CORRECTIVE lenses make it simpler to see a gap in the fashion market, so designer John Rocha was well-placed to create his first collection of glasses.
None of us is getting any younger. Not even John Rocha, who has been a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry for more than 30 years, who still sports that signature long, flowing hair – now rather grey, admittedly – and who continues to come up with something new and beautiful for the catwalk season after season.
For spring summer 2013, he had trend-watchers agog when he sent a frothy confection of feminine, brightly colourful gorgeousness down the catwalk – all crushed silk, organza and chiffon in shades of pink, red and sherbet yellow – when he is best known for one colour only. Black.
Now, in the year of his 60th birthday, he continues to surprise by adding to his repertoire that most practical of fashion accessories: glasses.
Once strictly the territory of the class geek, specs are now considered seriously cool. Just ask Anne Hathaway. Or Tinie Tempah. Rocha, however, was less concerned with creating the latest must-have accessory so much as providing something that makes people’s lives easier.
“As I get older, I wear glasses myself and I’ve realised they’re a pretty important piece of equipment,” he says. “Also, I keep losing them and it’s costing me a fortune. So when I was asked me to create this collection I thought, ‘Voila. Perfect.’ It would give me a chance to understand how glasses work, but also to create a collection that is at an accessible price point, which is very much the philosophy I have as a designer.
“I don’t look at glasses as fashion accessories as such,” he adds. “I was more looking at them as a kind of medical instrument. People need them to get on with their lives. So my approach was perhaps different from that of other designers.”
In his quest to understand all things ocular, he spent a year studying eyewear, travelling to Hong Kong and meeting the manufacturers, getting to grips with all aspects of production.
“I learned all the technical details and then started designing from there,” he says. “I had to start learning about the shape of the face of a person to create a collection that anyone could wear – someone with more of a moon-shaped face, for instance, or someone with a more angular face. So there are a lot of technical elements in the collection.
“But, also, I don’t do a lot of bright colour – my collections are quite muted – so hopefully the glasses don’t take away the personality of the person.”
Having said all that, of course, it was still vital that they look good, so he took elements of his archive, looking back at previous collections and at his work for Waterford Crystal, “so it’s still personal in terms of the motif and the colour but at the same time it’s a really good pair of glasses – which is the most important thing”.
There is something undeniably exotic about this designer. Born in Hong Kong in 1953 to Chinese and Portuguese parents, he studied in London – graduating from Croydon School of Art – and has been based in Dublin for most of his career. Yet he still speaks with a strong Eastern accent, looks for all the world like a happy Buddha, and is always ready with a youthful chuckle.
“I’ve lived in Dublin now since 1978,” he says. “My wife [Odette] is Irish and my children were all born in Ireland. I have lots of friends I’ve had for many, many years and also my staff – most of them have been working with me for over 30 years. So, mostly, it’s the people who I work with and who I have my social life with – that’s why I’m still in Ireland.”
With his mainline collection, a well-known diffusion line for Debenhams and an interior design business, Rocha admits it’s not easy to stay fresh and deliver something new season after season.
“Fashion is about challenges and changes every six months,” he says. “You have to keep coming up with something that keeps people excited because there is so much fashion in the world right now – there are about 400 collections at any one time. So from my point of view, unless I have something that will excite people, I won’t do it any more. I always challenge myself to do something interesting. The day I can’t do that, I’ll walk away from it.”
He remains inspired by travel. After showing at London Fashion Week last season he went fishing in Patagonia for sea trout, then spent some time in Hong Kong with his wife to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. “So I am a happy man,” he says.
The couple also have a home in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, in the south of France. “I hang out in marketplaces, in galleries, in souks. So when I travel it doesn’t matter which country I’m in, I subconsciously absorb what I see and this comes out in some of my work – it could be architecture, it could be crystal, it could be jewellery, it could be anything.”
He produced that most colourful of summer collections after a season spent in Aix-en-Provence designing a 400sq ft glass chapel for the Château La Coste sculpture park, comprised of 28,000 perfect pieces of Waterford Crystal. “I spent a lot of time in the outdoors and I saw lots of colour so I couldn’t help but be inspired with that,” he says. “Obviously colour comes with the territory of beautiful flowers so that’s how my spring summer collection came about.
“I didn’t realise until people started asking, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Nothing happened. I just spent too long in a little bloody chapel.’”
While elements of colour were still evident in his autumn winter 2013 collection, he was back to a more familiar muted palette but, following that trip to Patagonia and then Hong Kong, next summer could spring some more surprises on us.
“I really don’t know yet,” he teases. “I’ll tell you when I get back to Dublin. I’ll have to wait to see what comes up.”
And he’s happy for his mainline and diffusion lines to sit alongside each other. “They do different things for different people. The mainline only concerns certain people because of the price point, because of the workmanship that goes into it. Some of the dresses take about 40 metres of organza, all stitched by hand, and I love them. But apart from the few people in Los Angeles or Paris or London, not everybody can afford it. The opportunity to create a collection that is much more accessible is what I am about. It’s at the heart of everything I do.”
And now there is a second Rocha on the scene – his daughter Simone, a Central Saint Martins graduate who already has the fashion world sitting up and taking notice of her on her own terms. “When she said she was going to do her own thing I said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want, follow your dream, but most important is that you have your own voice.’ And I think she has,” says her proud father, “and I think that’s why people really love what she does. She’s her own individual character.”
And so, as we go our separate ways, I wonder if he has any future collaboration plans in his sights. “I’m very happy doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I have enough to do and I’m not looking for any more. So if I didn’t need my own glasses, I don’t think I’d be designing them now. That’s just the way it happened.”
• John Rocha’s new range for Specsavers is available now, prices from £125 (www.specsavers.co.uk)