simone rocha’s new york store is a temple to ‘awkward femininity’ and louise bourgeois
The designer discusses traveling to Zambia with photographer Jackie Nickerson for a new collaborative project, and a slightly less glamorous teenage trip to New York.
Simone Rocha at her New York store. Photography Rebekah Campbell.
"It's not going anywhere," laughs Simone Rocha, resting her ring-adorned hands on the pink onyx cash register of her newly opened Wooster Street store. It is 10-feet-long, cut from polished stone the color of peonies, and looks extremely heavy. It also contains exactly the combination of strength and softness Simone's clothes express so beautifully.
On the wall behind this monolithic register is a paneled Louise Bourgeois tapestry called "Lullaby." Simone has referenced Bourgeois's subversive vision of femininity since her earliest collections (she wrote her art school thesis about Bourgeois), and the artist's influence on Simone's world is visible everywhere in the store. Even the frilled shoulders and rounded silhouette of the jacket that Simone is wearing echo the shapes of the artist's prints. She points out Bourgeois's hand-stitched signature on a linen panel. "It's amazing to have the pieces here for people to appreciate and see how it's all connected," she says, "I've always admired her color palette, her ethos."
To the side of the tapestry is a curved bronze Bourgeois sculpture that hangs from the ceiling on a metal chain. Its draped round shape suggests both the soft arch of a croissant and several of Bourgeois's recurring bodily fascinations. "I love that contrast of hard and soft, delicate with aggressive," says Simone, "I really wanted all the elements of the collection to be reflected in the interior of the store, so it's a story."
She's also installed three metal bowers in front of the store's floor-to-ceiling windows that glisten with bright red acetate flowers. They're her tribute to the arches of Southwark Cathedral in London, where she showed her spring collection last year. The same collection currently decorates the store's rails with layers of translucent white lace and rose-embroidered taffeta. The bowers, though, are covered in fabrics from several of Simone's earlier collections: red brushed wool, red flowers on red tulle. "I wanted it to be kind of a patchwork, to be a sign of respect to all the things that we've done together here," she explains.
Since she first showed at London Fashion Week, during her final year at Central Saint Martins in 2010, each of Simone's collections has created its own nuanced narrative. Of Irish school girls, trips to Japan, or Tudor queens. But standing in her store, you can appreciate just how much they are all part of the same world. "I always want it to feel like [the collections] are having a conversation," she says, "Because they are all related, they all come from me and my team. I want things to be able to translated in different ways. It's like weaving a story."
Looking down to take an inventory of her own outfit, she illustrates: "This is fall/winter 15" (pointing to her jacket), "Then I'm wearing a dress from spring/summer 17, and these" — her Lucite-heeled spazalotto brogues — "are this season."
"Because I love a brogue!" she adds. It's true. Neon green and hot pink perspex brogues starred in the first collection she ever sold. "They were the first thing people really noticed," she reflects, perhaps because they so perfectly embody her interest in what she calls "awkward femininity." Various versions of the shoes rest on perspex stands around the store, now in buffed black and red leather — reflecting a new chapter in her expanding story.
While opening a New York store was "such a big step," she says, (she also opened a London flagship in 2015), she's not unfamiliar with the city. "I've been coming since I was a teenager," she says, "Literally coming from art college and staying at the YMCA!" She also did an internship with Marc Jacobs when she was 20, she adds. "And I am very lucky to have a wonderful group of friends here, that's been pulling me back a lot the last few years. So I'm thrilled now that I have my own little plot."
The store is truly her own patch. A miniature melting pot of all her Irish, British, and Chinese heritage wrapped up in tulle. A perspex sculpture by the Chinese artist Ren Ri (featuring real honeycomb, and a few deceased bees) greets visitors by the door, just past a Robert Rauschenberg collage that symbolically patches together Chinese visual motifs in a new American context.
To help welcome visitors into Rocha-land, Simone has also created a free photo book that passerby can take home as a souvenir. It contains poster-sized prints by some of her favorite artists, including Perry Ogden and Roni Horn. But the core story is a project she worked on with photographer Jackie Nickerson: images of her spring looks shot on a farm in Zambia, where Nickerson also captured her series "Terrain."
Simone had seen Jackie's images in a show at the National Gallery of Ireland, in which Nickerson had juxtaposed old master paintings from the museum's permanent collection with her own pictures. The symmetries between those two bodies of work had inspired Simone's spring collection. Simone told the museum how much she'd loved the show, the museum told Jackie, Jackie called Simone, and a collaboration was born. "I was so interested in this idea of contrasting the farm in Africa with the farm in Ireland," Rocha explains, as she flicks through the book. The layout insets black-and-white documentary photographs of Irish farms by Jacob Lillis between the dusty Zambian scenes lit up by Simone's textured tulle creations.
There is also an image, taken by Irish photographer Niall O'Brien, of a teenage punk kissing a rat. While Simone Rocha can dream up the most beautiful lace-filled fantasies, her stories are all the better for being based firmly in her own fun-filled reality.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Rebekah Campbell