Article Archive: February 2012

John Rocha – Black Beauty

What sort of a writer would I be if I didn’t post something this week about film? Watching John Rocha’s Autumn/Winter 2012 show tucked out of the way backstage this swirling marabou skirt made me think back to last year’s Oscars when Natalie Portman won for best actress for her turn as a disturbed ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”, I was double happy at this result as I could a) relive my days at ballet class and b) drool over the beautiful swan costumes in the film. Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette” and Tom Ford’s movie “A Single Man” give me the same enjoyment. And even though watching and dissecting a film with fashion credentials is enjoyable, I think I’ll leave the real film critiquing to the far more competent Lauren Laverne’s BBC6 Friday Film Club or The Observer’s rather brilliant Mark Kermode.

If you want to be heard – whisper

I’d like to make one final point about this year’s Oscars before I forget… I agree the film “The Artist” is a little thing of great beauty and joy (both in film and in fashion) and that its success through nostalgia is a sort of measure of a universal mood at the moment… a longing for a more refined and simpler time but I cannot express how much I deeply love the success story of another movie “The Help”. Thankfully the good forces in film deserve a pat on the back for making it. If you haven’t heard about the writer Kathryn Stockett’s own story then it goes something like this… In 2009 Kathryn Stockett finally published her novel “The Help” after spending five years writing it. The book (her first) about African American maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s very nearly didn’t get published at all. Kathryn had sent it out to find representation and had 60 rejections before literary agent Susan Ramer agreed to take her on. I wonder how did Kathryn feel when she read this piece in The New York Times? Shortly after this piece appeared her book took off and spent over 100 weeks on the New york Times bestseller list, has been published in 35 countries and has sold over 5 million copies. USA Today called it “a sleeper hit” – a book, film, single, game or TV show which grows in popularity over time as people promote it through word of mouth. Like BBC4’s “The Killing” or the BBC’s “Great Expectations” and these little joys were spread like a secret whisper passed among friends and I was reminded of all of this goodness by John Rocha (the humblest of London’s design geniuses) in this moment above backstage.

The counterpoint to the loud blasts of colour this season predicting next autumns trends at fashion weeks everywhere was Hong Kong born John Rocha’s whisper of muted black at London Fashion Week. Murmurings of sweet nothings backstage “quiet”, “soft”, and deeply textured with hours of handwork to help accentuate the movement of the material and honour the female form. Watching John Rocha at work, I regressed to when I was tiny and my mum used to dress me for ballet class and even if ballet wasn’t your thing, I’m sure you’ve all had a moment when you remember a mum or aunt or sister correct your skirt, tighten your belt, tie your plaits and make you feel instantly perfect. Just for a split second.

Each model got the full John Rocha treatment and it took hours of preparation backstage to get the hair and make-up for the John Rocha look just right. It’s at moments like this, staring down the lens at such perfection that I realize how much longer it would take me to actually make myself look remotely this good. (Of which much more later.)

Both “Black Swan” costume designer Amy Westcott and anyone who has had to labour over a handmade piece will appreciate the time and all together different level of talent required to hand crochet this dress above. It took 50 hours to make this one crocheted piece.

Luckily John Rocha was on hand for a brief moment to highlight the skill and time taken to hand manipulate fine wool to create this. The fact that a lot of his collection is entirely handmade and available to order from his atelier elevates his brand to couture level in my humble opinion.

Incidentally thanks to the lovely John Rocha team for allowing me to observe the collection backstage up close and for letting me gain first hand knowledge of the amount of work that goes into spiderweb crochet….. and then on to yet more elaborately-crafted texture in this ballooning taffeta gold dress.

So how to continue reviewing this collection without using an excess of superlatives. I’ll try to keep the count low but it wasn’t an easy task not to get completely swept away in the moment when you’re faced with this staring down your lens…

It goes without saying that this collection is strong on detail. Very strong.

And apart from designing hotels, glassware, buildings and diffusion lines, John Rocha has his own store, a five-storey building on Dover Street in Mayfair two doors next to Japanese label Comme des Garcons Dover Street Market – one of London’s most influential shopping locations in Europe. And at this point along, although I don’t want to appear all ‘fashion comment-y’ I guess my idea of a browse is going to be a little different considering the amount of images I have swirling about in my nut. However my affection grows instantly for a designer and a collection when I can identify wearability and clever use of accessories and this wonderful shaggy Mongolian lambskin pulled in just so with a belt worn OVER a skirt might just coax me into wearing a) belts and b) a skirt again (and I never wear skirts).

