The two reminisce about the first time they met—in the bathrooms of Central Saint Martins—and discuss Rocha's latest collaborative endeavor, 4 Moncler Simone Rocha
“When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity, she finally began to enjoy being a woman,” wrote Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. Though Friedan’s seminal book—which sparked the second wave of American feminism—was published 1963, her words transmit seamlessly to the contemporary work of fashion designer Simone Rocha and actress Gwendoline Christie. Though seemingly disparate in their choice of creative channels, both Rocha and Christie’s work pivot around expressions of femininity that are entirely unique and unexpected.
For Rocha, femininity proliferates in the coquettishness of her pieces, always tinged with an eerie melancholy. The dreamy, vaporous silhouettes and the damned, romantic narratives are woven into her fabrics, collections, and collaborations. Her latest, with Moncler—her fourth with the brand—is a testament to this. Rocha moderates technical fabrics with flower beads, adding tulle hoods and nylon bibs to utilitarian styles, pumping a nylon dress coat full of down feathers and trimming with shirred ruffles and appliqué flowers. The collaboration debuted in a Fellini-inspired film made with Petra Collins entitled Nightmare, in which a troubled ballerina falls and hits her head, blurring the lines between bad dreams and reality, dressed, all the while, in Rocha’s otherworldly creations.
Likewise, Christie has infused her roles with a fierce femininity that tempers conventional notions of womanhood: the fearless, knighted warrior Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones; the menacing Stormtrooper commander Captain Phasma in the Star Wars series; the impetuous police officer Miranda Hilmarson in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake; and the ruthless Jane Murdstone in this spring’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Rocha and Christie first met in the bathrooms of British fashion institution Central Saint Martins while Rocha was completing her masters under the mentorship of the late Louise Wilson. Christie has long been a front-row staple at the shows of Rick Owens, Loewe, and, of course, her partner, haute couture designer Giles Deacon. “The world of art and design and fashion embraced me,” explains Christie. “It required nothing from me, other than myself, and gave me a lot of love and support to be the kind of artist I wanted to be.”
Though they had only crossed paths once since that fated bathroom run-in, their regard for each other developed from afar into mutual admiration. Together for only the third time, Rocha and Christie share laughs like longtime friends as they discuss the many incarnations of femininity.
Divya Bala: Simone, when we asked you who you wanted to interview, you said Gwendoline straight away.
Gwendoline Christie: Why?
Simone Rocha: I don’t know if you remember our my first time meeting, you but it was in a bathroom in [Central] Saint Martins.
Gwendoline: It was. Because I accosted you.
Simone: I remember because you were like [Gasps]! And I was like [Gasps]! And you said, ‘Oh, my God, I love what you do!’ and I was like, ‘Thank you so much!’ This was seven years ago.
Gwendoline: I was coming out of the bathroom and you were coming in, and I paused and thought, You’re a weirdo, leave her alone. And then I went back in and went, [Gasps]! And I really don’t believe in doing things like that, but I just felt the spirit captured me.
Simone: And I’ve never forgotten it.
Gwendoline: I thought you couldn’t possibly remember it!
Simone: Back then I was much more shy! And then I met you next at Claridge’s.
Gwendoline: What were we doing at Claridge’s?
Simone: It was the Women of the Year Awards and you got up to speak and I nearly fucking died. I remember being like, Holy shit, this woman is so eloquent and incredible and sensitive and strong. I was just blown away. And since that night, I was obsessed, and I felt really lucky that we got to know each other.
Gwendoline: I had no idea of this! All I knew was that you were always quite generous towards me, and your show is always a special one for me. In London fashion at the moment, there are few people who are delivering a vision that is undeterred from a more conventional—and, I would say, dull—fixation with commerce. Your work is entirely about artistry, and one of the many things I love about it is that you are having a very intimate conversation about women’s bodies and women’s place in the world and the texture of women’s relationships with the world. I was very excited when you did that work based on Louise Bourgeois.
