There are very few people in the industry that are as iconic as Zandra Rhodes. Her trademark pink hair, her long list of achievements which include both a CBE and an OBE, and her era spanning career has made her a legend in the fashion world. Today, we have the pleasure of visiting her in her studio atop the Fashion and Textile Museum; a monument she has built to celebrate diversity and innovation in the industry. Every inch of the space is covered by a piece of her history — vintage sketches line the staircases, surrealist sculptures hang in the walls, her beloved camellias in the garden — and an awe-inspiring archive of all her textiles.
As we sit in the fickle sunlight of London in the spring time, Zandra arrives in typical Zandra Rhodes fashion, dressed in a beautiful asymmetrical evening gown and dripping in statement jewellery. Her smile is infectious, and she sits in front of the camera with the ease and grace of a seasoned professional. Filled with endlessly fascinating anecdotes, Zandra Rhodes is just as colourful, or even more so, than her wonderfully eclectic clothes; a true individual and an icon in every possible way.
Your mother was a senior lecturer at the Fashion Department in the Medway College of Design. What role did she play in inspiring your career?
My mother was an exotic lady, with a wonderful big curl at the top of her head that she sprayed silver. She was strong and she encouraged me to believe in myself. She also had a fantastic work ethic that she managed to instil in me.
When I was younger, I thought I'd be a teacher like her. When I first left the Royal College of Art, I had to find a way to make a living so I taught two days a week - but sadly it just wasn’t for me. She never got to see my career progress, but I know she would have been proud of what I have achieved.
How would you describe your own personal style? In what ways does your brand serve as an extension of yourself?
I guess my personal style is a mixture of prints and colours depending on the occasion. I always wear my favourite necklace and then add more jewellery to that. You would never catch me wearing an entire black outfit unless it was absolutely necessary. My brand is so close to me is not so much an extension of myself, but rather a part of me.
Throughout your amazing career, you've always been known for your eccentric style and dynamic prints; but this wasn't always the case, with traditional British manufacturers rejecting your textiles for being too "outrageous". Tell us about those early days and how you overcame the naysayers?
My prints were considered too bold back then; and that’s when I decided to work with my own prints myself and make clothes. I then went with some of my designs to see Sylvia Ayton, who decided that she wanted to work with me. After this, we opened up the Fullham road clothes shop. The reaction was extremely positive and thus allowed me to progress and open my own shop in Bond Street. It was really the start of something special, something that I now reflect on with the recent rejuvenation of my brand in 2017.
In the 1970s you, along with the new wave of British Designers, put London at the forefront of the international fashion scene. How do you think the London fashion scene has changed since then?
The 70’s was a very unique time, with so many designers breaking through with such amazing innovation. I think that today, we have so many talented young designers coming through with such strong and unique aesthetics. It is tougher to make a break, but it is equally as encouraging to see people trying their best to do so.
You were appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1997, and also Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014. What was it like receiving such an honour?
It is always very special and humbling to receive an award that recognises the work you are trying to achieve. It is bigger than me receiving an award, it represents a forward thinking way of progression that I have been lucky enough to be included in.
In 2003, you founded the Fashion Textile Museum in London. Is this your way to share your love affair with textiles with the community?
I have always wanted a big exhibition space, to showcase the diversity in fashion and textiles. I came across a dilapidated warehouse that I snapped up immediately. It took a while to convert it into what it is today, but the whole ordeal was completely worth it. We now have people traveling from across the globe to visit the museum and the unique collections held in it. Currently on, is the Josef Frank exhibition which is the first time it has ever been exhibited in the UK. Alongside this, we have our Archive I collection for Matchesfashion on display. The exhibition is a combination of original celebrity archive garments, and the new updates that make up the designer collections.
How important is your extensive archive to your business today? Could you tell us about your Digital Study Collection with the University of Creative Arts?
My archive is extremely important to me. I have kept one of nearly every garment I ever made since I started my career. I also have what I like to call my ‘Bibles’: from sketch book bibles, textile bibles, and print bibles, all which have sketches of everything from day wear, beaded garments, knitwear to recipes of colours and techniques used to achieve certain prints. This has been paramount to the success of my Archive collections which I have launched with Matchesfashion.com in September 2016 and again at high summer in July 2017.
You have designed the costumes for several operas throughout the years. How different is designing costumes meant for the stage from designing your own collections?
Designing for the stage is very different from the couture we make in my atelier in London. I work with some of the best creative teams within the different opera companies to deliver huge productions. I learn the story by heart and then put my own take on the costumes and set designs. There is a great freedom with creating an opera; the limitations feel less apparent than making something really work for a specific customer. That being said, there is still a huge amount to consider with the costumes and sets. How will it move and interchange, how can I put across a scenery in a new way, along with how the singers and dancers move. It is all very interesting and a challenge I revel in.
What advice do you have for young designers who are just starting out in the business?
This is a tricky question to answer, and I have found that there is no generic answer to this. Every person has their own strengths and weaknesses that they need to work on. I think it is important to acknowledge and understand those traits in you, and utilise them to you advantage or work on making them better. This will in turn allow you to understand yourself better; and have more confidence and conviction in your work.
Portraits by Curtis Gibson
Words by Hannah Tan