Yesterday, Simone Rocha staged her first physical show in a year and a half. The show was held in St Bartholomew-the-Great, a medieval church located in Smithfield within the City of London. Founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123, this church has endured 900 years of British history, outlived 41 monarchs and survived – somewhat remarkably – the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and yes, the Covid-19 pandemic. Rocha was introduced to St Bart’s by a member of her family during the latter of these events and, building a collection around the idea of baptism, inspired in part by the birth of her second daughter, the setting felt apt.
Here, upon stone floors smoothed by nine centuries of worshippers’ feet, Rocha’s models showcased this collection – in a spectacle of beauty that perhaps only she is capable of producing. As per the baptismal theme, her clothes took inspiration from christening and communion gowns, cut from swathes of cream ‘bedding’ brocade, cotton poplin sheets and broderie Anglaise, interwoven with satin ties and embellished so richly with pearls and crystals that you could hear as well as see them. Yet more pearls crowned the models heads, which were wetted in a nod to the ceremonial dunking of infant baptism. After 18 months of digital presentations, Rocha showed that nothing can quite match the experience of showing physically, in its ability to engage – and tantalise – the senses; to stir up emotions.
In the wake of the show, Rocha opens up about the event, the ideas behind the collection and how it feels to see people wearing her clothes.
TS: How are you feeling after your show?
SR: I feel wrecked! But I’m actually really happy with the show. When you’re in it, sometimes it’s hard to see the wood from the trees. It’s very Twilight Zone. Sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to feel, and if what was in your head is projected. But this time I do feel what was in my brain was projected. So I think that is a good feeling.
TS: And how was it showing in real life again?
SR: It was amazing. I was quite nervous and I haven’t been nervous in around seven years. Obviously you’re always nervous but it was a different kind of naive nervousness. But I was really looking forward to being in the room, having the clothes in the room, on the girls, the lights, the smells, the sounds. [The collection] was really heavily embellished so you could even hear the beads as the girls walked by. I really wanted that encompassing feeling, that you felt really in it, in this kind of nightmare lullaby.
TS: Why did you choose to show in St Bartholomew-the-Great?
SR: It’s so beautiful. A member of my family introduced it to me a few years ago, and I just thought that the stone in the room was so incredible. [I like] the fact that it’s still quite small, it’s an intimate church, but it feels so vast and has this kind of medieval weight to it. I wanted to show in a church considering the collection was focused around this idea of baptism. [After] showing in places like Lancaster House and Ally Pally, they’ve been really big shows, I wanted [this] to be an intimate show. One, because of the subject matter and two, because of the pandemic. I actually walked into it last year, before we were completely locked down, so it was always in the back of my mind with the collection as well, which I think is always an extra element to the show.
TS: So it fed into the collection?
SR: Yeah. Because I was reckoning with ideas of baptism, we were looking at this idea of wetting the baby’s head, and that came into the hair, and there were [other] little moments that came into it. And also the macabre of it being quite medieval, I wanted that undercurrent running through the collection as well. And I really felt like the pure white could really work well in the room. I developed lots of really pastel-y, sickly sweet palettes, that I haven’t really developed before and I really liked the idea of putting it in this very spooky place.
TS: I guess it’s that duality that you always have – the light and the dark.
TS: How has having a baby recently fed into your process and this collection?
SR: The insomnia is real! And it’s that push and pull of euphoria and overwhelming love, but then also the hysteria and the disturbance. I wanted things to be very child-like and naive, but then also I wanted to put in the very physical experience of mothering and nursing and breastfeeding. I wanted that all – it just naturally infiltrated into the collection because I had a baby in May and I’ve been kind of working through to show in September, so it was impossible for it to be about anything else, actually.
TS: What else were you thinking about?
SR: I was exploring this idea of children and naivety, but I was thinking about foundlings [too]. It’s really tragic actually. Women used to have to give up their children because they couldn’t support them or they had been sexually abused and they had to put their children into care. It was obviously people from backgrounds that didn’t have a lot of belongings because this was the result – they didn’t have homes, and they would have to register the child with something. And in the Foundling Museum they have all these records and it’s a piece of ribbon, it’s a button, it’s a bit of collar torn off. This foundling as identity, I found really interesting and obviously very different to my personal mothering situation – I live at home with my baby – but I thought this was just so beautiful but also obviously so sad. And I felt like this idea of identity was really important to bring in. So there’s one single black ribbon in the sock that’s representing this idea of being found. We wanted these random objects, or random text placed in as well, so we have embroidery about wanting to brush your hair that’s hidden underneath a shirt. So I wanted to have these little messages, as well, of these foundlings and their identities.
TS: How does it feel to be so popular? I posted something from the show on Instagram Stories yesterday and had people messaging me saying ’I want to wear this,’ ’I want to get married in this.’ Your clothes have that effect on people. I wondered how that feels and how that feels to see lots of people wearing your clothes?
SR: It feels amazing! It’s undeniable, there’s no bigger compliment than someone actually wearing your clothes, to be completely honest. I didn’t know how to translate emotion and thought into something physical, and it was by making clothes and putting that into something physical, and then the extra layer of people wearing it and how that makes them feel, physically or emotionally. And to be able to do that is absolutely amazing. And the show is the perfect example. When we do the show and people come, it does look like a cult! And it is something that I honestly, I really take as a huge compliment. And I love that it’s so many different types of people, you know, it’s men, women, old, young, girls, and I love that. It’s a real compliment. But we really try to show, any show we do, we never think oh we’re showing because we’re in London, we always show – it could be anywhere in the world, it’s how we approach it from the process, it’s all about the collection and it could be showing in London, it could be Paris, it could be Japan, it could be Mars, you know, wherever it is, that’s that show and that’s that moment and that’s a really important part of the process, actually.
TS: Is that what drives you? What do you love most about your job? What keeps you going?
SR: Honestly, I actually think the shows keep me going. I’ll never forget coming out of the first lockdown and getting to go and see Sarah Lucas at Sadie Coles and it was like ’Ahhhhh’. You know, that feeling. So it’s that feeling that actually keeps me going and the fact that I get to do that, in a different medium. And then obviously, it is incredible seeing people in it. Seeing people in it is more like a big compliment and like ’Yasss!’. It’s an amazing compliment. But the thing that gives me the energy is pulling together a collection: the challenge, the push, the pull, and then the release. That’s what makes you keep doing them.