Luminaries of our Times – Zandra Rhodes

STIR speaks with some of the greatest icons of our times – the queen of avant-garde fashion, Rhodes is a feisty 80-year-old British textile designer, as prolifically creative as ever.

by Sonal ShahPublished on : Nov 25, 2020

When Dame Zandra Lindsey Rhodes agreed to this interview, I was overjoyed. The one time I met her in Mumbai with dear friend Rajeev Sethi had left a lasting impact. I was struck by her warm friendliness and her deep knowledge of our country and our fabrics. I was equally mesmerised by her hot pink bob that contrasted so vividly with the bold print of the orange-pink outfit she had worn. Ever since, I have broadly followed her high fashion journey of unique, vibrant couture. Often described as dramatic and flamboyant, her garments are at once timeless and totally unforgettable.

At 80, Rhodes remains as active as ever, with many a novel idea up her sleeve. As she remarked, “We are working on new designs for a plethora of exciting collaborations. I can’t disclose most of them but we have announced the Zandra Rhodes x IKEA collaboration for Autumn 2021. Exciting times ahead!” The year 2019 marked five decades of her being in the industry, and the landmark was celebrated with a retrospective exhibition, 50 Years of Fabulous, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London that she founded in 2003, and a book on her work published by Yale.

  • From her Jubilee Collection, Zandra Rhodes celebrating 50 years in fashion | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    From her Jubilee Collection, Zandra Rhodes celebrating 50 years in fashion Image: Richard Dowker
  • ‘50 Years of Fabulous’, a retrospective exhibition at Fashion and Textile Museum, 2019 | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    50 Years of Fabulous, a retrospective exhibition at Fashion and Textile Museum, 2019 Image: Bridie O_Sullivan

Rhodes studied Fabric Design at Medway College and Royal College of Art in London, and taught at the latter for three years (1964-1967). She initially hoped to work for a textile designing firm, but as she didn’t land the job, Rhodes along with Sylvia Ayton started a clothes boutique, Fulham Road Clothes Shop, in 1968. A year later she branched out to launch her own label. In hindsight it was perhaps providential that she didn’t get that employment! Rhodes said that the experience “actually made me a fighter and taught me not to compromise. I constantly had to prove myself in those important formative years and fight to prove my designs”.

  • ‘All-over Lipsticks’ fabric, 1968 | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    All-over Lipsticks fabric, 1968 Image: Zandra Rhodes
  • ‘Mr Man’ fabric, 1967 | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Mr Man fabric, 1967 Image: Zandra Rhodes

Too outlandish for the British market, Rhodes’ early recognition came from the US. Her debut collection was modeled by actress Natalie Wood and featured in the American Vogue. She has never looked back since. Inspired by the pop art of the time, Rhodes was a trailblazer using unconventional prints and embellishments including safety pins, feathers, images of lipsticks and earned the moniker, Princess of Punk. She has fashioned garments for royalty, including Princess Diana, movie stars and artists like Freddie Mercury… created costumes for a number of operas, designed furniture and furnishing lines, fragrances, makeup and jewellery…

In 2003, Rhodes founded the Fashion Museum in London, fulfilling a long held desire to “give British fashion the recognition it deserves”. Designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, it took eight years to complete and is a must see for the fashion conscious.

  • The Fashion and Textile Museum in London, founded by Zandra Rhodes in 2003 | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    The Fashion and Textile Museum in London, founded by Zandra Rhodes in 2003 Image: Bridie O’Sullivan
  • Zandra Rhodes’ rainbow penthouse above the Fashion and Textile Museum | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Zandra Rhodes’ rainbow penthouse above the Fashion and Textile Museum Image: Bridie O’Sullivan

Here are some excerpts from a vibrant and enriching interview…

Sonal Shah (SS): With the coronavirus pandemic, do you think priorities of designers and consumers may change?

Zandra Rhodes (ZR): Yes, consumers will want to shop more remotely, and designers will cater to this. I think it’s time the industry strips back and starts to move a bit slower and more consciously, it couldn’t continue at the pace it was going. Something needed to change.

SS: What advice would you give to the current generation of designers?

ZR: Don’t give up! Find a way to design, but remember it’s very important to rethink. Many shops are struggling. We must find a way to work with the ‘new normal’. We also need to be conscious of controlling waste. Waste is expensive and wrong. Zero waste should be the ideal. The survival of our earth is going to depend on all of us through various mediums creating and manufacturing and consuming responsibly.

SS: Give us a peek into your creative process – from conceptualisation to finished product.

