Life begins at 40 for a homely hero

IRELAND loves its heroes, even when they look like American Indians and speak fluent Cantonese.

''I had a big party when I got home and was invited to tea by the Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, and his wife,'' John Rocha says with a smile that lights up that wonderfully homely face.

''In June I'm getting an honorary doctorate from Queen's University in Belfast. I've never had a degree in my life.'' With its bestowal, this unassuming man will bridge the chasm that has defeated even the most determined of politicians.

Yes, Northern Ireland is just as thrilled about John Rocha as his fellow citizens in Dublin, and why not? After all, Britain's reigning Designer of the Year holds a British passport, has a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother, and was born and raised in Hong Kong.

This week he was back for the first time since his win at London Fashion Week last October - great rejoicing at Joyce which carries his women's wear and the Swank Shop which has his collections for men - and as usual, headed straight for his childhood home in North Point to see his parents Henry and Cecilia.

With five of his six siblings still living in Hong Kong - ''one sister has gone to New Zealand'' - the Rochas have remained a close-knit family and fame certainly hasn't turned the head of its most famous member.

''My dad's nearly 80, so I try to come over as often as possible.

''They still live the way they always have, but everything else has changed. I remember the Hong Kong of the 50s and 60s as having a really homely atmosphere, and now it's almost like New York.

''Of course when you're living thousands of miles away, it's easy to be nostalgic and forget what it was like to have to go without fresh water for days on end and worry about landslides, but I do miss the old charm.

''Most people I still know from the old days say they enjoy Hong Kong more now; far more opportunities to make a good living.'' He was 17 when he left for England to study psychiatric nursing - not his cup of tea, though he was grateful of the chance to make something of himself - and even then, there was a glimmer of his destiny.

''Before I left,'' Rocha recalls, ''my Chinese grandmother, God bless her, took me to a fortune-teller. He was a Buddhist vegetarian and when he examined my palm, he said, 'Ah, I feel sorry for you; that's a bad heart-line - but don't worry, things look really good for you at 40.' '' Sure enough, John Rocha's first marriage failed, though second wife Odette - Irish, like her predecessor - has brought him joy.

And just as the fortune-teller predicted, 1993 turned out to be a corker; not only a trebling of his turnover on the previous year, but Britain's highest fashion honour.

For once, the Designer of the Year award wasn't marred by controversy; a brilliant choice, agreed designers and critics with rare unanimity, but as the Americans would say: what is there not to like? It was the perfect collection for the environmentally-conscious 90s. Called Saoirse (the Celtic word for freedom) it combined natural fabrics including linen, chiffon, organza, jersey, suede and a new metallic silk, fresh new silhouettes and hand-craftedtouches in a way that was both contemporary and fresh, and the crowds loved it.

Revolutionary, said many as Rocha's gorgeous brigade - super-models Naomi Campbell and Christie Turlington included - stepped out on the runway, though the designer disagrees.

''Sure, my work is continually evolving, but essentially I'm still doing what I've done for the last 15 years. It's people's attitudes that have changed. I guess I just captured the mood of the moment,'' says Rocha.

''When my name was announced, I was totally surprised, though it was great after being around for so long.

''Most of the designers who have won the award - people like Vivienne Westwood and Jasper Conran - made their names while they were still in their 20s, but I've had a really up and down career.

''I've made plenty of mistakes and suffered a lot in recent years. That whole 80s thing was totally against my philosophy.

''One doesn't have to pile on all those do-das, but people expected them. Back then, designers tried to dictate to consumers, but I've only ever been interested in designing accessible clothes for men and women, and leaving the choice up to them.

''If someone wants to combine one of my jackets with a Marks & Spencer skirt, that's fine. Construction is the important thing for me. If the proportions of a garment are right, everything else follows.'' The decade of wretched excess couldn't have been worse for Rocha. Rustic, sniffed the very people who - glorious irony - are now rushing to buy those subtle, yet striking clothes which blend the timeless and the modern so effectively.

His original backers, now replaced by Irish retailing giant Brown, Thomas & Co, never lost faith.

When he presented his graduation collection - mostly linens and hand-knits with a strong Celtic flavour - at the Croydon Art College, the Irish Export Board offered to support him if he based himself in Dublin.

He has been there ever since apart from a couple of years in Milan during the late 80s when his business in Ireland failed, and plans to stay put.

''Dublin is one of the few places in Europe where you can live well without it costing you an arm and a leg,'' says the designer who shares a splendid Georgian house with his wife and their three children, Zoe, 11, Simone, seven and Max, four.

The good life looks secure. ''Since I won the award, a lot of doors have opened, especially in the Far East and America.

''My main showroom is in Milan because it's much easier to get global recognition if you're based in continental Europe, though I'm not interested in quick money through saturating the market.

''I try to identify the best retail outlets in each country and leave it at that. My clothes are now sold in 28 countries - South Korea is the latest - and China is a possibility.

''Italy, France and the UK are my biggest markets, but I'm looking to the whole Asian situation in depth now.'' If a deal comes off with the mainland, wife Odette will be looking after the nitty-gritty.

''She has a retailing background and handles the commercial side of our business,'' says Rocha. ''It's great to be able to work with someone you trust totally and whose opinion you respect.'' He also counts himself fortunate to be living in a country which actively encourages its creative talent and puts its money where its mouth is.

''Sadly, the British clothing industry has never taken British fashion seriously, though just about everybody else does.

''All the top Italian designers have English assistants and it's much the same in Paris.

''I've never worked for anyone in my life and don't plan to. It's a great time for me right now.'' No one is disagreeing. At London's recent Autumn-Winter '94 shows, critics and buyers swooned all over again when Rocha presented his Puritan-inspired collection - delicious clothes including suede dresses over alpaca, Prince of Wales check suits teamed with waxed leather jackets, beaded linen tunics and crocheted knitwear emblazoned with his signature Celtic cross.

The last six months may have elevated him to the top, but Hong Kong's first designer to win world acclaim hasn't forgotten his origins or the years of struggle and obscurity.

''If someone like me could be named Designer of the Year, there's hope for us all,'' grins John Rocha with a toss of that long, black mane.