Fishing with the FT: John Rocha

It seems the fashion designer doesn’t do minimal, even on the banks of a trout lake in Ireland

I imagined that going fishing in Ireland with the fashion designer John Rocha might, in some way, be a holiday from fashion. I thought that Rocha, who is 58 and comes from Hong Kong, would turn up in a big anorak, and drive me to some mucky place in a battered old station wagon. But this is not the case. Rocha, dressed in clothes from his own collections, looks impeccably fashionable. He’s wearing a flowing coat, his long black hair, now greying, is sitting on his shoulders, and he’s smoking a small cigar.

And the car! It’s a restored 1966 Jaguar Mark III, a gleaming gangster’s car from a time when The Beatles still wore suits. It reminds me that designers always take something from the past; Rocha will tell me this later. I get in. We’re in the middle of Dublin, close to Rocha’s house. The car is quite strange, compared with the chunky comfort wagons we now drive. It’s almost brittle, with sharp chrome handles on the windows and a gleaming walnut dashboard. The steering wheel is like a toy. Rocha starts the engine and we’re off. It’s late December and we’re going to fish for trout at a lake about 30 miles outside Dublin.

But first he drives me past his house. It’s a big Victorian place in one of Dublin’s poshest streets; there are three embassies along the road. As we drive, he tells me about his work. “I walk to work,” he says. “I do my creative work in the morning. Starting at 7am. There’s no one there except the cleaning lady. I turn on the CD, and work for three hours.” In this time, he designs all sorts of things – frocks, coats, crystal glasses, and also interiors. Recently, he designed The Morrison Hotel in Dublin.

John Rocha instructs William Leith on casting for trout

I ask him about his style. Orderly, yes. Striking, yes. Minimal – no, never minimal. He’s not trying to be sensational, like the late Alexander McQueen or John Galliano. Designers are such a puzzle. It’s all about spatial awareness in their minds. Sometimes I think it must drive them mad. Our Jaguar gleams its way through Dublin. The weather is murky. Then we hit countryside. The sun begins to appear. And then disappear. This is one of the greenest landscapes on earth. The downside is the clouds.

We leave the dual carriageway. Rocha aims his car through increasingly narrow roads. He’s from Hong Kong, he tells me. His mother was Chinese, from a poor family; his father was Portuguese, from neighbouring Macau. His father left Macau and settled in Hong Kong. He was from a wealthy family, but his father, a financial clerk, was never rich, and when John, the fourth of seven children, visited his father’s relatives in Macau he would look up at the wealthy houses. He says he had a feeling that poverty, in his case, “was only temporary. I don’t know why”.

John Rocha fishing at Lake Annamoe, Wicklow, Ireland

We stop by a gate that leads to a path, which then leads to a lake – the sort of lake you might see on a postcard. But first, Rocha opens the boot of his car and gets into his waders. He’s not actually going to wade, he says. But still. They are top-of-the-range. His boots are leather walking boots. But, he says, his socks are waterproof. His rods come in neat cylinders. His flies are kept in lovely boxes, inside a pristine creel. By the lake, he smokes another cigar and gets his stuff ready. Chooses a fly. “We’re going to try a nymph,” he says. “It all depends if the fish are lower or higher in the water. I might try a sink-tip.”

As he’s saying this, a fish rises to the surface, makes a splash, and disappears. I haven’t fished seriously since I was a teenager, but I can feel a tug of excitement. A fish! Quick! Rocha casts his nymph out into the lake. Then he pulls it back through the water. Nothing bites. I’m still pretty excited, though. He tells me he took up fishing when he was 40. “I used to play football,” he tells me, “and then my wife bought me a fishing rod.” This must be his second wife, Odette, with whom he has two children, Simone and Max.

She works with him, as a designer. Before Odette, he was married to Eily Doolan, with whom he has a daughter, Zoe. In any case, he started to fish because of a football accident. “You see, unfortunately, I used to play in goal and I broke my hand. Two fingers. The ball hit me, and bent my fingers back. I used to play every Sunday. I was quite competitive. My wife thought it might be nice to do something different.”

Rocha keeps casting. Nothing happens. He pulls the nymph through the water with a stop-start action. Then his rod bends over. A fish! It’s about 30ft away, tearing around the lake. It dives, and then moves away in an arc. Rocha plays it delicately. This is fishing; nothing for ages, and then this compelling excitement. It must be something primordial – something about hunting. Rocha is supposed to be explaining why he likes fishing. Now he doesn’t need to. The tip of his rod pumps up and down. After a few minutes, he gets the net out. Then the fish is on the bank. It’s a rainbow trout, about two or three pounds. He unhooks it and lets it go.

“I always have a cigar when I catch a fish,” he says, lighting up. He casts out again. He tells me about his first-ever fishing trip – a weekend spent on a boat on a big Irish lake. “It was one of the most beautiful lakes in Ireland,” he says. It was the week the mayflies hatch. “The fish come to the surface,” he says. “I never looked back.” Now he goes on trips all over. He goes to Russia to fish for salmon, and to Florida to fish for bonefish and tarpon. He says it might not be a coincidence that he started fishing in 1993, the year he won the Designer of the Year award. He’d worked so hard for it. Now he could relax – only a bit, but still.

We talk about his clothes. It’s “fashion that is not for fashion victims. I don’t make big statements,” he says. Then he’s on again. The fish darts away, and – damn, it’s off the line. The one that got away. He casts again and again. He hooks a third fish. This one stays on. He plays it expertly, giving it leeway, pulling it in. Then the net. Then the cigar. Afterwards, he puts his flies back in the box, dismantles his rod, takes his waders off. He drives me to a fish restaurant in the middle of nowhere. He’s all smiles. While we’re waiting for our food, he shows me how he designs things. He draws – beautiful sketches of frocks and champagne glasses. Classic lines. Arriving at an exact point, which exists only in his head, on the fashion spectrum.

“I’m lucky,” he says. “I’m healthy. My family is fine. And I just got two fish!”

London Fashion Week runs from February 17-22.

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