Zandra Rhodes was doing a yoga session with a pal within the early weeks of the pandemic when she realised that one thing was fallacious. “It’s a comic story,” she says. “We had been mendacity on our lilac mats in my rainbow penthouse, and I used to be respiration deeply – and my abdomen felt full. And I assumed, why is it full? I haven’t had a meal at this time.”
It turned out she had a tumour. “It was within the bile [duct] and going into no matter’s close to it,” she says, vaguely. Therapy concerned weeks travelling throughout a locked-down London for chemotherapy, adopted by an immunotherapy regime that she continues to be on, despite the fact that she is joyful to say that the tumour is in full remission. Her first thought after prognosis was “to get my will so as with an influence of lawyer that included a do-not-resuscitate order. I used to be very fortunate as a result of I had no ache by any means. I simply bought very drained whereas I used to be having the chemo.”
Not many individuals may make an anecdote out of a most cancers prognosis – however Rhodes is no ordinary person. At 80, she is a blaze of neon pink, totally made-up and strung about with beads the dimensions of boulders, on a display screen that provides a tantalising glimpse of that rainbow penthouse. Full of work, materials and ceramics, it sits on high of the Vogue and Textile Museum within the south London district of Bermondsey, which Rhodes opened in 2003 after hiring the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta to transform an previous warehouse.
Our dialog is scheduled for very first thing within the morning as a result of that’s when she feels freshest. “Go on,” she urges, “you’ll be able to ask me something. Something in any respect.” Might it’s, I enterprise, that Dame Zandra does the lockdown thing of dressing from the waist up? “Nicely,” she says, “I’m not in excessive heels, so I believe in the meanwhile the impact is that I’m a kind of previous girls who may look proper on the high however are in trainers on the backside.” Then she lifts one foot and waggles it in entrance of her display screen – it’s certainly clad in a coach, however the pinkest, sparkliest one you may think about.
Rhodes has been one of many UK’s most sparkly movie star designers since she started to make her title within the late Sixties. The record of individuals she has dressed is a Twentieth-century corridor of fame, from Barbra Streisand to Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana to Diana Ross. She has made visitor appearances on Completely Fabulous and the Archers – and cooked sausages on Movie star MasterChef. She turned up at Buckingham Palace in 2014 with a big rhinestone egg on her head, to be invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Princess Anne, who had worn a Zandra Rhodes gown, in fairytale lace, for her official engagement picture 41 years earlier.
Her investiture hat was so over-the-top that one may nearly suspect her of sending up the event, however she insists she is a staunch royalist, who would like to be let unfastened on the Duchess of Cambridge. Princess Diana, she says, was a dream to work with. She was “very, very shy” and dressing her gave a glimpse of the strain she was underneath. “I made her white wrap gown, and he or she stated she wanted to know that it wouldn’t fall open and present her legs if she bought out of a automotive, ‘As a result of, you’ll be able to make sure that once I get out of that automotive, there’ll be folks ready at simply the fallacious angle to get me.’”
Within the days earlier than she settled for perma-pink, Rhodes’s personal chameleonic styling sometimes bought her into hassle – most memorably with Diana Ross. The singer turned up for a becoming in her London store, and so they hit it off so nicely that Rhodes was invited to the live performance and to drinks afterwards. Six months later, she was driving by means of Beverly Hills with a pal after they noticed Ross getting out of a automotive. “My pal stated: ‘Go and say hi there,’ so I did. And he or she gave me this chilly, chilly stare, and stated: ‘For those who come one step nearer, I’ll shut this storage door on you.’”
Rhodes beat a hasty retreat, however when she bought up the subsequent morning, her bleary-eyed hosts instructed her the star had rung at 3am to apologise and repair up a breakfast date. “You see, in my store I used to be carrying a white turban. What she noticed getting out of the automotive and strolling in direction of her was a lady with inexperienced hair with feathers caught on the ends.”
Wasn’t there a little bit of her that may have appreciated to have gone incognito whereas coping with the indignities of most cancers remedy, I ask. She responds by recalling a short-lived flirtation with dyeing her hair brown. It occurred about 20 years in the past as a result of her boyfriend was very conservative, she says. “But it surely lasted for one week, till we went to a cocktail social gathering and it was so embarrassing when folks stated they didn’t recognise me that it was simpler simply to be me. Additionally, I felt so boring. If I’ve bought my hair and make-up on, it makes me face the day.”
