Dame Zandra Rhodes dishes on the power of print, couture copycats, and pink hair don’t care
Nothing less than a fashion legend, British designer Zandra Rhodes has accomplished much in the 50-plus years she’s been in business. Since her rise in the early 1970s, she’s founded London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, garnered the title of Dame from Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth, and set a trend for Technicolor hair (just for starters).
In Dallas recently to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Fashion Group International’s 2018 Night of Stars, one might imagine that Rhodes would be content to rest on her laurels. However, the flamboyant 78-year-old is revving up again.
While showing new looks that reference her older designs she calls “Looking Back, Looking Forward” (available by special order from Stanley Korshak), Rhodes says being true to herself through all of fashion’s ups and downs has allowed her to build longevity in a fickle industry—whether or not her vibrantly printed caftans or pleated candy box cocktails dresses are “in” at the moment.
“I think of my style a bit like you think of The Beatles,” she says, “I lived through the first Beatles, and if you talked about them 20 years ago people knew them a bit, then they got popular again. I did all my exotic things; then there was a trend for power dressing. I thought the world had forgotten me and started building my museum. Then in 2000, Galliano brought out a collection of all flowy chiffons, and suddenly people were saying, ‘It’s like Zandra Rhodes onstage.’”
Many designers have copied Rhodes’ ideas over the decades. The safety pin-and-jersey collection of 1977 that earned her the title of “Princess of Punk” definitely inspired Versace to create his own pinned collection in the ’90s. When fashion journalist Suzy Menkes called him out on the copies, Versace banned her from his shows for two seasons.
“Stella McCartney copied a print I did in ’71, and there was a recent Miu Miu banana leaf print on the cover of the Sunday Times that all my friends congratulated me on,” Rhodes says. “I wish I was earning some money on it, but I went to a copyright person and they charged me 2,000 pounds and it got me nowhere. It’s better to keep the picture and make a note. I’m not big enough to have thousands to sue over.”
It’s ironic that Rhodes is so influential, as she originally planned to be a textile artist instead of a designer. But post-graduation from the Royal College of Art in London, she found her elaborate prints a hard sell, prompting her to create garments to show them off.
“It happened that I was a textile designer who couldn’t find a job,” she recalls. “I got into making dresses because I couldn’t sell my prints. I knew they would look lovely on a dress, but people would say, ‘Oh it’s too big.’ I didn’t want to teach; I wanted to design.”
Because her designs are free-flowing and figure flattering, everyone from Princess Diana to Elizabeth Taylor to Kate Moss ended up purchasing a Rhodes for their closet.
“I think my woman is just an individual with her own taste. I think my work goes on all sorts of figures—it’s just someone who treasures the intrinsic qualities of print.”
Her fuchsia locks have helped make her instantly recognizable—never a bad thing in the fashion industry. Rhodes was inspired to add green streaks to her hair in the early ’70s before deciding to “think pink” after a trip to China at the end of the decade.
“I came back and did a Chinese collection and thought, “Red China,’ so I dyed my hair pink. Once I thought I’d have a change and dyed it brown, but no one recognized me. It was so embarrassing; there was no choice but to go back to pink and stay pink! With pink hair, you can wear everything, as long as you do it with panache.”
Through all of her ups, downs and dye jobs, Rhodes is having a bit of a Renaissance at the moment. In 2016, Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli sent a collection utilizing her prints inspired by painter Hieronymus Bosch down the runway, and the British shop Matches launched works from her “Archive Collection” that same year. More recently, the blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has put the iconic pleated top she created for Freddie Mercury back in the spotlight. (The producers were smart enough to ask the designer to recreate it for the film.)
2019 will be a big year for Rhodes, with both a new monograph Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous Fashion due from Yale Press and a retrospective show slated at her Fashion and Textile Museum. Opening in September and running through January 2020, she hopes the show will ultimately travel across the world.
Looking back at her half-century of achievement, Rhodes says her proudest moment is giving generations of fashionistas an appreciation for a fine print.
“I started at the same time as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. It would be nice if my business were a big conglomerate, but it didn’t work out that way. I feel very proud of having established the museum as we’ve been able to memorialize (the work of designers) Jean Muir, Ossie Clark, Bill Gibb, and various people who worked in textiles. I’ve always maintained that textile designers were the Cinderellas of the business. People don’t always give the credit to the person who invented the pattern.” —Kendall Morgan
PHOTO | William Neal