Simone: Yes, I’ve always been obsessed with her, and I ended up having this amazing relationship with her from the grave. I went to her home and became really engrossed with it. I was doing a collection on the female gaze, looking originally at [Czech photographer Miroslav] Tichý because he used to photograph women without them knowing and I thought, God, that’s so intimate! I was simultaneously looking at some of Bourgeois’s work and there was a piece that, for me, was the ultimate intimacy because she had cut up her own clothes and woven them into tapestries. I was blown away by this conviction of putting her physical self into it. I was talking to Jerry [Gorovoy], who was her long- term assistant, and he said, ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ I thought that would be incredible, so I worked with the foundation on the artwork that I was then allowed to translate. We made embroideries and prints, and it was really special. It was very much focused on this vision of femininity, from the inside out.
“Your work is entirely about artistry, and one of the many things I love about it is that you are having a very intimate conversation about women’s bodies and women’s place in the world and the texture of women’s relationships with the world.”
Gwendoline: I think there’s always been a female connection. I first heard about you from Lulu Kennedy, who was a revolutionary figure in British fashion. She runs Fashion East and gives a voice to young creatives in a way that is unparalleled in London today, certainly. And I remember her telling me—would it have been, how many years?
Simone: It would’ve been 10 years ago. This September was my 10th year in fashion.
Gwendoline: She said, ‘I found a kid, and I think she’s really brilliant, and she’s got a really unique voice, and she does a lot of sheer tailoring.’ She was talking about your style, and how you look, and what you wear, and about you being very shy but very talented. I’ve always been hugely interested in Saint Martin’s School of Art—specifically in the design course—and I assisted a student there for two years.
Simone: You were saying you were almost enrolled?
Gwendoline: Well as close as I could get. A part of the reason I went to Drama Centre London was because it was owned by the University of the Arts, so it was quite close to Saint Martins and I felt they shared a similar vocabulary, artistically.
Simone: The energy and community.
Gwendoline: But it was the connection again of [former Professor of Fashion Design] Louise Wilson. Just personally, the relationship I have with your work is very intense. I have a strong emotional response to it, but I realize it comes through a whole line of women, really.
Simone: One hundred percent. Amazing women have always influenced me, from my mother, who I work with, and my team to people like Lulu [Kennedy], who gave me this opportunity and really shone a light on me, on this very singular vision of femininity. And Louise Wilson—people always ask, ‘What’s your identity?’ A few seasons after graduating she told me, ‘It’s feminine, modern, and strong.’ And I was like, ‘That is it!’ I needed someone else to say it, but she really guided me in that way. And then a lot of the women who I really respect are in the arts—Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn, Eva Hesse, and then also in fashion, Rei Kawakubo, Miuccia Prada.
If you’re creating something that you feel physically and emotionally connected to, there’s something that’s instilled into it. And if another woman can pick it up and feel even a little element of that, that gives it power. Because it is all clothes—but it’s about them making you feel something.
Divya: That’s what I find quite powerful about your clothes: They are transformative, on a personal level. Is that how you envision women experiencing your clothes?
Simone: With every collection there is a character. For example, this season it’s a very sad character. It’s all about [John Millington] Synge’s Rider to the Sea, which is set in a small fishing community off the Aran Islands on Inis Meáin, and it’s about a mother whose son and husband are lost to the sea. There was this slightly grieving feeling to it, and I wanted the show to be a progression of loss. I build these characters when I do the show because I feel it’s an absolute privilege. You spend six months putting your heart and soul into a collection, you bring all these people together from all these different places with different intentions, and you get 10 minutes to show them something. And that’s fucking amazing.
I always treated it as though, if you had 10 minutes to see Pina Bausch or 10 minutes to see an incredible play or listen to spoken word, you’d have to give it gravity and a character. When people wear [the clothes]—I don’t know; you probably know better, Gwendoline—if it makes you feel something. But I like to create an armor that also has a provocativeness, which some people pick up on and some people don’t.
Gwendoline: When I first became aware of Rei’s [Kawakubo] work, I remember being struck that that was a woman’s voice. It was so complex and honest and really unafraid to be outside of a desire for money or a desire for conventional status.
Simone: Or attention.
Gwendoline: Oh, she wants attention!
Simone: But in a way that is unexpected!
Divya: Gwendoline I didn’t realize how deep your interest in fashion ran.
