A Retrospective with Dame Zandra Rhodes

by Stephanie Williamson (www.artschoolzine.wordpress.com) Twitter: @artschoolzine @art_babe

Dame Zandra Rhodes is undoubtedly an icon of British textile design; throughout her career she has cratered for Royals and rock stars; from elegant dresses for Princess Diana to outlandish stage outfits for Freddy Mercury. I got the chance to speak with her about her work, life and style - hoping to find out more about the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes her designs so timeless.


Rhodes was born in 1940 during the chaos of World War Two. She began her illustrious career at art school, first studying fine art; specialising in lino cutting and lithography, before exploring the world of printed textiles. She speaks about her mother, and how she was not only supportive of her creative endeavours, but inspired them deeply also…


‘My mother taught in the dress department at an art college, and there was always fabulous French fashion magazines at home. She always supported my decisions to pursue design; I was always top of my class so my decisions were not queried. I see no point in pursing anything unless you are willing to give it your all and aim to be the best.’


In Rhode’s second year at The Royal College of Arts she began to hone her talent for fashion design, turning her attentions to dress textiles 


‘Before that the world was doing little liberties prints, my first ventures were the world of Pop Art. My influences were the likes of Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein.’


By 1969 Rhodes was a household name, exploding onto the fashion scene permanently with her exotic, feminine prints. In 1977 the punk scene had swept over London and this influenced Zandra to explore a new edginess in her designs, she describes her work of the era as ‘chic punk not street punk! Elegant with revolutionary hair and makeup.’ Her work in the late 1970’s would lead to her being given the title of the ‘princess of punk’, which would stick to her ribs for years to come. However her other identification as ‘Mother of the print explosion’ is a more accurate, all-encompassing description of her signature style. 


Rhodes is a hands on designer, she is a part of every decision making process in her design time-line, she hails the use of sketchbooks to carefully document ideas and designs effectively. This harks back to her days as an art student, and she admits that her own design process is very much influenced and inspired by her creative counterparts. ‘Most of my close friends are artists and I try to look at non fashion themes to get my inspiration from first.’ Her advice for students hoping to get the most out of precious sketchbook time? ‘Ignore the computer! It takes up too much of my time now, take inspirations from real life and draw them. Do not draw from photographs! They should only be a back up aid.’ 


Recently there has been a decline in designers getting back to the basics of design, Rhodes has spoken out against this trend criticising the likes of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, who produce designs under their name when often the concepts and work did not come directly from their creativity. ‘Computers aid designers to put designs into an automatic repeat. Especially mirroring, for truly amazing repeats look at the classic work of William Morris!


An eccentric designer, if ever there was one - her signature look is unapologetically vibrant and bold, just like her designs. Shocking pink hair, baby blue eye shadow - unmistakably 80’s, juxtaposed by daring shades of red lipstick. Rhodes comments on the longevity of her look ‘I use my face as a palette, as with all fashion styling of the face and hair is also essential to the overall aesthetic.’ In more recent years Zandra has also turned her attentions to prominent collaborations with the likes of Topshop and MAC makeup, alongside her own collections and ready to wear lines. This keeps Rhodes creatively challenged, and also keeps her global brand relevant. ‘It’s always refreshing to venture into other mediums. I would have liked a permanent makeup line!’ 


As well as her collaborations and design work Rhodes is also heavily involved in shaping the minds of future designers, she has been a chancellor for UCA since 2009 and is also heavily involved with the Fashion and Textile Museum, founding it in 2003. ‘I believe in life one must give back, not just take. With the museum, very originally I became involved because I had saved some two thousand of my dresses and I felt the world was not recognising them, as the Fashion and Textile Museum came to fruition it became a flagship of modern British design that the world does not always properly acknowledge. Currently we have a Thea Porter exhibition, we have also had Bill Gibb and very notably fellow British print designer Lucienne Day.’ 

It has come to my attention from friends who study fashion that a real issue which many aspiring young fashion designers are concerned about today revolves around design houses expecting them to intern for free, even when they have sufficient experience already. For those who are financing themselves this can be a huge battle. I wanted to find out Rhode’s opinion on the issue and she provided this advice. ‘Graduates must do what it takes; nothing in life is ever easy. The ones who fight the hardest will get somewhere, there is no such thing as a small job, only small people.’ She went on to tell us she is currently enamoured with the designs of up and coming designers Mary Kantrantzou and Peter Pilotto. ‘I just love their use of prints.’

Rhode’s work and influence spans decades of fashion and in February of this year the Queen bestowed Rhodes with a DBE and she was recognised as a Dame for her contributions to the British design world. Rhodes had previously described herself as pro establishment, so this royal honour would be especially significant. She tells me that she is extremely proud of the recognition and very honoured. She ends our conversation with some of her own brand of zany life advice, forever full of her zest for creating. 

‘Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best!’

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