BEYOND THE RAINBOW: ZANDRA RHODES AND 50 YEARS OF FABULOUS
“The only thing you can rely on in life is change. And the thing you can’t rely on in fashion is that I’ll always be in fashion. One minute they can’t have enough of my clothes and in another minute they might not want to know!”
Written by Daen Palma Huse
Dame Zandra Rhodes is royalty of British Fashion. She has dressed Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Debbie Harry, Shirley Bassey, Lauren Bacall, Grace Coddington, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Streisand and so many more. Yet, she remains one of the most approachable and down-to earth people in the fashion industry. Dancing to her own beat at nearly 80 years of age, Zandra Rhodes calls the Rainbow Penthouse in Bermondsey her home, which as the name suggests sports every colour of the rainbow. There has been no stopping her with a range of recent collaborations announced and, of course an exhibition and the new book Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion by Yale University Press, for which Zandra is even going on a book tour with, inlcuding venues in London, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego.
Now opening at the Fashion and Textile Museum, the exhibition “50 Years of Fabulous” shows the unique inspirational journey of Zandra Rhodes with an incredible range of textiles and archive material to look forward to. One of the highlights that The Protagonist is looking forward to is the display of costumes from The English National Opera’s production of Aida, co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, designed by Zandra Rhodes in 2007, who described them as “a dream world of gold, turquoise and ultramarine.” The costumes re-imagine Giuseppe Verdi’s classic tale of Ancient Egypt. Moreover, pieces of the A/W 1981 ‘Gold Renaissance’ collection can be seen, looks from which are currently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Camp and have been worn by Diana Ross.
At The Protagonist, we have collaborated with Zandra Rhodes on many shoots, including photographing the actresses Andrea Riseborough and Felicity Gilbert in Rhodes’ creations, one of Freddie Mercury’s iconic tops on dancer Nicol Edmonds as well as numerous fashion shoots. One of the occasions which I personally will remember for a long time to come was the extraordinarily colourful shoot of Andrew Logan’s portrait at Zandra’s penthouse on the occasion of the “Alternative Miss World 2018” – for which Andrew poses as half-woman half-man since 1972, when the contest first started. Zandra designed the female half of the garment that Andrew wore in 2018, with the male half designed by designer-duo Whitaker Malem.
Zandra has always been inspired by the cultural richness that she encountered during her travels, but also through looking at nature, which has mirrored in various collections over the years. A textile designer at heart, the design language that Zandra Rhodes speaks is informed by drawn and printed shapes and patterns, which lies at the heart of every garment she designs. Most of all, Zandra has always stayed true to her quintessential identity as a designer and stresses the fact that she “goes with the flow” – staying true to herself lies at heart of her success, for Zandra will never go out of “fashion!”
Are you designing clothes to move people?
I just like to think that they are dresses that women feel nice in, you don’t always have to hold yourself in, they are easy enough to wear. But you know, you could do all sorts of wonderful things and feel great!
You find it important how people feel in your clothes –
do you want people to know the stories behind them?
It is nice when I meet people and they say “I felt wonderful in that” – and then maybe they learn the story after. For example, I decided on my Ayers Rock print and later found out that the great great granddaughter of the man, Mr. Ayers, that discovered Ayers Rock, got married in my dress! So there are some wonderful stories like that.
What comes first, design or print?
I think first the print because I’m a print designer. Sometimes I think “Oh! I’d like to do a circle!” That is what happened with this [pointing at the dress she is wearing]. I designed this circle in 1969 and used it in my first collection. It is called “knitted circle” because all of the flowers are knitted. I designed the circle and then I thought what am I going to do with it… then came the dress – so this is how it works!
Some print manufacturers refused to print your designs in the 1960s and called them ‘outrageous’ – why do you think that was?
Maybe because when I first started out they weren’t doing big prints. But… I’ve got the feeling that sometimes people think that something is outrageous because the person selling it to them might be slightly outrageous! Years before that my business partner that I was working with, Silvia, used to tell me “Hi, don’t let the buyers see you because you frighten them!” She definitely felt that! … but you get to a point where you think you got to be yourself and you got to behave like yourself, that’s all there is to it! You go through different periods and now I think in fact a lot of people expect one to be a bit more of a peacock. It was a joy when you all walked in and you looked exotic! [talking about The Protagonist crew on the day] And I think you have got to see that as a compliment, if you dress up and make yourself look amazing you are paying the person that you are with a compliment.
