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Coming home: John Rocha plans to spend time in Hong Kong after retiring from fashion circuit

 

John Rocha's sweet bell-shaped organdie tank dress covered in appliquéd red blossoms and accompanying "big picture" hat have constituted one of the most photographed looks of the summer. The dark romantic ruffles of organza that adorned the velvet and crochet dresses shown off by the Hong Kong-born designer at London Fashion Week in February quickly attracted the attention of singers Lady Gaga and Rita Ora.

Sadly, however, for admirers of Rocha's poetic vision, that was the last we will see of those dreamy dresses on the catwalk. In May, the designer stunned the industry by announcing his retirement from the fashion circuit. Next month, his name will be missing from the London Fashion Week schedule, although his daughter, Simone, will ensure the Rocha family remains at the heart of the British shows.

"From now on my life will no longer be ruled by the fashion calendar," exclaims Rocha, with relief, when we meet over breakfast at Claridge's. For many years, the London hotel functioned as his base of operations during fashion week, before he renovated an old pub in Dover Street, Mayfair, into a shop and apartment.

The rewards of his success also include houses in St James's, central London; the south of France; and Dublin, in Ireland.

"Since 1991 I have never managed to spend Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, because of fashion week. There is nothing wrong with the fashion calendar but, after all this time, I would like to create my own calendar," says the veteran designer.

Rocha's announcement was especially surprising to the many who consider his recent work to be some of the finest of his career.

"I have been very happy with my work over the last seasons and, in my opinion, I have done some of my best," says Rocha. "Although I have assistants, I designed it all myself. So I was working non-stop, July to September and November to January."

The realisation of a need for change came in a Damascene moment last summer, when he was celebrating his 60th birthday with friends at his house in Cap Ferrat, the French cape named in 2012 as the second most expensive residential location in the world, after Monaco and two places above Hong Kong.

"I realised that this was the first time I had spent a whole week in August at my house in 10 years; my friends thought I was mad that I never spend my time there. Then I thought of my recent shows and the amazing compliments people made and realised it's time to go when people remember the good things."

Furthermore, "all my once scattered family are back in Hong Kong and I found that part of me [a close relationship with his six siblings] had been missing for a long time; and my mother, who is 94, is still alive and hanging in there."

Rocha left Hong Kong in 1971 and says there was a long period in which he struggled and didn't have the money to visit his family. Now, the designer is planning to spend six weeks a year in Hong Kong, starting in November, when he'll visit for a niece's wedding.

"I would like it to be three months; luckily Odette [Rocha's Irish wife] loves Hong Kong as well. However, when I talk about getting another house, Odette says, 'Three homes are enough, John. Forget it!'

"I did try," he says, sheepishly, as he tucks into a slice of toast, his silky hair slipping forward over his shoulders.

Aside from those characteristic locks, Rocha's signature look is black suit, slightly cropped at the ankle, white shirt and, whatever the time of year, Birkenstocks. On his middle finger is a huge jade ring carved with a dragon, a gift from Odette. Over tea and eggs he speaks softly, with flattened vowels and an accent that drifts between Irish and Cantonese, and there is a Zen-like serenity about his persona.

Simone says she thinks her dad looks like a cool dude, and there is something a bit rock 'n' roll about his lifestyle in Dublin, where he mixes with artists and musicians. One friend, Bono, wrote a loving forward to his book John Rocha: Texture, Form, Purity, Detail, published in 2002.

The staff at Claridge's greet Rocha by name, which reminds him of a game he and his brothers would play as children, soon after the Mandarin Oriental Hotel opened in Central.

"It was one of the first buildings in the 1960s to have air conditioning and, when it got very hot, I and my friends would take a tram to the hotel and we would run through the two sets of doors from the roadside to the harbour-side, just to feel what air conditioning was like. I decided then that, one day, if I made money, I would come back to the hotel to stay.

"I have been doing so now for 20 years and they really look after me."

Rocha grew up in a 300 sq ft flat overlooking the harbour that belonged to his grandmother, in North Point's inappropriately named Healthy Village public housing estate.

"The area had been prone to landslides but after that [problem was fixed] they built a lot of government housing there - now it is full of expensive apartments," says Rocha.

He was the fifth of seven children. His father, Henry, came from a well-to-do Portuguese family in Macau that ostracised him for marrying a girl who had escaped the mainland early in the second world war.

Rocha's older sister was born during the war and his brother Victor was born at its end, "which is why he is called Victor".

Their father was an accountant for the British military's Naafi (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) and while there was money to put food on the table and to clothe them, there was little to spare.

Rocha recalls many occasions when the water supply would fail in North Point. His mother would send the children up to mountain streams to wash and to bring down buckets of water, which they then had to carry up to the 11th-floor flat.

"At primary school we would pick up plastic petals on the way home to make flowers. Now you might call it child labour, but we did it for pocket money."

His first job was painting candles red for festivals and colouring the dragons.

"We learnt to swim in the harbour, play marbles in the street and to fly kites made from newspapers."

However, in the 60s, "there was the Cultural Revolution just over the border and Hong Kong felt quite dodgy. My younger brother's wife actually swam from China to Hong Kong to escape. I realised in the 60s that I had to get out."

At the age of 17, he left Hong Kong for Britain on a one-way ticket to study psychiatric nursing in Surrey, arriving with just £13 in his pocket. He enjoyed nursing, he says, and kept at it for three years, until a girlfriend who had studied fashion design in Paris, France, ignited a spark that might otherwise have remained unlit.

