Simone Rocha vs Louise Bourgeois

The Irish designer in conversation with Bourgeois's long-term assistant Jerry Gorovoy

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It's been almost a decade since Simone Rocha first encountered the work of Louise Bourgeois at home in Ireland. The experience ignited a long-term fascination with the artist's work, one that would go on to influence the way the designer approached the fabrication of her garments and the emotional threads that tie each of her collections together. Ahead of the unveiling of her SS14 collection tomorrow and her forthcoming Dazed takeover, we got Rocha in conversation with Jerry Gorovoy, Louise Bourgeois's long-term assistant, to talk about the powerful impression the artist left on them both. 

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Louise Bourgeois in 1980 Photo by Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation

Dazed Digital: Simone, can you talk about the influence Louise Bourgeois has had on your work?

Simone Rocha: The first time I was with [Louise Bourgeois’] work was in Ireland. My mother had brought me to IMMA, the Museum of Modern Art, to see Stitches In Time, and all her beautiful textile works. I think that’s what started my relationship with her work. I had just started art college in Dublin, so I started to research her whole body of work; her sculptures and drawings. I found I could really relate to it. 

Jerry Gorovoy: The fabric works are mostly things that belonged to her; shirts, skirts, towels, sheets, stockings. She once told me to empty out everything in her closet, and she started to put them into colours. She had this phobia of never throwing anything out, and had clothes from all her periods. That opened up a dialogue of ‘memories’, and it was fascinating for me to see it open up this relationship to memory. I didn’t know what she was going to do at that point, what made her want to incorporate these things, but I think one aspect was that she was getting older and wondered what would happen to all these things she had saved. Even though it would be cut up and deconstructed [in her work], they would survive. I felt that was fascinating, the psychological impetus behind using this as raw material for sculpture.

Jerry Gorovoy: She had this phobia of never throwing anything out, and had clothes from all her periods. That opened up a dialogue of memories

Simone Rocha: You can really see how it makes the work personal and emotional; when it’s the clothes off her back, it makes it such a reality.

Jerry Gorovoy: It’s funny, at a certain point in the nineties she basically started wearing the same outfit: black, a uniform. When I look back at photographs she dressed in a very different way to when I first met her in 1980, when she had certain colours she liked – blue, white, pink. You could see her father was dapper and stylish, so her relationship to clothes and to society was very important to her growing up.

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Louise Bourgeois - PINK DAYS AND BLUE DAYS, 1997 Steel, fabric, bone, wood, glass, rubber and mixed media 297.1 x 220.9 x 220.9 cm. Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Photo: Peter Bellamy, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

DD: With her textile works there was a constant thread of wanting to repair something, repairing memories.

Jerry Gorovoy: She came from a tapestry background, and when she first arrived in New York, one of the ways she tried to make money was to sell these swatches of dyed linen. They’re quite beautiful. That was one chapter in her life.

The way she styled herself, I found fascinating: always with a very beautiful wool, and for different roles. She was the wife of an historian, and she circulated in one group dressed in that way, and then she’s the artist; you see these polarities in her wardrobe reflecting the really different identities she had. The most profound thing she ever said was, “clothes are about what you want to hide.” She always saw it as what you want to hide.

Simone Rocha: I totally relate to that. When I’m doing a show, it’s really exposing and emotional, so I tend to wear the same thing everyday. I feel if I meet anyone on that day, I want them to see the same person. When you’re in a creative time, you want people to know you’re in the thick of working, and you want to represent yourself in a specific way. With women and their relationship to dress, it isn’t so much about the day-to-day, but how it makes you want to feel, how you feel about your work, how people perceive you. It’s all connected.

Jerry Gorovoy: Louise was very emotional. I felt like sometimes I was dealing with this amazing, sensitive woman and then sometimes I felt I was dealing with a 3-year-old baby

Jerry Gorovoy: It’s the one art form everyone can participate in, how it is wrapped up in the psychological aspect of what you choose to wear. I’m always amazed when I see people [in clothes that] look so inappropriate for them and their body, but you realise it’s a projection of how they want to feel. How do you feel when you see people in your clothes not wearing it how you intended; do you have a body type in mind when you’re designing?

