Zandra Rhodes was never one for understatement, either in her clothes or her flamboyant fabrics. Nothing if unique, she is this season being referenced by everyone from Miu Miu to Dior. But no one does it better than the mistress of British eccentricity herself.
Susannah Frankel text. Maurtis Sillem portrait. Robyn Beeche archive photography.
It is only fitting that the Zandra Rhodes Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. For all the talk of the area's regeneration, it remains for the most part dilapidated, if not plain grey. Not so Ms. Rhodes latest project which, from the end of narrow Bermondsey Street, positively throbs with a heat and vivid colour not usually associated with England's bleak, damp dapital. It is not surprising to learn that Ricardo Legorreta, Mexico's most respected architect and one of the world's great colourists, is the brains behind the project. The huge facade is burnt orange with accents of plum and, of course, Rhodes' signature fuchsia. The entrance boasts a jewellery box of a mosaic - a starburst of glass, marble and semi-precious stones. The walls are brightest lapis. Further inside, a predominantly white stone interior is punctuated by walls of densely glowing shades - from marigold to flame.
And then there's Zandra herself, who will no doubt go on to become the museum's brightest exhibit and certainly its most bold, Dressed in a rainbow-coloured patchwork velvet tunic and skirt of her own design, she has an Andrew Logan brooch the size of a small dinner plate at her waist, rows of large wooden and crystal beads round her neck and a dimante hairpin in her dazzling pink top-knot. And make-up - truckloads of make-up. Peacock-blue eyeshadow, black, kohl-rimmed eyes, crimson lips, great circles of blusher, all painted none-too-immaculately on to a deathly pale kabuki-esque base.
"Normallly I sleep with my make-up on," she is happy to confide
- woman to woman. "If I'm late in the morning, I just wash round
the edges. I mean, it takes such a long time to create a look..."
Zandra Rhodes looks like a bird of paradise - a slightly dishevelled bird of paradise, frayed round the edges what with the many pressures of day to day, urban living. She sounds like a character from a Monty Python sketch - her searing South London accent means you're just begging her to screech "Been shopping?" at the top of her lungs.
She's recently undergone an operation for a hip replacement, she tells me, so she's dismayed to be wearing - and this is a first - flat, neutrally colored shoes. "I hate flat shoes but I don't want to do anything silly. To begin with I was in agony. I had my zimmer frame, my little wheels - like the queen mother - but I could only put a bit of weight onto my hip. For the first two weeks, even though the work kept coming in, I didn't really care. You know when you go 'oh, I just don't care'? They were just piling up, all these faxes and I wasn't answering any of them."
This is most unlikely behaviour, because throughout her career - which spans a period of more than 40 years - Rhodes has demonstrated a work ethic that can best be described as ferocious. It is also quintessentially British working class. People have, in the past, described Rhodes as mean - it is the stuff of fashion legend that she insitst that teabags are used twice, and that her dinner party guests are invariably served cauliflower cheese, This is not, in factg, out of any desire to hoard money. Rather, Rhodes has frugality running through her veins. She hates waste - that is how she has always kept her business afloat all these years. These days, she is just as likely to be found sleeping in the yet to be fully-decorated student flats at the top of the building she calls home, surrounded by the young men and women lucky enough to have placements working with her, as anywhere more grand that might better befit her status.
"I work seven days a week, 14 hours a day and there's no holiday for me that isn't actively associated with my work," she once said. She gets up at 6.30 in the morning, goes to bed at 1.30, working every day of the year except Christmas. Added to this, since Rhodes met her "boyfriend" Salah Hassanein, with whom she's passionately in love - he was formerly president of Warner Brothers, "a sort of tycoon, I suppose." - she has spend more than half her time in California. Permanent jet lag has done little to aid in an already daunting schedule.
Iain R Webb, today fashion director of ELLE, worked as a junior design assistant at Zandra Rhodes in the early '80s. He once told me: "You know, we never had any money, so for a show we had to use last season's shoes, say, tied with ribbons so they looked completely different. For that she was a truly great person to work for. She would really encourage you to make the most of yourself. It's all about using up as little of the resources as possible and relying, instead, on imagination. That's very much what British fashion is about."