Boring is a phrase that crops up rather a lot as she talks – it’s the yin to her exhibitionist yang. Her look-at-me styling isn’t only for enjoyable: it’s a store window for a self-confessed workaholic, who for many years produced two of her personal trend collections a yr, in addition to off-the-peg ranges on fee: bras and bathrobes for Marks & Spencer, tents and wellies for outdoorsy Millets. In between, she has designed bathmats for Japan, saris for India and has now teamed up with Ikea to provide a spread of 26 objects, the primary of which was revealed shortly earlier than Christmas: a frilly pink tackle the agency’s signature Frakta bag.
When she talks about her work, Rhodes at all times refers to herself within the plural; it’s not a self-aggrandising “royal we” however an acknowledgment of the hive of busy bees over which she presides. She is joined on our name – from one other deal with – by Kelly, who handles the enterprise facet of the dialog, permitting Zandra to focus on being Zandra. Kelly is considered one of “my ladies”. One other, Hayley, works together with her on her textile designs, whereas Lottie is a live-in pupil, who helps her to archive greater than 50 years of garments and sketches. “We fashioned a family of two folks, which is fantastic,” she says. “We are able to take turns at cooking as a result of it will get terribly boring in case you’re solely cooking for one.”
Which brings us to the opposite life-changing occasion of the previous 18 months – the demise of her longtime accomplice Salah Hassanein, an Egyptian-born Hollywood mover and shaker whom she met at a New York charity ball. It was for Hassanein that she performed her short-lived experiment with going brown, and for the previous 25 years she has spent half of yearly at his California dwelling, turning into a part of the native social scene, and designing costumes for the San Diego Opera Firm. He reciprocated by backing her change of course within the Nineteen Nineties, which concerned shutting all her London retailers to focus on creating her museum.
She was swanning round India, as a part of TV’s The Actual Marigold Lodge, when she was summoned to his deathbed in the summertime of 2019, forcing her to desert the collection. Since they’d by no means married, and he or she had performed her transatlantic life on work visas, she wasn’t allowed again to gather her possessions when his home was being cleared out. However about this, too, she reveals not a jot of self-pity. “It was at all times understood that if I wasn’t with him, I used to be going to pack up important issues like, say, fantastic mirrored footage and completely different artworks, however my poor secretary needed to do it. They’ve all been shipped again to me now, so all the pieces is right here in London – and the recollections of him as nicely.”
The Ikea fee brings her full circle again to her origins as a designer of dwelling furnishing materials. She solely moved into trend as a result of no person would rent her, she says, despite the fact that she had been the star pupil of her yr at artwork faculty. Reckoning that Carnaby Avenue was the place it was at, she talked her method into a job designing materials for the cutting-edge boutique Foale and Tuffin. “I suppose I got here into being with fashionable Carnaby Avenue and Beatles,” she says, “though I by no means met a Beatle at the moment.”
It was all very completely different from life within the Kentish city of Chatham, the place she grew up, the older of two sisters, surrounded by her mom’s stitching magazines. Beatrice Rhodes had labored as a fitter in Paris for the couturier Price earlier than settling all the way down to turn out to be a lecturer at Medway Faculty of Design (now a part of the College for the Inventive Arts).
“She was a really unique lady, who was very encouraging with my schoolwork,” says Rhodes, who talks typically of her mom, however has at all times been much less forthcoming about her lorry driver father. The couple met as ballroom dance champions, however the dancefloor proved to be all they’d in widespread. “In truth,” Rhodes says, “I don’t assume they need to ever have gotten married”.
Her mom’s exacting work ethic prolonged to household holidays, the place she would busy herself knitting, whereas her daughters labored on jigsaws – each of which actions would flip up as recurrent motifs in Rhodes’ designs. “I used to be only a very boring, hard-working pupil. I used to be at all times high in artwork and I labored exhausting to be high in all the opposite issues,” she says of her schooldays.
At first, she thought she needed to be an illustrator, and he or she nonetheless has sketchbooks from her childhood exhibiting a precocious expertise. However reluctantly, she adopted her mom to Medway faculty, the place a charismatic tutor lured her into textile design. From there, she gained a scholarship to the Royal Faculty of Artwork, the place she was launched to the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the artwork of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, whereas beginning to experiment with the impact on cloth design of draping it across the human physique. “I used to be proud to be a textile designer, and I didn’t really feel I used to be inferior to a painter or a sculptor. It was my metier,” she later wrote. She graduated with first-class honours, and bought her diploma print to Heal’s.
