For someone who sits on a €200 million-a-year empire (Dh949 million), fashion designer John Rocha is unnervingly awkward. He speaks softly, as if, given a choice, he’d much rather be in his fishing lodge somewhere in Ireland, painting.
But fashion is what’s brought him to Dubai. And it quickly becomes apparent that three decades after he launched his first label, it’s something that still gets him excited.
“I frighten myself some times. If you were to ask me 30 years ago if I ever imagined I’d be where I am today, still visiting amazing places like this, I’d have said you’re mad,” he says. “As I get older and older, people like my work more and more. So everything that’s happening to me now is a bonus.”
The 58-year-old Chinese-born Irish designer recently visited Debenhams at Mall of the Emirates, on his first trip to the Middle East, to showcase his latest collection for the British retailer, and to meet fans.
“It’s been my intention to come here for a very long time,” Rocha says, dressed in his signature all-black. “I’ve been working with Debenhams for 12 years and have always wanted to meet my customers from this part of the world.
“Dubai is a vibrant city: Big cars, big buildings… it reminds me of my home town Hong Kong. People are always on the move here and there’s a lot going on. There are some wonderful architecture and some not- so-wonderful.”
Rocha’s collection for Debenhams includes womenswear, menswear, childrenswear, jewellery and home interiors. But that’s just a small part of his still-expanding empire: Rocha’s business now encompasses his eponymous ready-to-wear label, a crystal line, jewellery, interior and hotel design and even architecture.
“I’m like a conductor,” says the designer, who showcased his first collection in London 27 years ago. “I come up with ideas and I get all these people to make great music together. I have a team of really talented assistant designers. I have architects in my office. People I trained from the beginning in menswear, womenswear and home. I have a great team who know what I want and feel and translate that into beautiful results.”
Interior design happened quite by accident, he says.
“They did a story on my home. The developer in Ireland at that time saw my design and approached me to do the Morrison Hotel in Dublin,” he recalls. “That’s when I discovered that I could apply my philosophy in a different medium.
“But I always make sure I work with a specialist when I accept such projects. I am trained as a fashion designer and do not claim to be an expert architect or anything like that. I won’t do something unless I know I can do it.”
Rocha was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002 for his contribution to the fashion industry and has previously been named British Designer of the Year.
Yet unlike other designers and labels, despite his fame and influence, he’s never been bewitched by the glamour of celebrity.
“I don’t do front rows. I’ve worked with so many different people over the years. For me, it just so happens that they like what I do. [Celebrities] are not my thing. I’ve never done it and never will.”
He says Odette, his wife, with whom he lives in Dublin, is his right-hand person. “She’s my design consultant and marketing manager. She’s been working with me every day for the last 28 years. I design clothes for women but I don’t know how it will feel wearing it. She guides me. She advises me. She loves fashion but is not a fashion victim so she is a very good critic for me. I trust her opinion.
“Also designing can be a very lonely world. I like black, you may like grey. And sometimes you don’t realise you’ve made a wrong statement unless someone tells you. When she tells me something is not right, I trust her.”
Simone, his 24-year-old daughter and fashion designer, is also already making her mark on the industry.
“The last fashion week, we were both on the schedule. I don’t think this has ever happened before in the history of fashion. The fact that she is successful on her own, I really admire her for being able to do that,” he says proudly, adding he’s pulled no strings to pave a career for her.
“It’s important that she does something in her own identity. And we’re quite different: Her design ethos is more edgy, minimalist and very less-is-more and youthful. Mine’s all about beautiful fabrics, handicraft and a combination of things. So we’re like chalk and cheese.
“One thing I’d say she learned from me is the understanding of beautiful fabric. And for a young designer, she already has that deep knowledge so I’m really proud of her.”
Rocha also has another daughter, Zoe, 28, from his first marriage, and son Max, 21.
Born to Chinese parents, Rocha moved to the UK when he was 18 to work as a nurse, before moving to Dublin after graduating Croydon School of Arts in London. As he gets older, he says he feels closer and closer to his Asian roots.
“I think the Irish part of me has become less and less. My children tell me I have become more and more Chinese as I get older,” he laughs. “My Asian roots have always been with me subconsciously. I still make my pilgrimage back home to meet my family twice a year.
“I don’t feel Asian or Irish. But what I really, really want to do is go home for the Chinese New Year at least once. I have never been able to do that since I left my home country because fashion week always falls on the same time.
“But I feel lucky. When I first moved to Dublin, I never thought I’d be based in Dublin all my life. I didn’t even plan for an international career. So being a designer has taken me places. I have no complaints.”
Still actively travelling the world and finding new inspirations and new hotels to design, Rocha says he’s never thought of hanging up his boots.
“You know at this point in my life, I could actually do that. I could go live in the South of France, go fishing, which I love, and paint with my dear wife and grandchildren next to me. That’s my ultimate dream,” he says. “But I still love what I do so much. Some times while working on one collection, I’m already dreaming about the next collection.”
As if to drive home his point, he explains how he only learned to open his email last year when he was gifted an iPad. “I’m terrible with technology. Because when I started, there was no CD, no computer and no fax. We used to send telex,” he says. “And here I am in this whole new world still designing. It’s just incredible. That’s why I said everything else that happens next is just an icing on the cake.”