ZR: My friends such as painter Duggie Fields, and sculptor Andrew Logan are a wonderful influence. What I jot in my sketchbook also forms ideas; I see something and it turns a switch on in my mind, an image just jumps out and I start drawing and developing a theme. For example, 'Cactus and Cowboys’ (after a trip across the USA) or ‘Button Flower’, where I found buttons in a Paris market on a card and I made them the centres of the flowers in my print. Once I have the textile design, it’s then that I start letting it flow and it becomes a wonderful dress or if I am working on interiors, it could become a cushion or a quilt. If I decide it is for a dress, I stand with the paper design in front of me in the mirror.

  • Zandra Rhodes with sculptor Andrew Logan in India | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Zandra Rhodes with sculptor Andrew Logan in India Image: Zandra Rhodes
  • The ‘Cactus and Cowboy’ Collection | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    The ‘Cactus and Cowboy’ Collection Image: Robyn Beeche
  • Sketch of Ravana by Zandra Rhodes | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Sketch of Ravana by Zandra Rhodes Image: Zandra Rhodes

SS: What were the triggers that led to some of your most successful creations?

ZR: My artist friends. Duggie Fields, for instance, incorporates bold, pop art styles into his work. My ‘Conceptual Chic’ collection of 1977 with beaded holes, Swarovski crystals and chains was influenced by the punk movement and discussions with Duggie. That’s where my nickname Princess of Punk came from. The gold ‘Renaissance Collection’ had its birth when I was thinking of a dress for Diana for the royal wedding.

SS: How have Indian design, colour and motifs influenced your work?

ZR: India has been a large influence on my work from 1981, when Rajeev Sethi and Pupul Jayakar brought me over in advance of the first Festival of India. That amazing journey was one of the biggest influences of my life. I revisited time and time again, your country always left me wanting more. The colour, the landscape, the people. I was there last year as a cast member of The Real Marigold Hotel alongside a fabulous cast of the likes of Britt Ekland, Henry Blofeld and John Altman.

India for me is so special, being able to see all forms of textiles and be able to design for them. This led me to produce wonderful dresses in zari, for the Festival of India I was able to do block prints. I made so many friends and invited them to my London shows (which in the 80s were spectacular happenings). I then realised that when they went to special functions they didn’t wear dresses but always a sari. That led me to create a sari collection, which I showed in 1987 in Mumbai and Delhi, it shocked the audience. I showed saris with panniers and feather head-dresses and cholis with shoulder pads. Several years later an Indian friend said it was a huge influence in India and led Indian designers to start experimenting differently.

  • Zandra Rhodes shopping in a Delhi market | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Zandra Rhodes shopping in a Delhi market Image: Zandra Rhodes
  • Zandra Rhodes with Rajeev Sethi in Rajasthan | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Zandra Rhodes with Rajeev Sethi in Rajasthan Image: Zandra Rhodes
  • 1985 AW India Revisited Saree Shells Collection | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    1985 AW India Revisited Saree Shells Collection Image: Robyn Beeche
  • Feather inspired head-dresses, part of the India collection | Luminaries of our Times | STIRworld
    Feather inspired head-dresses, part of the India collection Image: Robyn Beeche

SS: Highs and lows in your career…

ZR: Highs - being made a Dame by the Queen, celebrating my 50 years of fashion in 2019!

Lows - I never remember them! The highs outnumber them enough not to care.

SS: What makes you stay inspired?

ZR: Travel and my bold and fearless artist friends such as ceramicists Kate Malone and Carol McNicol.

SS: What new technologies do you foresee that will impact textiles?

ZR: Screen printing is giving way to digital printing. I still run a screen printing workroom that has printed all my chiffons. I think it’s very special and believe it to be one of the remaining left in London.

SS: Your favourite creation?

ZR: My one-sided chiffon dress with a satin quilted shoulder. This is a classic, worn by Jackie O, Lauren Bacall and more. My yellow felt coat from my first collection in 1969 will also always be a classic.

12 mins watch Zandra Rhodes on textiles and her journey as a designer
Zandra Rhodes on textiles and her journey as a designer Video: Courtesy of The Fashion and Textile Museum

SS: Your motto?

ZR: Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better and your better, best!

SS: Five people at your dinner table you would love to have.

ZR: Rajeev Sethi, Diana Vreeland, the late Divine, John Waters and Pier Paolo Piccoli of Valentino.

Did you know? Zandra Rhodes…

  • turned 80 on September 19, 2020
  • has sported hot pink or green or red hair for the last 40 years
  • pink is a colour she can’t do without
  • in 2014 she was bestowed the title Dame by the Queen
  • her new collaboration with IKEA will be launched in Autumn 2021

Click here to read more articles in the series 'Luminaries of Our Times'.

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