H&M’s Latest Design Collaboration Is With Emerging Brand Rokh

Words by Tara Gonzales

Rok Hwang will bring his twisted signature trenches and wardrobe essentials to the retailer

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In a studio in London a couple of weeks ago, I am telling the story of the time I slept outside an H&M in downtown Brooklyn with a friend, to get my hands on a piece of the retailer’s highly anticipated collaboration with Kenzo. It is not the craziest thing I’ve done for fashion, but it is certainly one of the most memorable. What began as a desire to acquire a leather jacket I wouldn’t be able to afford quickly turned into a ridiculous and unforgettable night. Years later, we still talk about it all the time. We did it for the jackets—and the plot.

I tell this story to H&M’s head of design, Ann-Sofie Johansson, right after previewing the company’s latest designer collaboration, with emerging London-based label Rokh—which was a secret up until the official announcement today.

Johansson knows what I mean. “The best fashion creates memories,” she says. “And we wanted to do that with these collaborations—invoke feelings and inspire memory making.” She says she’s fascinated with the way H&M’s designer collaborations have become a cultural phenomenon. Countless customers have told her stories like mine, arguing that these collections aren’t just about the clothes, but also about creating a fashion event that anyone can participate in.

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Designer Rok Hwang, who established Rokh in 2016 and describes its sensibility as “artisan imperfection,” feels the same. Despite having spent time in rarefied circles—he worked for Phoebe Philo’s Céline and was nominated for the LVMH Prize in 2018 (he won a runner-up Special Prize)—he understands the enthusiasm these H&M collaborations inspire. It’s what made him excited to do this collaboration.

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Rokh is less of a household name than, say, Kenzo or Simone Rocha or Mugler, all brands H&M has worked with in the past. But Johansson says she was particularly interested in the emerging label because of its ability to put an experimental spin on wardrobe staples. She notes that right now, young and old fashion fans alike are interested in really wearing their clothing and investing in pieces they’ll own forever. To her, Rokh is the perfect brand for exactly that.

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Hwang says he founded his label because he “wanted to reimagine the essential pieces of the wardrobe. You can really adapt any Rokh piece to yourself and how you would want to style it.”

As we walk through the showroom, he doesn’t just introduce each piece to me, but also demonstrates the many ways you could wear it. His favorites from the H&M collaboration, he says, are probably the trenches, which have become a Rokh signature.

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“We are known for our trenches,” he says, “so we wanted to bring that iconic piece to this H&M collaboration. You can take this lapel part completely off. You can also wear it just as a single-layer trench.” He demonstrates before pointing out coat’s surplus of buttons. “What I often like to do is add more buttons than usual. It gives a little bit more kind of a fun, edgy touch to it,” Hwang says. He asks me to picture how he sometimes buttons it up unevenly: “Just to break the rules and also just to create a completely new shape.”

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The way he likes to design, he says, is “technically, completely wrong!” But what he loves is how it “can be adapted to the body beautifully.” For H&M, he wanted to make sure to allow customers the chance to build out their wardrobes with what he considers his core collection. “I wanted to construct a line that could be timeless, so that it’s just not living at that moment, but [also] in the moments you keep living in.”

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Hwang is also invested in the movement of his pieces. He lightly knocks each one over with his hand, so I can see them twist and turn on the hanger. “I love to work on the human body. The way I work is to capture the way clothing or fabric flows down the body to create something that, when you look at it, there are so many elements that make it different from the traditional way of constructing the garment. I wanted to keep that idea while also making something that is, fundamentally, very beautiful. I wanted to give something that is very signature Rokh to the world.”

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Considering the collection is made up of overly buttoned layered trenches, double-studded belted blazers, and skirts lined with fastenings that can be completely undone to turn a longer one into a mini, it’s easy to see he’s realized his vision. And he can’t wait to see what comes next: “I love seeing people wearing Rokh in the street, so to have this chance to really bring my design language to this international level was something that I was very excited about.”

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Looking at Rokh’s pieces, they already feel alive to me, like they’re out in the world. I can instantly see at least 10 different ways to wear each one, thanks to Hwang’s twisty design tweaks. Johansson notes that she’s excited to witness how eager H&M customers like me will style his clothing in the real world, once the collection becomes available in mid-April.

“No one needs to sleep outside the stores for it to be a success,” she says, laughing. “But I know we’ll definitely be seeing lots of these Rokh H&M trenches outside on the streets—and that’s what we can’t wait to see the most.”

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com