It's especially what Zandra Rhodes is about and, in this respect, iseems nothing much has changed.
Five years ago, however, Zandra Rhodes sold her notorious sugar-pink, crumbling West London home in order to buy a large property in the heart of East London. (I used to live next door but one to her and am proud to say was witness to the world's most admirably demented parking activity for the duration - her battered Mini took pride of place, at right angles to teh curb in front of her door.) The idea was to open a museum to house not only her own considerable archive- she has kept the originals of everything she has ever made - but also to showcase the work of living designers, providing a younger, more dynamic answer to London's Victoria & Albert Museum. It is due to open in March next year.
"I think it's got to be more like a rather exotic gallery," she explains. A Zandra Rhodes Fellowship is in development - the privileged few that will live on the premises will not only be working alongside the designer but will also be given a chance to develop curatorial skills. There will be a museum shop and a cafe. The first phase of a Community Outreach Programme called the Children's Magic Mural is also underway. Children aged between six and 14 from five local schools have already been approached and taught the basics of textile designs, and their efforts will be on display at the Museum's launch.
For her part, Rhodes has been busy raising funds to ensure the place is up and running by 2002. "I've been doing fund-raising in America. Larry Hagman's hosting a special lunch and tea dance where you can wear whatever you like. That will bring some money in. We've got a really great new girl who's helping us write our grant applications. Our first show will be called My Favourite Dress. We're going to ask all the designers to send in one favourite dress and the reason why.
"Some days I feel we're nearly there and some days I feel we're only a third of the way there. It's frustrating in a sense because when I grandly thought of doing this museum, I'd imagined, and still imagine, that I'd like to be a free consultant, working maybe a third of my time on it, but it's eaten so much of my business..."
And Zandra Rhodes' business is today, as it has always been, predominantly in clothing, and more specifically, textile design.
Zandra Rhodes was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1940. Her father was a lorry driver at the local dockyards. Her mother worked with the world's first ever couturier, Charles Frederick Worth, in Paris before she married, at which point she set up shop as a dressmaker, designing under the quaintly old-fashioned moniker Beatrice Modes, and taught at local art college.
"My parents met ballroom dancing," she says - her mother used to make their flamboyant costumes. "He was frightfully handsome but they didn't have very much in common. He looked like Errol Flynn and behaved like Alf Garnett. I'm quite convinced my father never looked at anyone else, but they had just the most terrible quarrels. They didn't get on at all."
Her mother, clearly, was Zandra's most formative influence."She was always sewing on her treddle sewing machine, she fitted private clients at home. I used to model in her college fashion shows, wearing pretty hats and little off-the-shoulder dresses, I must have been about eight or nine."
Even at this tender age, she stood out from her contemporaries. "I didn't used to look like all the other kids. They used to make fun of me when I walked through the park - I'd have to run. And I always remember, when my mother would be getting ready to go to a school open day or something, me and my younger sister Beverly would say, 'You can't wear so much make-up, you'll look different from all the other mothers.' and 'don't wear that hat.' If I'd have been her, I'd have just said, 'Well, sorry, this is how I come,' but I have a feeling she might have toned her look down for us."
After school, Rhodes who excelled in art classes and, spurred by her mother, worked very hars, went to Medway College of Art. From there, she earnt a scholarship to London's Royal College of Art to study textiles. It was during the school's heyday, at the dawning of the Pop Art movement. David Hockney was in his final year there when she started. His painting "Generals" inspired Rhodes' degree collection of fabrics printed with brightly coloured medals. Heals bought one of her first designs and Queen magazine used another for a cover - the fabric was Zandra Rhodes, the dress, Foale and Tuffin, then at the hub of Swinging London in fashionable Carnaby Street.