Simone Rocha: It’s upsetting when someone wears it with an ugly lady shoe, and I’m like, “you need a nice practical shoe.” What I do can be quite feminine, so it’s about mixing it with something that has a harder edge. People ask me, “who’s your woman?”, but there is no woman; it’s a femininity that all women can relate to. The way Louise dressed was amazing; you could see her personality in it. Didn’t she work with Helmut Lang?

Jerry Gorovoy: She was friendly with him, they were close. Louise’s fashion sense was very particular. She had an incredible profile; when someone has a natural beauty, it's a gift, and to have a certain sense of style on top of that… It’s definitely psychological, the relationship to the clothes, for the creator and the wearer. 

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Louise Bourgeois - 10AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME, 2006 (detail). Etching, watercolor, pencil, gouache on paper, 20 pages Each about: 37.1 x 89.5 cm. Photo by Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Artist Rooms Foundation 2013.

DD: When Simone met you for the first time in New York she said that you were ‘setting up’, was it the studio or the house?

Simone Rocha: The house; you were going to restore her home for scholars.

Jerry Gorovoy: Louise had left her house to a foundation, and before she passed away she had bought the adjacent house. It will be a scholarly centre for researchers; they can stay in the house and have all the archival material, the photographs, diary, writings, interviews and films. We’re trying to keep it the way Louise occupied her house, because it is like a sculpture in itself. There was no decoration, she never wanted to be a slave to decoration and the house had to be very utilitarian, so she wrote on the walls when she wanted to, we’re keeping that in tact. You feel like you’re in the space of someone who is very particular.

Simone Rocha: It’s really special; you feel that you can relate to all her work. Didn’t she design the metal doors?

Jerry Gorovoy: She did: Art Deco looking metal structures for the doors and the window gates. It was like a lair or a den, with all these exits and entrances. In the end there was no separation between her art and her life; it was one cohesive thing and you can see that right away.

Simone Rocha:  Things should be made in a beautiful way even if it is taken from a dark place; even if you’re designing a t-shirt, it should have a soul

DD: The retrospective at the Tate Modern [in 2007] had a massive impact on a lot of people.

Simone Rocha: It was such an amazing distribution of her work.

Jerry Gorovoy: That was the show that Frances Morris did. That show was really good; it’s interesting even for me, because you see how the work has evolved. You’re getting a whole story to a person’s life; for a lot of people, because the work is so different, when you see a lot of it together it starts to fit together quite well.

Simone Rocha: It tells a story when you see it all together, you pick up the different emotions and stages of life. I thought it was really special in the Tate, with the spiders inside and outside; it was amazing for people to really be a part of it. To be able to be so close to the work.

Jerry Gorovoy: I think that’s the gift that she had: to do something so personal, so idiosyncratic, yet by going so deep within herself she almost comes out the side. There is universality to the emotional [aspect] of the work. It’s a very rare gift. 

[Also] there is a complexity to her work; it has multiple readings. The more you get into it, the more complex and rich it gets, depending on your engagement. Louise wrote a lot; really beautiful passages, some poetic and others that are a stream of consciousness. You get this complexity that jumps into every form and gives it multiple readings.

I’ve always wondered, people say, “Fashion is fashion because it’s locked into a certain time.” How do you feel about that? Do you see fashion dealing with an ephemeral moment of time, or do you see it as transcending time? 

Simone Rocha: I hope it does transcend time because fashion is something I don’t feel should be disposable. It’s about having a relationship to it, whether it’s how it makes them feel, or how they feel when they’re in it with somebody else. Things should be made in a beautiful way even if it is taken from a dark place; even if you’re designing a t-shirt, it should have a soul. If you treat it with sensitivity it should have longevity.

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Louise Bourgeois - COUPLE I, 1996. Fabric, hanging piece 203.2 x 68.6 x 71.1 cm. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton FoundationARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by the Artist Rooms Foundation 2013

Jerry Gorovoy: But you have to admit, the body changes; what looks good at a certain point in your life may not work a little later on! 

Simone Rocha: That is very true. But I think it’s about adapting it to your personal style: I might be not able to wear a whole look that I wear now when I’m in my sixties, but I could probably still wear the lace skirt…with a larger jacket!

DD: I think it has a lot to do with memories: this idea that garments can hold memories and they become specific to a certain time and emotional connection.

Jerry Gorovoy: I’m always amazed when you look at old photographs of yourself, how the clothes look dated. It does have this lock into a moment.