Coats, well that’s an entirely different matter. I have many and my coat love will continue and documentation of what I like to do while wrapped up in one will never cease. Where John Rocha further excels is when he introduces interesting textures and proportions quite sparingly into his daywear. And there’s the perfect use of a belt again, the clean lines roughed with a Mongolian lambskin bag and boots.

Here’s a closer look at those beauties.

The slightly high positioning of the belt is not only good for holding things together but changes the proportion on this coat.

Or this huge belt which is not only for wrapping but an accessory to be shown off.

Or positioning your buckle slightly off centre while simultanously cinching in a billowing top.

The way the belt in tucked up and almost hidden is a clever way to modernize evening wear. It makes layering on top like this less… Thickening?

Rocha has his business in London but returns to his family in Dublin and took several references from his native Hong Kong and Irish painter Sean Scully’s textured abstract canvases for this collection. Ballooning taffeta jackets were balanced with either light or heavy skirts, black on black, the marabou skirt here reticent of the surface of one of Scully’s textured oils.

Or in the case of this particular silk dress it’s quite easy to see John Rocha’s nod to artist Sean Scully’s famous striped canvases.

Off the catwalk and leaving Somerset House immediately after the show there was more cool layering of John Rocha black on black by John Rocha himself and his wife, muse and business partner Odette. Actually it’s all in the way she chooses perfect proportions, the coat sitting against her body at the perfect places. And love her Simone Rocha red shoes.

Far more seasoned fashion editors than I (International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes and fashion’s single most influential critic) says that John Rocha’s collections are “A lesson in master craftsmanship”. Judging by this year’s red carpet disasters at the Oscars (actresses afraid to take risks and few embracing black) can we just dwell on Suzy Menkes words for a moment and consider the detail in this skirt above again and imagine an Oscar winner in it next year please?……..

The Borrowers at Paul Smith

Picture this: ferociously feminine girls swarming all over skinny boys’ pieces backstage at Paul Smith A/W2011. The moment I initially drew close to examine this collection I thought; yes this collection is built on an intriguing mix of boys’ pieces and fabrics, but the collection also evoked an even stronger question…

Have you ever ‘borrowed’ an item from a man’s wardrobe ever? Have you? I’ve done it many times. Would you remember your first menswear ‘borrowing’ immediately? I think you might. Mine was a jumper I ‘borrowed’ from my dad. It was navy and smelt of bonfire, leather and his musky cologne. Its large sleeves swamped my hands and dipped below my fingertips but that made it feel all the more safe and special – I have never returned it. It’s the one thing of his that I cherish.

My second and most significant ‘coming of age borrowing’ like a cheerleader wearing her footballer boyfriend’s jacket, was while I was at boarding school. I took great pleasure and warmth (because the school was old and always freezing) in wearing a boyfriend’s charcoal wool crombie over my school uniform. The coat and relationship are long-since dissolved.

My next borrowing was a casual one at university, a small man’s cashmere jumper – it had accidentally shrunken in a wash and I wore it until it started to unravel at the elbows and finally disintegrated. My conclusions? They’re threefold. First, I like wool jumpers. Second, I’m romantic. well, no not romantic, what’s the word, more… more… more Irish. That’s it! We have an affinity to wool wherever we end up living in the world. Third seeing as I’m in Sir David Attenborough overdrive today and have wandered into more natural science territory, I’m going to turn this idea over now and see what’s underneath. Here’s a thought…


The sensation of wearing a coat-over-shoulders-over-loose layers, items of clothing belonging to a man or a (bigger, taller) person you love… apart from the emotional connection, there’s an added basic feeling of comfort and warmth we get just from the fabrics and proportions alone. Do you agree? That a crombie or trench which offers cover and warmth also offers the grandeur and roominess of a man’s coat. A roominess which lets you layer different pieces underneath while by some magic trick of the eye makes your female form look even more feminine.


And the fabrics – fine wool for trousers and thick gauge knits, how do they make you feel?

Wool, suede and corduroy – these all brush against the skin creating a different sensation than ‘feminine’ fabrics like jerseys and silks. While a large man’s watch strap (old styling trick) can swamp the female wrist in chunkiness and instantly make a bare wrist more feminine, a sleeved hand cushioned in winter wools at Paul Smith was strung with a chunky bag chain and instantly made the hand look more feminine and lithe.

