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Sussex honours Debenhams designer who “came from absolutely nowhere”
When he was 17 and about to leave Hong Kong for the UK, John Rocha was told by a fortune teller that his life would be hard but it would all change when he reached 40.
How true this was. In 1993, as supermodels Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington sashayed the catwalks in his creations, Rocha - who was about to turn 40 - was named Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards.
In 2002, by which time his clothes were as familiar to high street shoppers (thanks to a rolling contract with Debenhams) as to haute couturists, he was made a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen.
The accolades have continued. Rocha, a former fashion student at Croydon School of Art in the 1970s, is to receive an honorary degree from the University of Sussex - who validate Croydon College’s degree courses - at this summer’s graduation ceremonies (Wednesday, 19 July) for his innovative contribution to the design industry.
“It’s a kind of unbelievable journey,” he says. “I came from absolutely nowhere.”
His journey began on a council estate in Hong Kong. “There were ten of us in a small flat and I slept on a concrete floor until I was twelve. We were on the eleventh floor and had to go all the way to the ground floor to get water. Life in Hong Kong was very hard in those days.”
But even before the fortune teller’s prediction, he says he knew he was different to his brothers and sisters and that it was his destiny “to do something”.
Initially he trained as a psychiatric nurse. The British government of the time had turned to the colonies to make up the shortfall in recruitment on home shores, and Rocha saw it as his ticket out of poverty. But, although he enjoyed nursing, he soon took off on a new career.
“My grandmother was a dressmaker so I was always interested in clothes. And when The Beatles came to Hong Kong in the sixties I suddenly realised there was a different culture to the one I knew. I was interested in the fashion and the music, but I didn’t know you could make a living out of it.”
After qualifying in nursing, Rocha followed the example of a girlfriend and began looking at training as a fashion designer. Because he had worked for three years, he was able to apply for a grant and was thrilled when Croydon offered him a place.
Although he admits he didn’t work hard initially (he recalls coming to Brighton a few times, where he enjoyed the buzz and the beach), he found an interest in the technical side of making clothes. His graduate collection involved handcrafted Irish fabrics, something still evident in his designs today.
“It was a stepping stone for my career,” he says. “People think the reason why I am successful is because of the way I look.” (He still has his waist- long hair, although it’s now more grey than black). “But you have to create an identity and my love of bringing all the craft elements of the past into the modern form has been my real signature.”
His interest in Irish fabrics took him to Dublin, where he created the Chinatown label in the 1980s. The move, he feels, has been a key to his success. London designers are constantly looking at each other’s work, he points out. But in Ireland, where he still lives with his wife Odette, he could continue doing is own thing, such as painting fabric by hand.
As a result, his clients have included some of the biggest names in showbusiness. Robbie Williams wore one of Rocha’s coats for the 1997 black and white video of his hit single Angels, he has dressed Irish heroes Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor, and he even got a mention in an episode of the TV comedy Gavin and Stacey (there’s a line in which Bryn compliments Stacey’s brother on his shirt and asks if it’s “a Rocha. John Rocha”).
But he is equally thrilled when he sees a member of the public wearing his clothes.
“I am from a working-class family and I don’t think fashion should be elitist. Every time I get a taxi and the driver says they like my tee shirts, it gives me satisfaction.”
His designs also now embrace homeware, including crystal stemware and lighting for Waterford, plus bedlinen, furniture and tableware for Designers at Debenhams. He has worked on residential property schemes in Liverpool and Birmingham, hotel interiors, private jet interiors, costumes for film-sets and even multimedia theatre.
“I always bring in experts – architects and product designers,” he points out. “I don’t do it half-heartedly. With me I want to be sure that we can stand by everything we do. And I think that’s what’s sensible about my career. Some people do endorsements, but I say no, we do design.”
While designing is still part of his daily routine, at 63 he is now looking to see what he can pass on to others. In 2013 he helped to relaunch Croydon School of Art and frequently gives talks to the students, who find him highly inspirational. His daughter Simone is also a clothes designer and he is laying the foundations for her to go further.
Importantly, he wants to create a work-life balance. “When I am not busy I go fly-fishing, because the fashion world is quite intense.”
Fortunately, his business takes him all over the world, so that not only does he get to see his clothes on sale in Russia, Vancouver and Iceland, but he can also cast out in amazing lakes and rivers. It’s where he now finds great inspiration and happiness.
“I used to like checking out the nightclubs and partying, because that’s where you see the young people and what they’re wearing,” he says. “Now I go fishing. I see the seasons change, I take a picture because it’s so unusual, and two or three years later, I remember it and I use it in a design.”
- John Rocha will be presented for the honorary degree of Doctor of the University of Sussex by Croydon College’s Chair of Governors, Gordon Smith, at the Brighton Centre, on July 19, 2017.