Rocha discovered he had a passion for clothes and won a place to study fashion at the Croydon School of Art. It was there that he met and married an Irish girl and his love affair with the Emerald Isle began.

Rocha's graduation collection was inspired by Irish linens and wools and Celtic symbols hand-painted on silks. He moved to Ireland in 1978 and must have cut an unusual figure in Dublin, with his thick, waist-length hair and strong accent.

Rocha split from his first wife after a couple of years and then lost his studio and business, before Odette Gleeson, an enigmatic personality on the Dublin fashion scene, came to his rescue. Together they launched a fashion label called Chinatown, in 1983. They married in 1990 and have two children: Simone and Max.

He also has a daughter from his first marriage, Zoe, who recently established a film production company, having worked as head of production for actor and entertainer Stephen Fry for six years. There is undoubtedly an entrepreneurial streak in the Rocha family; Simone made her fashion debut in 2011 and Max recently founded his own record label.

"Maybe it's the Chinese blood in them," Rocha speculates.

His wife is Rocha's muse and "commercial eye". Style.com editor-at-large Tim Blanks describes Gleeson as the Maud Gonne to Rocha's W.B. Yeats. The analogy of the Irish poet and his muse is a good one because there is a poetic lyricism to the designer's work, expressed through his passion for Celtic heritage and homespun craft and Gleeson's 1950s-meets-Victoriana style. His collections are layered with textured crochets, fine laces, embroideries and appliqués and frequently presented with frothy tulle headpieces and clumpy girlish shoes.

Simone says that, creatively, her parents "are one, but both have their distinct sides". "Mum is more feminine and attracted to colour and Dad prefers cleaner, sharper things, but really what comes out is a blend of both of them.

"I have so much respect for what he does and people ask if I am influenced by him," says Simone, who attended her first fashion show when three months old, in a Moses basket backstage, because the nanny who had been hired for the day failed to turn up. "Of course I am. He's always had such a sensitivity for textiles. His dresses might have 500 pieces of chiffon delicately put together, which look so romantic and so beautiful, you can't help but be influenced."

The Chinatown label folded during the recession in 1988 and Rocha, then bankrupt, took himself off to work as a designer in Milan, Italy.

He learned as much as he could about the business before returning to Ireland after being offered backing by a subsidiary of the prestigious Brown Thomas chain of department stores. He started his own label and, in 1993, rose like a phoenix from the ashes to collect the trophy for designer of the year at the British Fashion Awards.

Even his parents, who had been dubious about his career choice, were impressed when they saw a photograph in the South China Morning Post of him receiving the award from supermodel Naomi Campbell. The same year, Hong Kong fashion icon Joyce Ma (still a close friend) started stocking his womenswear in her boutique, Joyce, and retailer Swank did the same with his menswear.

With success came a contract, in 1997, to design a small range of glassware for Waterford Crystal, which he still does. A contemporary jewellery line was introduced in 2002 but the biggest contribution to his business security was the launch, in 2000, of a fashion and homeware line for British department-store group Debenhams, which has been a phenomenal success.

Rocha was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 for his contributions to the fashion industry, and regrets his father wasn't alive to see that happen. Otherwise, though, Rocha is humble about his achievements; Dublin, it seems, does not tolerate egos.

Alongside the fashion he has run a profitable business designing hotel interiors and apartment blocks. His first hotel project was The Morrison, in Dublin, in the late 90s, and he now has many others in Britain and France to keep him occupied. His fashion team will continue to work for Debenhams (he has signed another five-year contract) and he has released some of his backroom staff to support Simone.

"This means Odette, who is Simone's business partner, can take a bit more time off as well," he says.

So this is really only semi-retirement for Rocha, but it means that, apart from getting more time to spend with his Hong Kong family, he can indulge his passion for fishing - throwing the fish back once they have been caught, of course.

"My most precious possession is a 13.5-feet-long fishing rod, made by an American firm called Loomis," Rocha told British newspaper The Telegraph last year. "I have 15 others but this is the only one I use. My dream home would be a fishing lodge in New Zealand. Odette thinks it's too far away; I'm hoping to change her mind.

"I could give up my art collection" - Rocha has been collecting contemporary works for 20 years - "but my fishing rod would come with me."

In May, he went fishing in Russia and followed that with a few days of holiday in the Greek islands. Then it was fishing in Cuba, "which I had never done in June. All my fishing friends wish they had a Mrs Rocha as they think she is such an understanding woman", he says.

Next month he will be heading to Alaska for another 10 days of fishing, pointedly timed during London Fashion Week, but will be back to see Simone's show, on the last day.

This, therefore, is the end of the unique father-daughter positioning on a fashion calendar. Nowhere else has there been two fashion labels individually owned by different members of the same family appearing on the same schedule.

"We are quite alike," he reflects. "We love music, art and fashion. She loves fashion, but she also has another life, such as her singing [Simone is a classically trained soprano]. I accept what she does as a designer is relevant now and I don't always agree with it. But she says, 'Dad, people love what I am doing, so shut up.' So I say, 'OK'," he shrugs, "I am here if you want me."

As we finish breakfast and get up to leave, Rocha delivers a final parting thought, "I have been there, done that, have said what I have to say. Sometimes it is nice to stop when you want to stop."

And with that, Rocha heads out of the hotel, lights up a cigar and strolls back to St James's, hair swaying as he disappears into the crowd.

 

 

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