"Oh, it was a wonderful time," says Rhodes today. "Ossie [Clark] was in his first year when I was in my third... Anyway, I graduated in '62 with a first class honours degree but that doesn't get you anywhere. Hahahaha. Sounds good, though. I was very lucky because by the time I left I had a teaching job lined up at Ravensbourne in Kent and me and my boyfriend had just enough money to rent a roon in St Stephens Gardens. So I did two days teaching a week and started to sell my work."
Here's how Rhodes describes her living environment at that time in her '84 monograph, The Art of Zandra Rhodes:
"We were existing hand to mouth, rushing down to the Portobello Road late on Saturday to buy cheap fruit and vegetables from the stalls just closing up. Food was not important. We were determined to live in our world - a world of today - and that meant making it all ourselves, creating our own Pop environment, a perfect world of plastic, true to itself, honestly artificial. We covered everything in plastic by the yard, including the walls and even the television set; we had plastic grass carpets, collected plastic flowers and trees, used synthetic marble and Fablon tiles. We made the furniture by drawing shapes on the floor and building laminate and foam seating and tables on these spots. We built standard lamps from pillars of plastic, circling them with neon bulbs. 'A Wonderful World from Woolworths'." And Woolworths, incidentally, was where Rhodes bought her jewellery. Suffice it to say, she must have cut quite a dash.
Since shaking off and early tendencies towards the shrinking violet - far from running through the park, these days she is more likely to announce defiantly: "It takes courage to run around the supermarket looking like I do" - Rhodes has clearly picked up where her exotic mother left off. Her hair has travelled the spectrum from inky bluem through acid green and purple before settling in nicely to fuchsia pink. She has been known to attach feather to the ends with eyelash glue. She has also, famously, had her eyebrows removed ("I just felt I didn't need them anymore"), only to paint them back on as rows of dots and dashes, like some bizarre, highly coloured Morse code, or as a single black squiggle right across her forehead.
"I use myself as a canvas," she has said, "with no compromise, experimenting with my image, using cosmetics and hair to create an impact.
And what an impact. By the mid '60s, Rhodes was already and accomplished textile designer, but she had not yet learnt how to make clothes. She promptly formed a partnership with her colleague, Sylvia Ayton.
"I was wearing big turbans and lots of plastic jewellery at that point and Sylvia used to say, 'Zandra, you frighten the buyers.' She used to make me hide.
The only thing for it was to open their own shop, where buyers could visit them entirely on their own terms. It was backed by, among others, Vanessa Redgrave, who put £1,000 into the business. Rhodes designed a print emblazoned with the words "We love you Vanessa" in return, which began a career-long love affair with interspersing her imagery with the written word.
When the shop closed, no more than around a year later, "Sylvia was offered a job and I wasn't, but we'd had loads of publicity." Encouraged by fashionable friends, Zandra Rhodes set to learning how to cut her own patterns and travelled to New York with a first collection that was covered by everyone from Women's Wear Daily to Vogue. And the rest, as they say, is history.
During the '70s, Zandra Rhodes dresses, in rainbow colours, hand-painted, beaded and embroidered, were worn by the glamorous likes of Bianca Jagger, Tina Chow, Natalie Wood, Liza Minelli and Jackie Onassis, establishing her as one of the greatest fabric designers of the century. In '77, with the launch of her "Conceptual Chic" collection, American Vogue christened Rhodes the "Queen of Punk," In fact, she began experimenting with aggressively slashed silk and jersey when John Lydon was still in nappies.
And Rhodes' contribution didn't stop at dressing the so-called Beautiful People either, Princess Ann wore Zandra Rhodes for her official engagement photograph, courtesy of Norman Parkinsons. Princess Margaret wore one of her designs for her 60th birthday party. Diana, Princess of Wales, was similarly a great admirer. By the early '80s, Rhodes was a great British institution and a household name.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rhodes' designs is their spontaneous and organic nature. The print - be it the early lightbulb prints, inspired by the Blackpool Illuminations, the feather prints, derived from American Indian headdresses, or the knitting prints, taken from Celtic sweaters - dictates the shape of the garment. Exotic blooms, graphic squiggles, Chinese embroideries collide and cascade across the most delicate satins and silks to hugely idiosyncratic and individual effect.
