The most successful fashion models —the ones with longevity, who manage to remain relevant—are usually the ones with the most business savvy, who look at their careers as branding exercises, far beyond mere creative practices. And that’s why the unstoppable Toronto-born, B.C.-raised Coco Rocha continues to make waves on a variety of fashion fronts. With 1.1 million Instagram followers, and a highly original book entitled “Study of Pose” to her credit, the 27 year-old Rocha’s latest foray into the hearts and minds of young fashionistas is a sporty chic line of clothes, labeled ‘CO+CO’—a collaboration between her and her husband of almost 6 years, British-born artist James Conran, who helps manage her career and digital empire. Under the stewardship of veteran Montreal designer Debbie Shuchat, responsible for several hot labels, including Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B., Rocha and Conran have come up with an affordable, sporty and spirited collection that has already resonated with retailers such as HBC and Simons.
Rocha and Conran, who became parents of a baby girl named Ioni last year, were in Toronto recently for the launch of CO+CO. I sat down with the creative couple just after their initial presentation at Susur Lee’s Luckee Restaurant to talk about the machinations of their family affair, Coco’s style evolution, and why they feel CO+CO fills a niche that needed to be addressed.
JEANNE BEKER: How did you two first meet?
JAMES CONRAN: We first meet through friends at a house party in New York. It was my first day in New York and it was very casual party but Coco came in a green ball gown dress from an event and I wasn’t aware who she was. I just thought she was incredibly overdressed, coming to a house party. And for some reason when she met me she gave me her hand, holding it downwards…
JB: As if to say, “Kiss my hand!”
JC: Yeah. I didn’t understand what she wanted me to do with it. I thought she thought she was a princess cause she was decked out in jewels. So that was my first impression
COCO ROCHA: He didn’t like it!
JC: I didn’t know who she was….
JB: And how much of a princess has she turned out to be?
JC: She’s really not. She’s one of the most laid back easygoing people.
JC: She doesn’t take herself too seriously, knows how to have a laugh… She’s really not that person I thought she was when I first met her.
JB: The fact that you’ve launched into this mega project together is brave because a lot of people would that they wouldn’t want to mess with their relationship in this way. As simpatico as I’m sure you are, aren’t you worried that things could get a little harried sometimes?
CR: No because we’ve already worked together for six years, 24/7 . When I say I work with James, people assume he works behind a desk and I phone him, and say, ‘Hey I’ve got a job! ‘ Or ‘How’s it going?’ But if we’re in a hotel, and I have interviews to do, James is right there. If I have a shoot, James is right there, because he’s on the computer, figuring something out for me. It’s always been like that. So for people that are naysayers and worried that it’s going to be difficult working together, it’s actually easier, because we are on the same wavelength. If I can’t be at a meeting, that’s totally fine because James is going to be there at that meeting. It’s like having two of you!
JB: Sounds like a match made in heaven. But how easy was it for you, as an artist who had his own independent career, to be able to join Coco’s business, and work with her in a managerial position?
JC: Well I think when Coco and I first started dating, I didn’t really know anything about the fashion industry. So Coco kind of educated me. And then I decided I need to educate myself if I’m going to be married to this woman. I should know what she’s doing for work. And so I kind of feel like we’ve gone to the same school of what we find aesthetically pleasing and we’ve been influenced by the same things for the last 6-7 years. We’ve seen when things go wrong or when they go well. We’ve seen designers that do well and don’t do well. So that kind of journey and education has led us to the same place. We see eye-to-eye on most things.
JB: Coco you’ve obviously learned a lot working some of the world’s greatest designers, just by osmosis. Was it daunting at all when you started thinking that you had your own vision and your own collection up your sleeve?
CR: Yeah because whenever we do a new project, as great as we can be, it wouldn’t matter because people will always have that think stereotype of a model. They might think, ‘Models aren’t necessarily supposed to do that!’, or ‘Yeah she’s not designing…. she has other people that design for her.’ There will always be the naysayers and I’m fine with that. But I did feel that people wouldn’t believe that this is my DNA or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I knew I’d just have to learn to go through with that and I’ll show people and prove to people that whether we do good or bad, it is us.
JC: When we were developing this behind-the-scenes, we didn’t actually tell any of Coco’s designer friends that she was doing it. So it came as a surprise. But it was amazing that when we did announce it, the emails came in saying, ‘Hey if you have any questions, let me know!’
JC: And we have taken some designers up on that, just to learn more about the business side of things, which is a totally new world for us. We’ve seen the creative side but the business side is a whole education process as well.
JB: Certainly not for the faint of heart… Working with Debbie Shuchat is another wonderful stroke of luck. She’s from Canada, and has had such great experience working with so many different brands in the past.
