Life and times of fashion designer extraordinaire Zandra Rhodes

Life and times of fashion designer extraordinaire Zandra Rhodes
Zandra Rhodes, 78, divides her time between the UK and Del Mar. The pink-haired-maven has designed garments for Freddy Mercury and Diana, Princess of Wales. Courtesy photo

DEL MAR — She’s designed for everyone from Diana, Princess of Wales, to Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor — and even Rock ’N Roll legend Freddie Mercury of Queen.

She, of course, is pink-haired fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who was born in Chatham, Kent, U.K., and divides her time between her native England and Del Mar.

“Yes, I’ve dressed a lot of people, and at the moment the one who stands out most and is most exciting is Freddie Mercury,” she said. “It’s because of the key garment that people think of him in most — the flowy one I did for him at the beginning of his career. The new film is about to come out about him, so it’s exciting; I did the costume for that time in his life … ”

Rhodes recalled getting a call in her U.K. studio asking her if Mercury could come around to try things on.

“He was very nice and at that time, quiet and unassuming,” she said. “I didn’t have a changing room — so, I remember he moved around the work room and waved his arms around … it must have been around 1975 … it’s that picture that has lived on in my mind, which has been great for me.”

Courtesy photo

Fast forward

Now at the age 78, the iconic designer is not slowing down any time soon and is currently working on her fourth book with the working title “Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous Fashion” as well as prepping for a show at San Diego’s Westgate Hotel on Oct. 30.

Going back to her early roots, Rhodes was born in 1940. She said she was introduced to the world of fashion by her mother, a fitter for the Paris fashion House of Worth and later a lecturer at Medway College of Art. Her father was a truck driver and she has a younger sister who is married with four children.

Rhodes isn’t married but has been with her partner Salah Hassanein, the former president of Warner Brothers International Theaters, for many years. It is because of him that she calls Del Mar home. “He wanted to live in a home that had an ocean view,” she said.

As for education, Rhodes studied at Medway College of Art, Kent, U.K., and then at The Royal College of Art in London. Her major area of study was printed textile design.

“I never dreamed of a career as a fashion designer, I was more interested in printed patterns on fabric,” she said. “My early textile designs were considered too outrageous by the traditional British manufacturers, so I decided to make dresses from my own fabric prints.”

As a result, she pioneered the very special use of printed textiles as an intrinsic part of the garments she created. In 1967, she opened her first shop: The Fulham Road Clothes Shop in London with Sylvia Ayton.

Then in 1969, Rhodes set out on her own and took her collection to New York where Diana Vreeland featured her garments in American Vogue, after which she started selling to Henri Bendel in New York, followed by Sakowitz, Neiman Marcus and Saks.

In the U.K., Rhodes was given her own area in Fortnum and Mason, London. She was named Designer of the Year in 1972 and in 1974 Royal Designer for Industry.

In 1975, she founded her own shop off Bond Street London and boutique area in Marshall Fields, Chicago.

Eccentricity rocks

Of course, Rhodes is well-known for her many unique designs, but her own lifestyle is as also as dramatic and glamorous.

With her bright pink hair, theatrical makeup and art jewelry, she has stamped her identity on the international world of fashion. But is she as eccentric as her appearance?

“I’d say what you see is what you get; I’m a person that goes with my work,” she laughed.

Speaking of unique, she was one of the new wave of British designers who put London at the forefront of the international fashion scene in the 1970s. Her unique use of bold prints, fiercely feminine patterns and theatrical use of color has given her garments a timeless quality that makes them unmistakably a Rhodes creation.

It was in 1977 that she pioneered the pink and black jersey collection with holes and beaded safety pins that earned her the name “Princess of Punk.” Her posters from this period have been a continuous inspiration for makeup artists and are collectors’ items.

Lots of famous faces

Rhodes continues to clothe and design for the rich and famous around the world from royalty to rock stars including: HRH Princess Michael of Kent, Debbie Harry, Bianca Jagger, Kylie Minogue, Anastasia, Paris Hilton and the late Joan Rivers and Isabella Blow.

And the rich and famous accolades don’t stop there, her fashions are the ultimate dress-up dress. Helen Mirren, star of “The Queen” wore a Zandra Rhodes when she received her award from BAFTA and Sarah Jessica Parker dressed up in a Zandra for “Sex and the City.”

Her vintage pieces have long been collected by Tom Ford and Anna Sui and have been worn by Kelly Osborne, Ashley Olsen, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

And where are the designs sold? Zandra Rhodes collections are sold in the top stores and boutiques around the world but her work does not just stop with dresses and printed textiles. It encompasses various exciting licenses including jewelry, wrapping paper, china for Royal Doulton and furs for Pologeorgis in New York. She has also collaborated with MAC to produce a limited-edition makeup range.

Hello, opera

Besides designing, since 2000 her career has diversified into designing sets and costumes for the opera. She first worked for San Diego Opera, which invited her to do costumes for “The Magic Flute” in 2000. After “The Magic Flute,” she was asked to design both sets and costumes for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” in 2004. This has toured around the USA and Canada, including San Francisco, New York, Washington National Opera and L’Opera de Montreal.

Most recently, she worked with Houston Grand Opera on Egyptian-inspired designs for Verdi’s “Aida,” which then showed at the English National Opera 2007 and encored in 2008. This same “Aida” was the opening and closing opera for San Francisco Grand Opera in 2011 and was performed in San Diego April 2013.

“If it hadn’t been for San Diego, I would never had gotten involved in designing for the opera,” she said.

Major museums

Additionally, Rhodes founded the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which was officially opened in May 2003 by HRH Princess Michael of Kent. Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the museum, which is in stunning pink and orange, and already has a preservation plaque. The museum is dedicated to showing the work of fashion and textile designers from the 1950s onward.

This museum has created several notable exhibitions: “My Favorite Dress,” “The Little Black Dress,” and her very own “Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles,” which is a major monographic exhibition exploring the 40-year career of the iconic British designer herself. Since the original opening of this exhibition, “Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles” has been exhibited in several museums in cities across the world, including The Franz Meyer Museum in Mexico City, RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, Corso Como in Milan, the Mingei Museum in San Diego, and most recently the National Textile Museum of Kuala Lumpur

In September of 2016, Zandra’s “Archive Collection” launched on MATCHESFASHION.COM, recreating some of her most iconic designs, including Princess Diana’s cherry blossom dress and the white flowing dress photographed on Donna Summer on the cover of her 1977 album “Once Upon a Time.” The “Archive Collection” was produced, printed and beaded by hand from within her London atelier.

Pretty in pink

And what about that famous pink hair?

“I’ve had pink hair since 1980, it’s a happy color and I like pink,” she said.

She gets her hair dyed the bright shade regularly in Solana Beach from stylist Vicky Lavanty, who trained with Vidal Sassoon.

“I dyed it brown once, and it only lasted about a week because after I went to a party and when I was introduced people were so embarrassed at not recognizing me that I was even more embarrassed at their reactions.” she said. “I went back to pink immediately. I don’t want to be gray; pink is my signature — we don’t have to be gray.”

But in the end, Rhodes loves what she does and said the best part of being a designer “depends on what day it is.”

“I think that you are expected to play the part at whatever you do, therefore you belong to the public — not yourself — if you don’t feel like it, bad luck you’ve eaten the fruit you have to live with it.”

As to her advice to upcoming designers, Rhodes said: “They need to go to New York for their career or Los Angeles; I think it’s more difficult if you’re not in a fashion-centric place — you just have to be persistent and don’t give up, and you can do it.”

 

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