At Paul Smith the cotton shirt and wool jumpers and grandpa cardigans were linchpins of this low-key look. Shirts were sneaked in under boyfriend jackets and coats. This blue shirt sat sweetly under a navy blazer. You might wonder what I was thinking by this point. The answer – my answer, anyway-is back to school. This shirt and blazer look wasn’t unlike what most of us wore to school which we tweaked ourselves by sneaking in an over sized man’s cardigan or sweater underneath as an extra rebellious layer.

Elsewhere in the collection shirts were layered under wool waistcoats and wool cardigans, Perhaps the jumpers and cardigans were not fashion moments in themselves, but the shirt and tie ubiquity signified a broader trend that dominated many of the other catwalk collections.

Shirts and ties and tailored suits and coats stomped down runways on girls across the four fashion capitals. From Paul Smith and Alice Temperley and Nicole Farhi in London to Chanel, Balmain in Paris and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan to Tommy Hilfiger, Jason Wu, The Row and Ralph Lauren in New York.

At Paul Smith, the man’s tailoring in coats hangs nonchalantly from shoulders and collarbones, skimming breasts and waists, which female clothes in comparison hug tight. High necks and long sleeves were all layered to give comfort and conceal the body.

Other pieces were fitted neatly to the body but after the plunging, frilled extravaganzas of summer, this modest menswear movement, in its muted palette of greys, camels, black was a refreshing change carefully enhanced with stripes, polka dots and shots of neon at Paul Smith to add further femininity.


At Paul Smith the ‘borrowed’ theme was always softened by styling; man’s flat loafers and flat laced shoes were worn without laces.

Round-neck wool boyfriend sweaters were teased up at the cuff to reveal cotton shirt cuffs.

Nails were painted in neon hues.

Ties were loosely slung around the necks of cotton shirts with upturned cuffs and Paul Smith glasses were perched on the edges of noses rapscallion style.

Even the buttons were feminised (when I examined them up close Sir David Attenborough style) it’s as if a little row of obedient polka-dot ladybirds landed ready to hold together buttonholes.

Smith had gone to great pains to refit men’s style trousers, coats and jackets to the female form, cropping and cutting so that they hung and fitted just so.

The look was softened at times with layering. A clever layering instruction for Autumn/Winter2011 when wearing your boyfriend ‘borrows’ PLAY with different lengths; NOTE TO SELF: something SHORT worn OVER something LONGER like in these two picture above G. Yes I like this LONG cardigan dropping from beneath this SHORT jacket idea (pic on the left) or alternatively if you’re petite a piece of LONG softly draped knitwear slung OVER a coat which just peeps below it creates a lean tall silhouette. Reminds me again of borrowing a boyfriend’s coat (just to pop out here on the catwalk for a sec).

I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment. Yohji Yamamoto who launched his label Y in 1972, based it on the idea of a woman borrowing her lover’s clothes and the feelings it created. Through the Nineties and since playing with these proportions was a Helmut Lang trademark. Nearer to home Margaret Howell cuts collections like this and for years at Paul Smith he’s mastered it and made it a subtle running theme. This season however it’s the full on boyfriend look.


It’s further softened for girls with the help of Paul Smith’s bags. My favourite is this black Mongolian goat hair ball of fluff. Paul Smith’s words to the model about to carry it onto the catwalk? “Go walk the dog!”

I should like to close this little sermonette with this observation. Stand for a while backstage with Paul Smith and it isn’t long before he just starts being his amazing self. In the past I’ve interviewed him on film and his attitude is unique.

“You’re just walking down the street”, “Enjoy yourself out there, no modelling now!” “As you would anyway!” These were his instructions to models about to go onto the catwalk at The Savoy’s Lancaster Room. In that pressurized backstage atmosphere where time is precious you can’t fake genuine sentiment like that.

Maybe secretly some of our favourite boyfriend ‘borrows’ have often turned into lifetime loans. And you might think I sound all nostalgic but with such strong emotions attached to this ‘borrowed’ look, it’s no surprise that it works as a full collection and will translate well in the real world.

If you can see things in this way (or at least try to), we’re on the same page here. If, on the other hand, you decide it’s not for you, then that’s fine too. The ‘borrowers’ at Paul Smith showed me a great way to enrich my look and give extra longevity to old pieces which barely received an outing due to the summer murky weather. And for just one brief moment the new Paul Smith collection (and I don’t think I’m alone here), made me wish I was 16 again. That fragile feeling of invincibility that comes with a ‘borrowed’ boyfriend’s jumper. Am I innocent in thinking that a ‘borrowed’ jumper might help me conquer the world?