Simone Rocha clearly has an affinity for historic spaces. In previous editions of London Fashion Week, the Irish fashion designer has staged shows at the 19th-century Lancaster House, a ballroom at Goldsmith's Hall, the gothic Southwark Cathedral and London's medieval Guildhall.
"There's such an amazing history in all these buildings that it seeps into the collections. I really like to have that contrast of what I'm doing, which is very new, and my interpretation of femininity -- but looking at it in a space that has a historical weight to it," she says, adding: "I love that you can walk in somewhere and be completely transported at that one moment."
This season, Rocha has chosen one of her most dramatic backdrops to date: A restored Victorian theater that was closed to the public for 80 years.
Located in the East Wing of London's historic Alexandra Palace, which was built in the 1870s, the theater was reopened last December following an extensive multi-million-dollar renovation. With much of the original structure preserved, the space appears frozen in time, its high-tech lighting and sound equipment hidden beneath peeled paint and faded floorboards.
The main venue space at "Ally Pally," as it is known by Londoners, has hosted shows by the likes of Jay-Z, The Rolling Stones and Florence and The Machine in recent years. But on Sunday evening, its newly-opened theater provided an atmospheric backdrop to Rocha's evocative new collection -- an inventive womenswear line that linked to her Irish heritage and proved why she is one of fashion's most talked-about designers.
Hunting the wren
Given her penchant for historic settings, it is little surprise that Rocha's new collection is rooted in Ireland's past -- specifically the largely defunct tradition of wren boys, who would "hunt" a fake wren on St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas. Often dressed in straw hats and mismatched clothing, the young men would go from house to house dancing, singing and asking for money.
Their circular dances inspired Rocha to eschew a conventional runway in favor of a looped one. Her models walked before a front row packed with fashion luminaries including Anna Wintour, Edward Enninful and Alexa Chung.
"I've been showing in buildings with lots of different rooms. And this season I really wanted to bring it together," Rocha explained.
"I was also really interested in the fact that (the wren boys would) knock on doors, almost like trick or treaters asking for money. And the idea was that the interiors of the houses that they were knocking on (influenced my) fabrications."
As such, the collection's fabrics, which Rocha creates herself, take the form of faded wallpaper print on silk taffeta, suit patterns reminiscent of upholstery and embroidered ivory tulle that mimics blue Delft crockery. The contrast between the wren boys and Rocha's signature prettiness resulted in something distinctly tomboyish, continuing her ongoing exploration between masculine and feminine aesthetics.
Elsewhere, she referenced the wrens themselves: Layers of sequins evoked feathers, flashes of blood red hinted at the wren's once-violent end and ballooning dress silhouettes looked almost like birds with their wings closed. The use of raffia -- made from a type of palm, and an unusual choice for Rocha -- meanwhile nodded to the wren boys' straw hats. The designer wound it through models' hair and encased some of her more dramatic outfits in the material.
Some observers tried to forge links between the collection and Brexit. But Rocha, who is known for keeping politics out of her work, wouldn't be drawn on the subject: "I think it's impossible not to be influenced by everything that's going around you," she says, adding: "I have to admit, creatively, I don't bring (politics) into my work."
Having drawn inspiration from artist Louise Bourgeois for last season's collection, Rocha says she wanted to focus on something closer to home. Her show's Irish narrative was further advanced by her decision to cast Irish theater actresses, including Olwen Fouéré, Jessie Buckley, Simone Kirby, Charlene McKenna and Valene Kane, as models.
Another notable inclusion in her cross-generational casting was 63-year-old Oscar-nominated actress Lesley Manville, star of the 2017 film "Phantom Thread."
Never a simple conclusion
Rocha's designs never offer simple conclusions. Instead, each collection continues to explore her signature tenets: contrast, extreme attention to detail and an appreciation of culture and heritage.
Her clothes appeal to women of all ages, with every new season uncovering sometimes contradictory layers of femininity, from girlish innocence to bold independence.
At 33, Rocha has achieved critical acclaim and built a successful independent label, with stores in New York, London and Hong Kong. She has won numerous awards including "British Womenswear Designer Award" at the 2016 Fashion Awards, a prize her father (designer John Rocha) won 23 years earlier. And in February 2018 she became a creative director for Italian brand Moncler, presenting at Milan Fashion Week as part of their Genius Group.
This season appears to have continued her recent run of form, while evolving the scale and impact of her work.
"I genuinely feel it's such a privilege to be able to ask all these people to come here and show how I have interpreted an emotion into something physical, and for them to see it and ... physically or emotionally respond to it," she says. "It's 100 percent why I do what I do."