Gwendoline: Why would you? Design has always been one of my primary interests since I was a teenager. Performance has been something that is essential, and that is my passion. Performance is something that I’m compelled to do. And design is something that I am in love with. Why wouldn’t you look in totally different areas and then take that into a different discipline? It’s been very natural for me. And then there is my work. I love my work and, Simone, why did you ask me if I love to work?
Simone: I don’t know. Some days I feel like you love your work in the way that I love my work, but you loathe it as well. I can feel it from afar; one can see that you put everything into it.
Gwendoline: Really? Good. I never know if that shows. It doesn’t matter.
Simone: But I understand that when you feel everything, it’s fucking torture as well. It’s a relentless thing when you’re creative. Whether the designer or the actress, when you’re in these roles, it can be really difficult, but you’re in those roles because you fucking love it. That’s what I felt, and I wondered if you feel like that.
Gwendoline: Interesting. I think you’re the third person who’s ever said that to me. Yes, I do. But it’s irrelevant. All that matters is whether it works.
Simone: Totally. If you make people feel something, you’re doing well.
Divya: That’s what I found interesting about your pairing. At least when it comes to creative expression, in some aspects, both of you represent very unique aspects of femininity. With you, Simone, what might be considered more classically feminine, and with you, Gwendoline, with Brienne, a brutality that might be more associated with masculinity. And I was really interested in what your ideas of femininity are and how they dovetail.
Gwendoline: It’s interesting that you mention brutality. That’s something I am very interested in, regarding women. And I think that is something that I loved about your clothes, your design, Simone. Yes, it is soft and feminine, but it has such strength to it. And ‘strength’ and ‘strong’ are words that are very much bandied around, so readily now, but ‘brutality’? Brutality is something very specific. An entirely resolved act.
Simone: Totally. It’s almost like heartbreak, and it’s happened and you’re living with the result. It’s more resolved. And that’s what gives a role or an ethos in design—a layer that people can identify with. I think it’s all about being human and visceral and connected and physical.
Gwendoline: There is conflict in your designs.
Simone: There’s always a tension.
Gwendoline: But that’s why they live. There’s that saying in acting, ‘Where there’s conflict, there’s drama.’ That’s what you need in order to have a conversation, in order for it to ignite something. It’s that tension, the opposing forces of real sweetness and beauty and lightness with brutality.
Simone: And I always want to make it slightly disturbed.
Gwendoline: [Cackles] Go, Simone! Go, Simone!
Simone: I obviously work with pearls a lot, and the reason I love them is because they are so dated. I’m obsessed with the fact that it’s the stone of the sea, and I once saw Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, wearing them over a polo neck. I was behind her in a security queue at the airport and I thought, This woman is amazing, and I was like, How do I bring these and make them disturbed and twisted? How do I extend them from the body and bring them into the hair? It’s all about this distortion. But you can still wear it. And no matter how much brutality there is [in Game of Thrones], you can still watch it.
Gwendoline: What is so illuminating is that you put the garment on and you don’t feel confined. It isn’t even as basic as that. You can move. You have the visual, which is an emotion, and a rigorous skill and education and complete expression. There is also an internal experience. I love looking inside clothes. I’m a real stickler for how clothes are made. It’s why I like Simone’s clothes, because they are well-made—so many aren’t. It’s really important.
Simone: Because it’s on your skin. It’s connected to you. If you feel uncomfortable and you put something on your skin that makes you feel even more uncomfortable, that’s going to make you so outside of yourself.
Gwendoline: But I also think so many practicalities get overlooked for any kind of creative experience. Really, there are so many things that come down to real, honest common sense. Does it fit? Does it feel nice? Can I move? But I also love throwing all that stuff out the window. I care if I can’t move, but it depends on what it is. The marriage of art and commerce is an incredibly difficult line to walk, that is why I’m so interested in it—because it’s near impossible, especially for someone whose work is considered to be very unconventional.
Simone: Shows are pure expression, but what I do is a trade.
Gwendoline: What I do is a trade as well.
Simone: People say, ‘Are you an artist?’ I’m not an artist. It’s a trade. It comes from a place that is very emotional and really difficult to dissect in my mind, but when it boils down to it, it’s how it has to function and that’s what I like about it. It gives it weight. I’m big into reality.