Simone Rocha: I loved the hanging garments in the cells, and the contrast of materials: you had washed silks and then wrought iron structures. I think the tension and the balance in that is really beautiful.

Simone Rocha: I think there’s something nice about that. It’s about seeing it then in that time, and having nostalgia for it. Then seeing how you can relate to it now and make something relative today. But there’s still that feeling of nostalgia, because they probably wore a skirt like that in the nineties or their mother wore a skirt like it the eighties. They can relate to it, but they still feel like they are wearing something unique to them because it’s a different time.

DD: Jerry, you worked for Louise for almost 30 years. Looking back at that time are there any strong memories or specific moments that have stuck with you?

Jerry Gorovoy: Louise was very emotional: she could be very volatile, very irrational. I felt like sometimes I was dealing with this amazing, sensitive woman and then sometimes I felt I was dealing with a 3-year-old baby. She had this hilarity in her, and that was pretty consistent. She said this herself: she was very fearful and anxious, yet in her work she was totally fearless. Now I feel very lucky to have been around her; I learnt an incredible amount of things about myself through her.

Simone, do you feel with the younger artists that there is a pressure in terms of the market and the fashion? Do you feel that pressure, or do you feel free to do it and just see what happens? I sense there’s a relationship now to money and marketing; do you think it’s a good thing? Do you think it’s healthy? 

Simone Rocha: I don’t think it’s healthy. It’s so exposed. I work with my mother: I have a studio here in east London, and we close the door, and we’re living, working, breathing studio. It’s kind of about how I feel at the time – negative, or naïve, or positive – and that’s what really shapes my work; what I want to say at that time. I think if you start thinking about what other people want, you’ll never please everybody.

We’re an insular studio, and we have to release that in a show every 6 months to the world, but we do it in the most poetic and sincere way we can. Then we retrieve back into our studio and start thinking about how we’re feeling and what we’d like to say next. It is a real race and there is a huge amount of pressure, but I’ve always thought, you can’t please everybody, so why would you try, and why would you want to.

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Louise Bourgeois - CELL XIV (PORTRAIT), 2000. Steel, glass, wood, metal and red fabric 188 x 121.9 x 121.9 cm. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by the Artist Rooms Foundation 2013

Jerry Gorovoy: I want to tell you how pleased I am. You hear all this stuff about the way fashion is moving, that from an economic point of view it’s a business model, and there’s a lot of pressure.

Simone Rocha: There is a lot of pressure day to day, but we’ve been really lucky. We’ve had wonderful support from people like Dover Street Market and Colette in Paris. The way we’ve been able to grow is [from] people actually wearing [our] clothes. Which my mother, who has been in the industry for 30 years, says is a miracle! 

Jerry Gorovoy: You see the same thing with young artists; the market has such a strong force that the young artists who want to get some kind of recognition have to start marketing at a very early age. It’s quite destructive.

Jerry Gorovoy: I think you’re right, the tension between various materials, the way they’re orchestrated and their symbolic meanings…it’s rare

DD: How did Louise deal with the selling and the art market side of it?

Jerry Gorovoy: She never got involved. To be honest, she gave up all that. She saw it as something destructive to what she wanted to concentrate on. That was the deal we made out of the exhibitions: she would just make the work, she didn’t have to go to the openings, she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. Once the work was done, I would do the installations, I would organise the shows. People would visit her and say, “Oh, I saw this show!” and she wouldn’t even know what was in the exhibition. She was glad when people said they saw her show, and they reacted to her work: the communication she enjoyed.

DD: Are there any other shows that had a massive impact on you? 

Simone Rocha: The show that had a lot of cells, in London, at the Herzog and De Meuron gallery. I loved the hanging garments in the cells, and the contrast of materials: you had washed silks and then wrought iron structures. I think the tension and the balance in that is really beautiful.

Jerry Gorovoy: Louise had this amazing relationship to materials: she wasn’t beholden to any material, like she wasn’t beholden to any form. Sometimes she would do the same piece in various materials: leather, marble, bronze. Yet the materials really didn’t mean that much: they were there only depending on the way she could use them, and if they could articulate how she was feeling. It was a gift. I think you’re right, the tension between various materials, the way they’re orchestrated and their symbolic meanings…it’s rare.

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