Within the 4 hand-to-mouth years after graduating (her designs had been thought of simply too far-out for abnormal houses) she taught herself to chop materials, arrange a print studio together with her then boyfriend Alex MacIntyre, and created a house that was a homage to pop artwork – “an ideal world of plastic”. To pay the payments, she took part-time educating jobs at artwork faculties, however hated doing so. Determined to flee this new kind of boring, she arrange a boutique in Fulham with a educating colleague, Sylvia Ayton, and by the point it opened in 1967 she had already constructed up a buzz: Joe Cocker sang on the launch.
However the store solely lasted a yr, and in 1969 she launched her first solo assortment, investing a small inheritance from her mom – who had died when Rhodes was solely 24 – in a networking journey to the US. There, she caught the attention of American Vogue, which employed the starlet Natalie Wood to mannequin considered one of her designs. The glamorous yellow coat made out of homely felt is now in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, together with a number of different robes from that first assortment.
The event of her signature model went past the garments she was designing, to her personal look. “I inform youngsters who’re beginning off that in case you’re a designer, and also you don’t put on your personal issues, then what are you promoting?” she says. At first, it concerned “plenty of make-up and low-cost rings”. She would purchase “loopy colors” from Woolworths to color her face, and regarded so outlandish that Ayton as soon as instructed that she was scaring prospects away. Earlier than lengthy, her personal make-up was mirroring her trend collections – her eyebrows plucked naked to make a stage for the calligraphic monobrows of Chinese language opera or the beaded traces of Masai tradition, which she noticed on her in depth analysis journeys.
However principally she led a low-key life, she insists. She has at all times travelled with a sketchbook in hand, returning to the fixed nervousness of attempting to craft high-fashion ideas from what she had seen: “Folks at all times assume in case you’ve bought pink hair that you just’re frightfully fashionable, and you realize what’s happening, when truly you’re normally working in a boring attic, attempting to provide you with concepts.”
It was in a kind of attics, simply off Portobello Street in west London, that Freddie Mercury and Brian Could paid her a go to in 1974. “They got here at evening as a result of I didn’t have a altering room, and I’d carry issues off the rail and say: ‘Strive it on. See how you are feeling shifting round in it.’” The results of that becoming was the white pleated high – initially a part of a marriage ensemble – that may at all times be related to the Queen singer’s androgynous section, and notably with Bohemian Rhapsody. “Freddie was very quiet till he placed on that high,” she recollects. “He solely got here as soon as, however Brian had a number of outfits as a result of for some cause his stored getting stolen.”
In 1977, she forsook glam for punk, releasing a set – Conceptual Stylish – that introduced security pins and sink chains into couture. No actual punk would have given her the time of day, she factors out. “I simply noticed it as an artwork type. It’s very tough to chop a chunk of cloth to seem like a tear. We put beads on the slashes, and so they regarded beautiful. I suppose you may say we put the glam into punk.” Many years later, Gianni Versace would repeat the look with Elizabeth Hurley’s well-known safety-pin gown. Among the many treasure Rhodes had shipped again from the US was a set of “knockoffs” – footage of designs that she felt copied her personal. “Knockoff or homage, it’s no matter you wish to name it,” she says.
For all of the jokes about dry cleaners returning her garments with the rips neatly darned and the protection pins in plastic luggage, her patrons have at all times been conscious that they had been shopping for artworks (not least as a result of Rhodes would inform them so, in notes printed on silk squares that she would ship out with every fee). Each creation is catalogued and photographed; in a nod to Victorian lepidopterology, she calls them “my butterflies”.
How will she fare now that she is confined to her penthouse? She’s going to proceed to work as regular, she says, cooking for her “ladies” when permitted to take action, and capturing off occasional letters to Radio 4 to complain about Archers plotlines. She’s ambassador for an upcoming touring art installation, Gratitude, to have fun NHS employees, for which “we” are designing one of many figures.
Then there’s the enterprise of setting her affairs so as. Every part she has ever made is recorded in “the bible” – her title for the sketchbooks she has carried together with her world wide and that now sit alongside some 15,000 “butterflies” in 100 silver chests, ready to be catalogued, distributed to museums world wide, or bought off to boost cash for her basis, which she arrange final yr to safe her legacy. She’s not going to permit herself to be forgotten as, she grumbles, so many nice British trend designers have been. “The very fact is,” she says, “for some cause once I was recognized with most cancers, it didn’t upset me – it made me pull my life collectively.”