Gwendoline: I’m right on the other end of the scale. It’s what I do for a living. But at the same time, it’s about an obsession with reality, making it real. In the same way, I had the question ‘Is it new?’ from Louise Wilson and it exploded my mind and changed the way I looked at the world forever. ‘Is it new’ is still the question I ask now. That’s a big question. It’s about reality all the time. Is it real? What’s the reality?
“I build these characters when I do the show because I feel it’s an absolute privilege. You spend six months putting your heart and soul into a collection, you bring all these people together from all these different places with different intentions, and you get 10 minutes to show them something. And that’s fucking amazing.”
Divya: Do your costumes help you find the reality of your characters?
Gwendoline: It’s vitally important. I think we live a world now where the visuals have become a universal language and transcend many barriers and boundaries. People have a lot more information and, as a consequence, audiences are a lot more sophisticated. So you need it to be specific.
Simone: What I thought was so amazing in Star Wars was the fact you couldn’t even see you, but you still broke our hearts. It was so powerful.
Gwendoline: What I thought was powerful about that was that it was a mainstream film, taking a female character and the idea of an actress who had been prominent in another TV show—Diana Vreeland said ‘Elegance is refusal’—and I was very interested in taking a woman and denying everyone her face, and not making her sexualized, and making it practical and menacing—the antithesis of woman as nurturer, woman as mother.
Simone: And yet, the sensitivity bled out! I thought it was powerful.
Gwendoline: I thought it was powerful too. It was one of the best times of my life.
Divya: Because of the anonymity?
Gwendoline: That was one element. Conceptually, I thought it was so well-developed and evolved and collaborative. [Costume designer] Michael Kaplan had designed a sensational costume and [creator] J.J. Abrams was so open to my ideas. And I couldn’t believe that they were open to it, that they were accepting of it…that I’d be allowed to be in Star Wars! [Laughs] And look, it was a small part, but as a concept, I thought it was really surprising.
Simone: So fucking cool. I was really impressed. I loved it. Well, I’ve never seen Game of Thrones.
Gwendoline: I love you even more! You know, loads of my friends haven’t seen it. They don’t have to.
Divya: Do you prefer it that way?
Gwendoline: Well, they’re having a relationship with me.
Simone: It’s so funny, but I’m a fan of everything else. And I’ve got to tell you about all the things I do love, that I do know!
Gwendoline: Thank you. It’s not required.
Divya: Simone, you are so often narrative-led with your collections. Was that the case for your collaboration with Moncler?
Simone: I treated it much more like its own story. This is my fourth collection and it’s something I’ve been making films for because it’s more like a little play. This particular one, I wanted to bring back the theatrics, so I thought of the activity of dance and movement. I ended up integrating ballet shapes and volumes into [Moncler’s] technical expertise. For example, I’ve injected all this down into this big piece of fabric so it has a weightlessness and a volume.
This particular collection was a play on dancing. We made a film with Petra Collins and we ended up calling it ‘a nightmare’ about this dancer who fell and hit her head. It’s a visual nightmare, which is all distorted with acid yellows and lilacs and blood reds.
Divya: It’s interesting that you’re both such storytellers. Often, designers don’t have such heavily integrated, considered narratives. It can so often just be a mood board with disparate references.
Simone: I don’t even have a mood board. It’s so fucking alien. It’s not show-and-tell. You’ve been at the show. It’s up to people whether they like it or not, and you have to treat people like they’re not that fucking thick.
Gwendoline: It’s their experience of it. It’s why I don’t like explaining my work. It alienates people rather than draws them closer. It’s what they receive from it and the relationship they have to it.
Simone: We don’t spend enough time asking ‘How does this make you feel?’ You don’t spend enough time responding. So I don’t do mood boards. [Laughs] You have to build a character in your own head. You have to laugh about it or you’re fucked. I care about what I do, you care about what you do, but I think there has to be an element of humor.
Hair Shiori Takahashi at Streeters. Make-up Janessa Paré at The Together Company. Photo Assistant Sam Henry. Stylist Assistant Stephanie Brown. Production Matilda Arnell and Jess Rogers at Artistry London. Location Clapton Tram. Post Production Chan Photographic Imaging and IMGN Studio.