In Simone Rocha’s eyes, roses are a lifeline; bows are her bloodline; and unabashedly big, ultra-feminine dresses mean everything. As of January 24, the Dublin-born fashion designer has taken this ethos to a whole new realm—couture, as Jean Paul Gaultier’s next guest creative director. On Wednesday, she debuted her spring 2024 collection in front of a packed crowd that included Kylie Jenner (wearing a pair of PVC, Pleaser-inspired high heels and a sheer gown straight from the runway). Despite the scope of Rocha’s already illustrious career, this was still a major moment—one that came 14 years after launching her namesake brand and developing a massive cult following (which covets her giant babydoll dresses, ornate platform shoes, and crowns of shiny beads) in the process.
Spotting a Simone Rocha superfan is easy. They’ll likely be dressed in signatures from the label, like pearls, ribbons, or high heels that resemble birthday cakes. In fact, the designer herself often dresses in her own work. On a recent outing to see the new Yorgos Lanthimos movie Poor Things, she even felt her label’s presence. “I looked like this freaky, intense fan. I wore our leather biker coat, which has a big Victorian leather-puff sleeve,” Rocha told W by phone from Paris, one week before her JPG debut. “That happened to me when I went to The Crucible as well. I realized I looked like I was one of the girls in Salem. I felt quite seen.”
Those elements of idiosyncratic femininity filtered through a dark and wonderfully weird lens were everywhere in Rocha’s debut for Jean Paul Gaultier, held at the brand’s Paris HQ. Think all the staples of her brand, magnified and expanded with a more extreme point of view: bejeweled bras and ruffled bustles! Sheer panniers! Devil horn bustiers! Mixing these dramatic silhouettes with Jean Paul Gaultier’s sacred house codes like corset lacing and cone bras gave Rocha’s epic proportions of tulle and mountainous folds of silky fabrics a new edge. With only 36 looks included in the collection, the designer’s spring 2024 outing felt curated and more sentimental than past Jean Paul Gaultier Couture collaborative collections. And with a woman at the helm (out of seven guest designers, Rocha was only the second female to have the opportunity, after Sacai’s Chitose Abe) the feminine energy at the runway show was palpable.
A haunting operatic soundtrack rang out, light reflected from the silver foiled runway, and some models held aluminum roses. At the heart of the collection were those flowers, plus conical corsets. “The thorn from the rose has been interpreted as a new conical in the collection as well,” Rocha said. “There’s a fragility to it, but also there’s a very sharp edge. From bud to decay, every stage is telling you something.”
While Rocha has become an iconic figure in the indie fashion space, she had never crossed paths with Jean Paul Gaultier creatively or socially prior to taking on the collaboration. “When I got the call, I was surprised, actually,” she said. “But I really, really admired the concept. And Glen Martens’s collection had captivated me.” Rather than work with a single theme, Rocha set some powerful intentions for the collection: “I wanted it to be feminine, provocative, playful, sensual, embellished, adorned, restrained,” she said. “And it was. These words were the very first ones that came to my mind, and have very much been the process.” There is, however, one current running through the looks: the use of red thread.
Like the previous Jean Paul Gaultier Couture guest designers, Rocha went on a tour of the label’s archives first. She plucked inspiration in particular from Jean Paul Gaultier’s unforgettable 1994 “Tatouage” collection and the “Age of Enlightenment” line from spring 1998. “I felt a personal, knee-jerk reaction to these specific collections,” she recalled. Every Thursday, the archives would be delivered by truck in wooden boxes; Rocha would admire and even try on the garments inside. “It was amazing to see them back on the body, and to think about how the proportions could change if I placed them on the body differently, or if I took an element of technique and put it somewhere else.
“My own brand works a lot in volume,” she continued. “And while I have brought that here, I’ve also been much more in tune with the body. I’ve wanted to make pieces that are more languid, more sculpted, with a provocative, more sensual look—then pushing it into a surrealist moment. I wanted to strike that balance of modernity with the historical weight of all the workmanship that goes into the garments.”
Details from Simone Rocha’s Jean Paul Gaultier Couture collection.
If fans of Rocha’s mainline brand love her embellishments especially, they’ll be overjoyed to see the deeply emotional flourishes of her JPG Couture collection. The designer said she was contemplating metal clashing with fabrications—and created aluminum metal harnesses adorned with flair as a result. “There’s a dichotomy between things being very, very fragile and then almost kind of hardcore,” Rocha explained. “In some pieces, I went quite heavy on the English, so they all become an armor, very restrained. But for me, there always has to be a collision, a contrast—whether it’s ornate vs. mundane, masculine vs. feminine, landscape vs. manmade.”
Trends surrounding girlish fashion—bows, color tights, Coquette style—have exploded in the past few years. But Rocha has always expressed the nuances of girlhood through clothing. “Over the years, I’ve explored subversive femininity with this undercurrent of strength and reality,” she said. “And this very visceral reaction to clothing and dress and how it makes you feel.” Up next, she’s been mulling the preservation of clothing—“how they can deteriorate and have a previous life,” she explained (a hot topic of late, since The Met’s upcoming exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion centers exactly that subject matter). Rocha herself has archived several of her own pieces in MoMu Antwerp’s fashion exhibition, ECHO. Wrapped in Memory. “I’ve been working a lot with archives, whether it’s Gaultier’s or with my own collection,” Rocha added. “We actually had access to Queen Victoria’s clothing from when she was in mourning, and I got to see it all.”
Simone Rocha’s designs seem to resonate with people who occupy—or are curious about—the liminal space between overt girlishness and a Gothic kind of darkness. Her guests’ (and superfans’) raucous cheers at the end of the JPG couture show proved that much was true. “Wearing a dress of my design, I do feel like it can take up space in a room, but in a way that you’re present,” Rocha said. “That can be true in a whisper of a dress, too. The confidence of your physicality in it speaks volumes.”