Less is Enough at Simone Rocha’s London Flagship

Architecture Critic Jack Self Visits the Mount Street Boutique for Our "User Experience" Store Review Series

  • Text: Jack Self
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Simone Rocha

The interior design of any store is mainly a question of style; how do specific materials and objects come together to create a mood, or an aura of desire? At its most crude, the inside of a shop is basically about seducing the punter into parting with their money. By contrast, the context of a store—the relationship it has to its broader surroundings and the city generally—raises some fundamental questions about the time and place in which the brand exists. What sort of customers is it trying to attract? Who is the ideal tribe it would like to see wearing its clothes, and where do these people like to hang out? The strategy of location is a highly precise dark art (as I mentioned in my review of the new Balenciaga Paris flagship and it is often the outcome of complex spatial negotiations between brands and their parent company groups.

In fashion—like real estate—location is everything.

An independent label like Simone Rocha is not like a Balenciaga or a Louis Vuitton or a Dior. It is not constrained by the traditions of big houses and high fashion mega corporations – Simone herself is more or less free to choose whatever site she likes, anywhere in London. Therefore the region, the neighborhood, even which side of the street it is placed on is deliberate. It has great implications on the demographic and socioeconomic status of potential buyers, and it tells you a lot about how Simone Rocha the brand wants to project itself onto the city.

The flagship is about half way down Mount Street, one of the most exclusive and expensive stretches of land in the entire capital. This short road is bookended by Phillips (the art auctioneers) and a Porsche dealership at one end, with Scott’s at the other end (frequently described as Britain’s grandest restaurant). In the middle sits The Connaught (a five-star hotel with a bar renowned for serving the most expensive drinks in London). Flanking The Connaught is a “gentleman’s tobacconist,” an engraver, and a string of high-end fashion stores: Céline, Balenciaga, Loewe, Lanvin, Marni, and Marc Jacobs. The Simone Rocha store is opposite Scott’s.

On visiting for the first time my impression was that it must have been between installs—there didn’t seem to be anything inside. On closer inspection there were a couple of discrete rails, recessed into the white walls. In the middle of the space, transparent plinths supported a few white leather shoes. Rocha is well known for her obsession with Perspex furniture; the reflectivity here meant from certain angles they were almost totally invisible. Otherwise, just three objects occupied the room: a squat stool made from rough white clay; a large plexiglass box containing a honeycomb hive (minus the bees that made it); and a sculpture near the window by Chinese artist Xiang Jing called The End.

“The space is unfilled, but I wouldn’t call it minimalist. And this is an important distinction.”

This surprising artwork is made up of two lifesize women in summer dresses with mirrored poses. Their hands are raised, as if placed up to peek through a glass window. One is the reflection of the other, or perhaps they are both reflections. The work recalls Narcissus, who famously became so obsessed by his own image in a pond he fell in and drowned. The attitude of this woman, as she cups her hands to see past her own image and into a store vitrine, is one of extreme enthusiasm. It’s hard to know what this means; as is typical of Xiang’s work, what she calls the “psychological truth” of her art is enigmatic. Nonetheless, there is something vaguely cynical, or melancholic, about this sculpture. It strikes a surprisingly critical tone for a fashion store —as if gently chiding the reckless abandon and decadence of Mount Street itself.

Simone Rocha’s flagship is not really a designed interior; there is no obvious “concept” or overall intended effect. The space is unfilled, but I wouldn’t call it minimalist. And this is an important distinction. Minimalism is an intrinsically elitist aesthetic, because choosing to have very little is often only possible from a position of extreme privilege. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, a rich man can give up everything and be satisfied with an orange juice and grain cracker for breakfast. For the rest of us, we are not happy with less: we desire that extra something, that little treat that compensates for lacking the security of wealth.

A minimalist space is a vacuum, charged with tension. Examples include monk’s cells, white cube galleries, and 1990s Calvin Klein stores. In minimalism, all the superfluous details are stripped away: light fixtures are recessed (to appear as simply blocks of soft yellow light), power sockets are hidden under polished concrete floors, even cupboards have handles removed and replaced with touch catches (which get quickly covered with fingerprints). The Simone Rocha store is not like this at all—there has been no attempt to pare back the underlying qualities of the store. It is an unadorned box—a plain room with a grey painted floor and all the original 19th century architectural qualities exposed and preserved. The windows on both front and back facades have been left as original.

“Less is Enough suggests a more passive approach.”

The slogan “Less is More” came from German architect Mies van der Rohe. This dogmatic mantra drove decades of modernism, and eventually produced the reified concept of minimalist space mentioned above. In 2013, Italian architect Pier Vittorio Aureli wrote a short manifesto titled, Less is Enough: On Architecture and Asceticism. In it, he described “austerity chic” as a perverse style, and tried to debunk the focused, monastic simplicity we imagine people like Steve Jobs embodying. The idea of “Less is More” actively argues that owning less and throwing out all but your most artistic and expensive objects is a morally superior way to live. It looks down on anyone who fails to reduce the number of personal objects they possess or who cannot eliminate everything superfluous (including ornament) from their lives. By contrast, “Less is Enough” suggests a more passive approach. It is not so interested in telling you to chuck out all your clothes, but more interested in asking whether you really need to buy more—what you have already is probably enough.

This notion of extant completeness is the essence of the Simone Rocha store. Its emptiness is unforced—an absence of stuff minus the didactic message of the “Less is More” ethos. The significance of this passive void, and thus what makes it an interesting store, is precisely the audacity of leaving such prime real estate so empty. When every square foot has such a high price, to treat the space with casual diffidence is bold (verging on commercially reckless). It makes a radical stand by not pushing a lifestyle or a value judgement or a full range of products at you. Rocha has done very little to the space because it is probably already enough as it is. It reminds us that that luxury is the absence of pressure more than the freedom to consume.

  • Text: Jack Self
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Simone Rocha