meet rokh, the brand giving classic americana a horror-inspired twist
Rok Hwang went from studying at Central Saint Martins to working under Phoebe Philo at Céline to making beautiful, technical, chic clothes inspired by horror films and winning the LVMH Special Prize.
Photography Thurstan Redding. Styling Bojana Kozarevic. All clothing Rokh autumn/winter 19.
An unassuming corner of Finsbury Park, tucked away behind the budget bridal and tailoring stores of Fonthill Road, isn’t the first place you might expect to find the HQ of one of London’s most dynamic and exciting new brands. But ring the buzzer and head up a flight of stairs and you’ll find a different world: a cavernous studio flooded with natural light. “We are a very open studio,” Rok Hwang says. “We can talk about things we like and don’t like in a way that’s really frank.”
It shows: the clothes produced from within these four whitewashed walls have earned his (almost) eponymous label, Rokh, a rabid cult following, partly thanks to the studio’s understanding of how today’s woman wants to dress. There are the forward-thinking, endlessly adaptable, deconstructed trench coats, or the dresses designed with an unparalleled eye for both the ergonomic and the perfectionist, or the file box bags crafted from buttery leather, marrying unadulterated luxury with rigorous design. More important than all of that, arguably, is Rok’s knack for keeping things in the realm of good taste: these are clothes that remain definitively chic.
Since launching Rokh in 2017, the brand’s rise has been stratospheric: the first collection secured 30 international stockists (today it sits at over 100), while last year, Rok was awarded the LVMH Special Prize of €150,000. “I didn’t expect things to move as quickly as they have,” Rok says, “but from our first collection there has been a constant request for us to do a show, and after the LVMH Prize, we couldn’t be too quiet about it anymore.”
The breakneck speed with which Rokh has become a major player in London’s fashion scene belies the fact that Rok is — as far as upstart designers go — something of a seasoned player. Graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2010 under the tutelage of the late, legendary Louise Wilson, he went on to spend six years working under some of the most esteemed names in the business — including stints at Chloé and Louis Vuitton and, perhaps most notably, under Phoebe Philo at Céline — before striking out on his own. When asked about how this contributed to the runaway success of his own label, he’s self-effacing. “My experience helps a bit more with the business structure, or how I want to build my team, but in terms of creativity, I think maybe this experience doesn’t count so much.”
Modesty aside, it's Phoebe's instinct for balancing practicality with the avant-garde that runs through Rokh’s designs. “I think Phoebe is a genius, she has a complete vision,” Rok says. “What I really learned at Céline was how to make the fit perfect. How to make the garment really perfect by paying attention to details or choosing the fabrics.” It’s this refinement that marks Rokh out from other young labels: these are impeccably-made clothes that are — in the spirit of Philo, who is rumoured to try on every garment she designs — thoroughly road-tested on his team before they’re even made into samples, with his colossal studio space helpfully doubling up as a makeshift runway.
In February, Rokh staged its debut runway show at Paris Fashion Week, and used it to take attendees on a trip back to his youth spent knocking around the suburban forests of Austin, Texas. “I wanted the show to feel cinematic, with the girls coming out of the dark holding torchlights, like they’re out wandering at night. I wanted to use my youth as a medium. It’s almost like writing a short story; it’s very personal,” he adds.
The idea of narrative, of being a storyteller, comes up again and again when talking with Rok about his collections. “I tried to bring a lot of domestic elements from 90s Americana — the blankets, the crochet, the sun-bleached dresses that reminded me of growing up in Texas, where if you leave the fabric by the window it fades. I wanted to bring my own youthful memories, then mix that with horror films, then maybe mix that also with something more mundane, like the floral patterns from my mum’s ceramics.”
The collection tells a quintessentially American story of cross-cultural pollination and childlike imagination, undercut with a seamier note of classic horror — young adults out roaming the woods past curfew. The coats are slashed and rejoined with fastening clips, varsity logos melting into sinister, dripping gloops. It’s this multilayered vision and instinct for surprise that is Rokh’s guiding ethos. Pull off the poppers on a trenchcoat and the sleeves detach, or fasten the shirt across a different set of buttons to achieve an alternative fit depending on your mood. Rokh’s clothes reward patience: the longer you wear them, the more they reveal.
Just take a single look from his most recent collection as a case study: at first glance, it’s a sophisticated two-piece comprising of a grey blazer and a skirt with a swirling print of green and black. Peel back the first layer and you’ll find something darker. What seems to be a tip of the hat to Hitchcock, referencing both Kim Novak’s grey suit in Vertigo and the film’s trippy, Saul Bass-designed title sequence. Look even closer, and you’ll see the letters embedded in the print, spelling out the names of various over-the-counter drugs, including ibuprofen and paracetamol. It seems that, a few years in, there’s a sense of humour emerging too.
“I think it is getting more and more personal for me,” Rok adds. “When I started my brand I was influenced by people like Larry Clark, Gus van Sant, those aesthetics, which I think is something that’s very much to do with my generation, because I grew up in America. I think now I’m being a bit more honest, and all of the clothes are going in that direction too.” The Rokh formula — honesty, practicality and a sturdy backbone of rigorous training — has proven a unique addition to London’s designer stable. Throw this newfound playfulness into the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for a superstar brand — and all emerging from a studio hidden in a north London backstreet.
Photography Thurstan Redding
Styling Bojana Kozarevic
Hair Jonathan de Francesco at LGA using Redken.Make-up Siobhan Furlong at LGA using Sisley Skincare and Cosmetics. Nail technician Charley Avenell using 334 Violet de Nuit by L’Oreal Paris. Set design Hella Keck. Photography assistance Simon Wellington and Andras Bartok. Styling assistance Emily Jones and Annabell Yeung. Set design assistance Elinor Harsto. Production Ragi Dholakia Productions. Post Production ink Retouch. Casting Anita Bitton and Finlay MacAulay at Establishment Casting. Model Kaya Wilkins at Elite.
Kaya wears all clothing ROKH autumn/winter 19.