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Designer profile: John Rocha


If the label says ’designed by John Rocha’, you can guarantee that it is. Not content to just putting his name to a product, John Rocha actually does design everything associated with him. From interior’s to crystal wear, he’s done it all, but so far as the name Rocha goes it will be for his work in fashion that he will be forever known.

A friend and fan of Rocha, Bono of U2 fame, said of him: “Around the din of choices that is the way we live now, his work is quieting. Not noisy. If the job of art is to chase away ugliness, John Rocha is an artist for sure.”

The softly spoken John Rocha was born in Hong Kong in 1953 and his mixed parentage of a Chinese mother and Portuguese father was without a doubt a contributing factor in his now infamous east meets west designs. But fashion wasn’t Rocha’s original choice of career.

From mental health to the LCF

After moving to the UK from Hong Kong in the early 70’s Rocha studied psychiatric nursing at Bamstead hospital in Surrey. So what was it that made him make the leap to fashion, an industry that couldn’t be further away from the mental health sector if it tried? Maybe it was some pre ordained calling that he just couldn’t ignore; no, I’m afraid the answer is a little more basic says Rocha: “It gave me more chance to meet women than working as a nurse.”

This doesn’t exactly justify why Rocha has since become one of the most successful fashion designers of today, with people clambering to see his shows at London Fashion Week. The fact that he has a talent for design and is a shrewd bisness man who never stops working is probably the real reason for his success.

On being successful: “I don’t think you have to shout and scream and throw your weight around to achieve something.”

“Doing what you believe in, mixed with hard work and determination, guarantees success; luck guarantees greater success.”

Having made the decision that his future lay in fashion Rocha began to study at The London College of Fashion. It was at his graduation show that, as with so many fashion success stories, fate stepped in and took over. Deciding to use Irish wool and linen for his winter collection, Rocha was inspired enough to pay Ireland a visit. He was subsequently spotted by the Irish Trade Board who wasted no time in inviting Rocha to Dublin.

So, having moved to the emerald isle Rocha set up business with fellow designer Eily Doolan in 1978. Although the business was a success with outlets in both Dublin and Cork it finally ceased trading in 1982.

Not one to give up, Rocha started the Chinatown label less than a year later in 1983 with his now wife and business partner Odette Gleeson. In 1987 Rocha moved to Milan where he produced his own line for reflections in 1988 – 1989. Under licence for two labels, Chinatown and John Rocha, he returned to Dublin, the place that by now he was calling home.

Irish influences

Rocha’s now distinctive style had begun to reflect his surroundings as well as Irish traditions. His oriental inspired designs being brought to life through the use of traditional techniques. Using hand painted textiles, knitwear, vintage linen, antique lace, rope, leather and silk Rocha’s use of raw materials bring a very earthy organic feel to clothes that are finely tailored and utterly wearable.

A statement for his spring/summer 2001 collection can see an example of how his work has been perceived; the fashion press described it as: ’reflecting his love of the natural beauty of Donegal.’ However, Rocha is by no means stuffy or static in his work and, as if to prove that, fact Rocha was crowned designer of the year in 1993, consolidating his position as a respected craftsman who combines the ethereal with utterly commercial.

But what does the man himself think of his work? “I think it’s all about the moment.” Says Rocha. “When you work in fashion everything has to keep moving. Product design can take one, two or three years to develop. But with fashion it’s all about what’s happening now, the models, the music  it’s very exciting really. Also there’s nothing nicer than making clothes for people to enjoy. It’s great to see my wife, my staff or whoever look great in something.”

Branching out into crystal and hotels

Not content to restrict his design capabilities to fashion Rocha set to work on another challenge. In 1997 he began designing for Waterford Crystal which is not only one of Irelands best know brands, but one of the top five crystal brands in the world.

On being a control freak: “Well, I know what I like, let’s put it that way. It’s about integrity, and if it’s my taste, who else can do that?”

Working with such a different medium though didn’t phase Rocha one little bit. “Whatever material you work in, be it fabric or crystal, the shape of what you create is defined by light and shadow. With Waterford you not only work with the purest crystal, you also work with light. This for me has been one of the most exciting aspects of my collaboration with Waterford craftsmen,” says Rocha.

Creating a range known as John Rocha for Waterford Crystal the collection consists of contemporary tableware and accessories. So successful has it been that it has continued to expand and flourish.

Now spurred on to branch out into other media Rocha went on to score yet another hit in 1999 with Dublin’s Morrison Hotel. On invitation from the high-fashion hotel group, Thomas Read, Rocha yet again managed to bag another winner. Stamping his distinctive Rocha style onto the interior of the hotel mixing the traditional with the thoroughly modern.

That very same year Rocha also managed to squeeze in the designing of uniforms for Virgin Atlantic, which is worn by all 5,000 of the air and ground staff.

Rocha’s work honoured

Still not ready to sit back and relax, Rocha went on to launch five collections for Debenhams the following winter. Embracing clothing, accessories and homewear the Rocha name was brought to a much wider population than his original work in fashion with TV and print advertising for the collection.

Since then Rocha has collaborated with the design group Space on his first residential project. Converting a 1930’s Liverpool postal depot into apartments and penthouse and in 2001 he began work on the Beacon Court business and lifestyle centre in Dublin.

But 2002 was defiantly a winning year for Rocha. After being named in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List John Rocha received a CBE. “I’m very excited about the award,” Rocha said at the time. “My dad would have been so proud.”

So with fashion, crystal, interiors and a jewellery range that was launched earlier this year under his belt it’s safe to say that John Rocha really does encapsulate all that is design. Not bad for a man who only wanted to get into fashion to meet girls!

By Nicola Brewer

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