But although Rhodes' fantasy is still very much afloat in California, she has fared less well in Britian in recent years. Fashion is fickle, of course, and the recession at the end of the '80s hit business hard. Rhodes was forced to close her London shop, her workshop in Bayswater and her factory in Olympia. Her staff was reduced from around 70 to no more than the handful of people she works with today.
Despite the fact that Gianni Versace owed the dress that launched Liz Hurley to Zandra Rhodes - Versace openly cited her work as inspiration - and that Rhodes was designing felt coats with reversed-out seams long before deconstruction had made a name for itself, Britain has shamefully neglected its home-grown designer. In a fashion world still in the throes of an exteneded love affair with minimalism, her overblown and extravagant designs, produced in-house, cottage industry-style, have been regarded as somewhat off-kilter. Liberty stocks a seasonal capsule collection and Rhodes dresses the odd British bride, but the majority of her work is to be found dressing fabulously wealthy, society ladies in warmer transatlantic climes.
"I live by the sea in America, yes, but I don't ever go out in the sun," she says, as if this were the most preposterous idea in the world. "Well, if I do, I'm always fully covered up in some robe and a huge, exotic umbrella. I put some ideas together the other week - I'd love it if it came off - for beach tents and umbrellas and towels. You could do it as a whole look for the beach." Zandra-by-Sea, perhaps, and a winning formula if there ever was one.
The time is ripe, however, now more than ever, for a Zandra Rhodes revival in Europe too. John Galliano's most recent haute couture collection for Christian Dior boasted a section of highly-coloured chiffon dresses which owed more than a little to Zandra Rhodes. Miu Miu's empire-line printed chiffon dress - set to become the most photographed garment of the current season - equally, had more than a touch of the Zandra Rhodes, and indeed Ossie Clark, about it. After seasons of logomania and fashion's obsession with the power-dressed, conspicuous consumption of the '80s, a more free and individual aesthetic is quietly coming to the fore. It is a sensibility that suits Zandra Rhodes down to the ground.
"The thing is," she says, "maybe I'm being rude but, for example, if you're say, Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, who I greatly respect for what their empires are, you don't really have to run true to style, do you? You can't be caught out. But if someone draws a Zandra Rhodes t-shirt and I don't have a look at it, if you're not careful, you'd say, 'that doesn't look on'. In just the same way, if there's one designer I really respect, it's Thierry Mugler. I could spot a Thierry Mugler suit from the length of that road and it's always got an attention to detail I respect. It doesn't mean it's always good, because you can go in and out of fashion that way, but you know what his contribution is."
She could, of course, equally be speaking about herself - there is, after all, no doubt in anyone's mind what a Zandra Rhodes dress looks like. "It's like you said," she says to me, as our interview draws to a close, "it is annoying to think that I am an influence and I'm not making any money out of it. At the moment, everything I've got has been put into the museum. Sometimes, when I'm really down, my friends say, and I'm lucky to have great friends, 'But you've done this and you've done that, you should be happy.' And I am basically happy. I don't want to become a bitter person but I do find it frustrating when I don't achieve everything I want to achieve. In the end, I suppose it's rather like when you talk about whether you see a cup half full or half empty. I'd rather think positive, think 'Well, okay, I'm not making a fortune out of it, Paris has never discovered me, but I hope that people still go on wanting Zandra Rhodes."
People do want Zandra Rhodes, of course, and if the current zeitgeist is anything to go by, she may well soon be turning customers away. This, of course, is just as it should be. Zandra Rhodes' exuberant designs may not be to everyone's taste, but she remains, despite adversity, entirely true to herself. She is, in the end, that rare thing - an original. In a world that relies increasingly on the homogeneous, even bland, she should be applauded for that.
from Dazed & Confused, October 2001