and integrate with my Simone Rocha collections.

And honestly, I learned a lot from H&M from a sustainability perspective. My own fabrics are woven or done in bespoke batches, and we embroider a lot of them by hand. We really worked hard with their fabrics teams on how we could translate that en masse. They said that out of all their designer collaborations to date, it’s the most sustainable. I’m really proud of that.