CR: Debbie knows everyone! And she is she is so talented and has the right contacts. She knows where to get products, how they should feel, how they should be put together. She’s just very smart.
JC: She’s also good at drawing the best out of a designer and helping him or her to hone in on what they want to do and how they can do it successfully—not only in a beautiful way, but a beautifully fabricated way as well.
JB: You’re entering the business at a very precarious time, especially when it comes to the changing retail landscape… How do you feel about the fact that there are so many brands and product out there?
CR: Well when we sat with Debbie in the first few meetings , we knew that while we could have done anything, we had to hone in on what was missing in the market. What was missing was in our price range, and especially for the girl that is obsessed with fashion. She’s knowledgeable about it, and she checks it out every day on the computer. Her option in that price range is ‘Boho’. That is it. It’s unfair because she loves fashion, but she can only afford ‘Boho’. She should have other options. So that’s where we really entered into it, and that’s why ‘sport chic’ is what we’re referencing and what we’re doing. That is what’s missing in that price range. It doesn’t make us nervous because when we hear the feedback from Ecom to department store buyers, they say, ‘Thank you because we’ve been lacking in this and that’s what’s upsetting our clientele…’ And that’s great to hear.
JB: It’s been said that the older you get, the more yourself you become, and the more comfortable you are in your own skin. Has your style improved with age?
CR: For sure! I just remembered my first few years —I was pretty much wearing what I thought I was to wear, and in the end, I thought, ‘I’ll just do what I like.’ So some days it would be vintage, some days it would be sleek and sexy… whatever. I hate hearing people ask, ‘What’s your style?’ It’s everything! It’s whatever I’m feeling like and that’s the same with age. Whatever I’m feeling like at that certain age, it evolves. It should always be changing. But do I think about the silly things that I thought about ten years ago? No, not anymore.
JB: How do you feel about some of the pieces in your line being mixed with high fashion pieces?
JC: I think models are really good at mixing pieces, because they’re lucky enough to be gifted so many great pieces from different designers. So models, off-duty, are all about pants from one designer, and jacket from another, and shoes from another. So it’s always been easy for Coco to mix and match.
CR: But you do understand now why, when we do photo shoots, designers are always wanting to see their full look in certain magazines. I get it now, when you want to see your whole look all together…. You get why they do that, but then I can’t wait to see what people do when they start wearing CO+CO, and what the hashtags will say. It might inspire us for next season.
JB: You’ve cultivated such a strong following for yourself on social media. How do you plan to play with that and use that to your advantage?
CR: We always thought outside the box when it came to promoting me as a model.. So now it’s the same sort of thing with our brand. We don’t want to necessarily go the old-fashioned route— to say it’s wrong . But we just want to always think outside the box, so who knows? Is it going to be old-school runways? I don’t know if that’s the DNA of CO+CO. I’m not saying no because who knows? But I would hope that we figure something really interesting and fun, where people just get so crazy excited about seeing a show again… whatever that is.
JB: James, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about fashion from Coco?
JC: I’ve learned how hard everyone works. I learned how hard a model works. People think that models just sit there and look pretty. There’s so much going on behind the scenes. Now stepping into design, I think we both have a real appreciation for our designer friends and what work they put into it. We always see them right at the end of the creative process, when they’re fitting the girls. But now to see what they go through with the buyers, designing, prototypes, etc… I think it’s just gaining that knowledge and that appreciation for everyone in the industry. It only broadens our understanding of it all.
JB: I interviewed you while you were pregnant not really knowing what having a baby would do to your sense of career and your drive. Now that your little girl is a few months old, what has having a baby done for your career?
CR: She’s the best baby in the whole wide world. But I don’t want to say nothing’s changed, because of course everything has changed. In a sense, we’re so relaxed and just feel, ‘Let’s bring baby to work. Let’s hang out with our friends and family, our workmates…. ‘ We love working with people that we enjoy associating with and of course they only want Ioni there. In fact they probably would want Ioni more than us! So that’s how we’ve always been: Relaxed, happy, enjoying work. It’s the same sort of thing with family.
JC: Coco and I have always travelled together, so now it’s just the three of us, instead of the two of us. Things have changed a little bit but I feel like we’re already in the motion of being a family that travels around.
CR: I mean we were a different family in the beginning, so why wouldn’t it be different again?
JB: Do I sort of sniff a kid’s wear collection in the future?
CR: Well we’ve been hearing a lot of people say we would like to see what you do in baby wear, or mini versions. And we have a lot of kids in our team, and we have been playing around with trying clothes on them. So who knows? We might just do it!