On the Rhodes Again

By Lauren De’Ath

Zandra Rhodes doesn’t care about ‘What’s Hot’ this season. She doesn’t work to deadlines, hates emailing and sleeps on trunks full of her own clothes. Welcome to “Zandra Land”.

After a hiatus from the fashion runway, the flaming-haired, newly-appointed Dame of the realm has returned to reclaim her throne as the unorthodox designer of choice. With the fashion industry presently cooing over the appointment of John Galliano at Margiela, it might have just passed you that Dame Zandra has dished up a new collection in an exciting collaboration with Hunger magazine.

The line-up fuses her traditional screenprinted chiffon pieces with a more dynamic denim range, pairing sports bras and boy shorts that indicates a change in of pace for a brand whose core clientele at present is stateside 60-somethings. Some might say this is a fall from grace for a designer synonymous with the 70s punk scene, Andrew Logan and Divine. However, in a year that has seen her career honoured by Suzy Menkes at Port Eliot Festival and inspire the summer Kate Moss collection for Topshop amidst a backlash against digital print (she has always hand-printed her designs), you might say that Rhodes is having something of a renaissance. ‘You have to wait around for your time to come again,’ admits Zandra’s print designer Lucy Upsher, ‘It’s important that you don’t seek and follow what’s going on.’

With a career spanning over fifty years, Zandra Rhodes started out designing and printing clothes for her first business, the Fulham Road Clothes Shop in the 1960s. Born in 1940 during a Blitz air raid, Zandra’s subsequent explosive career has seen her dress all manner of women, from Bianca Jagger to Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana. Her style has gently nuzzled a streetwise edginess and faultless femininity. She is rare and remarkable in her ability to make gowns that are realistic about a woman’s body, but rarer still is her approach to design and manufacture, that is the antithesis to present industry practice of throwaway design and sweatshop labour.

Comments Lucy, ‘Her mentality stems from her growing up with rationing. The way we design the silhouette is based on being economical. It’s a real challenge with the design but it’s also what makes her prints so clever. In one screen you have to get 20-30 garments; it must have different contour lines that can work for a hemline, a neckline, a sleeve- all in one print. Zandra approaches her silhouettes as a print designer, not as a fashion designer so the print leads the shape. We always say in the studio: “I wanna get that jacket out of one repeat”.’ This unique design process has rarely changed since Zandra’s design school days  at the Royal College of Art in the 50s. In an age before computer-aided design was common practice and where fashion was hardly considered a respectable business, Zandra started cutting out intricate shapes by hand and exposing the screens in a dark room herself. ‘That’s why she’s so hands on with the process even now,’ explains Lucy. ‘She has an idea- then prints it!’

Likewise, everything is hand drawn with some preliminary sketches taking up to 5 hours. Continues Lucy, ‘In her days hand-drawing wasn’t something cheap; it was a sign you did it perfectly. You’ve got the real 60s/80s art house spirit in the way she was taught. She doesn’t think, “The design process! I’ve got my brief!” Rather it’s all a stream of consciousness; how is this idea going to naturally breed into something else? All her iconic prints are from a sketch somewhere in Guatemala or Ayres Rock, or Tibet and she loves India.She’s greatly inspired by nature. I’ve looked at all of her sketch books going back to the 50s and it’s basically a round-the-world tour. Her ideas always come from an observational drawing then we’ll come up with a more graphic solution that becomes screen print. She hates people doing things from photographs; the design should come naturally like a Chinese whisper of the original. The drawing might not be accurate or perfect but she likes the idea to come from something free and unrefined. It’s like a dream.’

Romantics for the British fashion industry of yore; of provocative 70s punk Viv; of 80s Galliano in pirate club kid get-up prancing down the runway, may look upon the quintessential 21st century designer as cynical, business-minded and uptight. Like many of her contemporaries Zandra remains something of an antidote to suit’n’clipboard image of the industry. Her style remains intrinsically linked to her work, and is as loud and brash as ever. ‘She can’t stand having empty space in design, in her room, in her clothes, in company and she needs stimuli everywhere, it’s all full to the brim.  It’s in how she dresses now- it’s getting further and further up her body; she’s got necklaces up to her chin, everything’s covered. And she never even takes her make-up off.’

Every interview is littered with references to her design work being “her baby”; she famously lives above her studio in an eccentric abode that is part Moroccan souk, part Gaudi installation and situated next door to her very own Fashion and Textile Museum. ‘If you’re in her work, it’s like her family. It’s a very intimate thing, not business-like; it’s warts and all,’ says Upsher. ‘She’s very open person, she loves people being there. We have students stay in her flat and they go to Tesco and do her shopping with her. She invites them to her dinner parties! Her speciality is ‘potatoes in jackets’, jacket potatoes.’

And at 75 does she ever think of retiring? ‘She’s admirably in the driver’s seat. Design is her kingdom and we all just all live in it; it’s vital that we get up and create! Whenever she’s in London she’s in the studio drawing and cutting out and showing the students how to draw and paint. I think it’s such a part of her identity, she’ll never stop.’

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