Zandra Rhodes, the iconic and brightly coloured fashion designer, opened the door to the penthouse above the Fashion and Textile Museum, which she founded and led us into an eclectic and busy space that felt strangely organised.
The space awakens the eyes to the vibrancy of colour and everywhere you look there is something of interest that catches your eye. While she concluded a briefing with two of her staff about the fashion shows they were to stage at ‘The Clothes Show’ in Birmingham, we gained a little insight into the passion that goes behind everything she does.
Born in Chatham, Zandra grew up in a world very different to how it is today. The Chatham Dockyard was still a working one and was the centre of much commercial activity in the town. It closed down in 1984 after HMS Churchill and the last frigate HMS Hermione, left the dockyard in 1983. Zandra added, “I think the whole of Chatham was devastated by the closure and it’s something people are just starting to get over.”
“I grew up at the top of Chatham Hill and I remember there being a farm at the bottom of the garden. I could see caravans that I believe belonged to travellers; worlds apart from what it probably looks like now.” Zandra left Kent in 1960 to study at the Royal College of Art in London, but still returns for UCA (University of Creative Arts) ceremonies, as her role as Chancellor dictates.
Although Zandra herself did dabble in teaching, where she taught textiles a couple of days a week in different colleges, this wasn’t what set her heart on fire. Her mother was slightly upset by this, but in some ways Zandra still does teach. She frequently works with up to three interns at any one time, offering them the chance to learn about textiles from a truly passionate mentor. “I encourage their creativity to come out!”
“I’m a textile designer that couldn’t find a job” she says, “and went into fashion by accident”. It wasn’t long after she left the Royal College of Art that she realised her textile designs were too different to fit into someone else’s designs. Designers wouldn’t buy her products and it was then she started to make her own clothes, creating pieces that would be exactly as she wanted them to be. “I love the way fabrics fall on the body and how fabulous they can look. I love the way my designs really come alive when they are on the body!”
“Zandra was breaking all the rules, creating pieces that were wild, beautiful and ethereal. She is an original…”
Her clothes are now sold in upmarket boutiques all over the world and continue to be worn by a host of celebrities and well- known public figures.
Zandra is a self-confessed workaholic, but one who does enjoy to take time out. Her creativity doesn’t hang about by the pool side, it is constantly looking for it’s next direction.
The space above the Fashion and Textile Museum where we met Zandra, is a hive of activity as she was preparing for The Clothes Show in Birmingham the following day. She didn’t sit still, or even sit down for that matter. She told us, “if I sit down, it’s fatal.” Her energy is infectious and for a lady who usually only sleeps between 2am and 6am she is incredible.
The tour of her exhibition, ‘A life long love affair with textiles’ was put together with a clear aim in mind, “I really want the people who come to the exhibition to go away understanding how I work, so we will take them through the process of design; of making a silk screen and choosing the dye colours; of cutting the garment from the printed fabric, sewing it and then adding all the signature details like the slashing, the pinking, the reversed seams.” Her book of the same name, first published in 2005, has the same objective. It gives an insight into what has made Zandra Rhodes one of the most celebrated fashion designers of our time.
“Without question, her dynamic personality and individuality are beyond the realms of most people’s comprehension, giving her the right to be called an innovator of rare dimension.”
What’s been your most challenging commission?
“Every commission comes with it’s own challenges. For instance, Princess Diana would see something she would really like, then it would have to be made more conservative to match her role. The real challenge is finding enough time to get the work done! It’s amazing really, as I have clients from all over the world who still come back to me, even if it’s to have a garment altered to their change in shape.”
What was the motivation behind opening the museum?
“I have chests with over 2000 of my original garments inside! I made a point of keeping one example of every garment I designed. No one was taking a particular interest in my work at the time, so I decided to put it ‘back out there’. I sold my house in Notting HIll which paid for the building. The rest was financed by the 9 apartments that are also in the building. We pre-sold eight of them and I moved here in 2000.”
The museum is a converted warehouse in Bermondsey, not far from London Bridge Station.
Founded in 2003 the building was redesigned by the Mexican Architect Ricardo Legoretta, his first and only building in Europe. The brightly coloured building stands out due to it’s hot pink, burnt orange and yellow exterior. It also houses the printing studio, textile studio and residential space.
What one thing couldn’t you do without?
“I can’t live without clothing, but I definitely couldn’t live without my make-up”
What do you do to switch off and relax?
“I love to entertain friends at home, I really like cooking. I also enjoy gardening.”
London or California?
“I love London, it’s where everything started. I am not bothered about the weather so that’s not a drawback. Both places have their moments in my life.”
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own business?
“Don’t let people put you off or put you down. Spend time with people who will genuinely encourage you. When I set out it wasn’t about the business side but then gradually I got into that and learned to adapt as it grew.”
“She has contributed joy, freedom, exoticness, colour and several dashes of late Matisse to the world of fashion.”
Do you think that women have to work harder to succeed in business?
“Women have to work harder at everything, and probably always will!”
We were taken down to the Design Studio and the Print Room. The latter, which houses every silkscreen design she has ever created, was like walking through a precious part of fashion history. Every part of this space screams colour and vibrancy through beautiful images on the walls, pictures from a time that is now considered a ‘vintage era’ to silkscreens labelled with some of her most iconic creations.
Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles, has said of Zandra…
“Zandra was breaking all the rules, creating pieces that were wild, beautiful and ethereal. She is an original. She embraces new ideas completely and is a delight to work with, being both down-to-earth, and wonderfully creative. She encapsulates what is so exciting about British fashion, she’s brave, instinctive and always true to herself.”
A few facts about Zandra:
Awarded Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1997
In 1967 she opened her firstshop, ‘The Fulham Road Clothes Shop’ with Sylvia Ayton
2014 Birthday honours awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
She has designed clothes for Diana – Princess of Wales, Freddie Mercury, Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.
Helen Mirren wore a design by Zandra when she received a BAFTA
Her mother was a fashion lecturer at the Medway College of Art and her father was a lorry driver
She spends her time between her penthouse apartment above the Fashion and Textile Museum in London and her home by the Pacific Ocean, Del Mar, California
She lives with her partner of 18 years, Salah Hassanein, the ex-president of Warner Brother Theatres.