During our shoot, you mentioned a Sari show in India?
I did two Sari shows in India in 1987. I did one in what was then Bombay, and I did another one in Delhi. I started to go to India a lot in 1981 when I was invited to start to be one of the first designers in Vogue with the Festival of India. I fell in love with India and made a lot of Indian friends and then I thought “What am I doing? I’m a designer and I’m not creating any designs that they personally would wear!” They would only wear Salwar Kameez, not my dresses. So I thought in that case, I am a textile designer, why don’t I design Saris. I designed the “holy Sari” which was one beading but it had holes so you could put your head through the whole and do different things. I worked on the prints and we got an airline to sponsor us for the collection and show. Someone once said I was the start of the Indian fashion industry, which I thought was a great compliment!
I wanted to talk about Mexico with you…
I went first in 1976 in a Volkswagen camper! I found that at that time it wasn’t touristy and it was very strange – I didn’t know the food, didn’t know the places to go to. I think in those days not many people went down onto camp sites so it was a bit basic. I went with a boyfriend and he drove the camper all the way down the Baja peninsula – it was completely wild at the time – and then took the boat to the other side of Mexico and drove down as far as Oaxaca. Since then I’ve had an exhibition in Mexico City and I’ve fallen in love with the country. It’s a wonderful place to go to.
What inspirations did you take from Mexican culture in terms of your designs?
I saw the little stones in the ancient Maya sites as well as the Sombrero beadings and patterns that inspired one of my dresses. Mexico was inspirational in all the things that I absorbed apart from the trip in the camper being tough!
Where would you say a connection lies between art and fashion as expressed in clothes?
I think my work is linked to art in the sense that I start from drawings that I do. The drawings lead to a dress that has come about in a different way because I care a lot about the textiles, I am not the person that has bought the textiles and is cutting them up somehow.
Ricardo Legorreta designed your Fashion and Textile Museum, how did this come about?
When I bought this building in 1995, this building was in no shape, people thought I was mental buying the building! I’d seen the work of Legorreta and thought it had great peace – but the colour… I like the colour! I said to my friend I’d love Legorreta to design my building and they said he doesn’t design second hand buildings! So I was given a personal introduction to him at the friend’s house, which he designed, and I then said “I think your work is amazing and I would really like you to design my museum, would you come to London for me?” I brought him over first class on my mileage tickets and I organised about ten top architects for a dinner who all said how fantastic this area of London was, that it was up and coming and amazing [smiles]. I asked him again if he’d design it. He said he’d be happy to, he was such a gentleman. I met him at his Beverly Hills hotel a couple of months later and he had a little model of the building and I said it’s wonderful, that’s just what I want. That’s how it happened!
How did you get to know Andrew Logan, who you have been collaborating with for a long time?
We both have a wonderful friend: Duggie Fields. And these are Duggie Fields paintings [Zandra points at different walls in her studio]. I saw a piece of his work in 1964 and I had to have it! It was so lovely and I hadn’t got any money. I paid him a deposit and then he came round the studio to me because I couldn’t afford the rest of it. He adored how I had put it up and how I’d dressed around it that he gave me easier terms. Then, he introduced me to Andrew. So Andrew and I have been all over the world. We have been to Morocco together, I was the first person to take him to India, we went together to Australia and many other places!
How was it dressing Freddie Mercury?
Queen were a little teenie bopper group, it was just before everything else happened! They arranged an appointment with me and came to my studio. I called them back later and I said to Freddie put anything on and see how you feel! He put this top on, a ladies top in fact, which is what he wore on stage later. Freddie was a lovely guy who’d been working in Kensington market so he knew about clothes, he looked me up and phoned me up to get their outfits. Just after that they invited me to a concert and I was at least 20 years older than anyone in the audience [laughs]!
Parts of this interview with Zandra Rhodes were previously published in The Protagonist Magazine print edition. The exhibition Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum Bermondsey 27th September 2019 until 26th January 2020.