The culturally queer roots are often overlooked in the UK…
Dame Zandra Lindsey Rhodes is a British style sensation, an inspirational eccentric and a design genius. Last week, she celebrated her 80th birthday. In the ‘60s, she pioneered the use of printed textiles as an intrinsic part of the garments she created.
Zandra was Designer of the Year in ‘72 and Royal Designer for Industry in ‘74. By the mid ‘70s she’d founded her own shop off Bond Street London. Zandra set up the Fashion and Textile Museum in London’s Bermondsey Street in 2003. There’s nobody more fabulous to share cake and life tips with.
When Zandra learns The Hospital Club are doing an interview with her, she’s suitably impressed. “It’s very, very chic,” she coos.
“I was at The Hospital recently, helping Naomi get ready to present an award.”
“Naomi Campbell,” she adds. Like there was ever a shred of doubt.
The fashion legend is sporting her trademark bubblegum pink hair, jaunty electric blue eyeliner and skin-tight silver trousers, from her own collection.
Added to the ensemble is a, ‘sort of silver jersey, that been printed on, with easy pleats at the bottom.’
It goes without saying that she looks unique and sensational.
Asked if she’s attending shows during fashion week, Zandra admits,
‘I haven’t read the list, ‘cause I’ve only just flown in, but Betty Jackson’s invited me to hers. In between, I’ll be showing myself, not as a big show, but in the showroom that’s above the Fashion and Textile Museum.’
Zandra’s fortunate in that she’s managed to cling onto almost everything she’s ever made. It was a tendency to hoard, rather than astute foresight that’s led to her retrospective treasure trove.
The accidental fashion stash helps to maintain a long-standing private client roster that includes everyone from rock legends to royalty. Fans include Madonna, Claudia Schiffer, Twiggy, Princess Michael of Kent, Sarah Jessica Parker, Iman, Bianca Jagger and Jerry Hall.
How does it feel to see celebrities in her vintage numbers?
‘I’ve got a faaaaaabulous picture of Kate Moss in one of my white ones, edged with pearls from 1980. Looked fabulous on her. The problem is, I keep getting people phoning up wanting to wear that stuff and I say- but, I’ve got all my other stuff’.
Zandra expands on the perils of lending vintage capes to unpredictable clients.
‘So, what I try to do now, is suggest new ideas and some very chic knock offs, because I can’t keep letting people wear things from the ‘70s and I can’t part with the collection ‘cause that’s the heritage of the museum. That’s one of the reasons why the museum was founded, in order to house the body of my work.’
Death becomes her
As Zandra’s vintage numbers go the way of gold dust, she’s witnessed one of her contemporaries return from the dead. Roy ‘Halston’ Frowick experienced a posthumous revival courtesy of Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon. How does she feel about Halston’s resurrection?
‘I liked Halston and I thought he was quite a wonderful guy. He also befriended Charles James, who was one of the greatest English designers we’ve ever had. He worked mainly in America but he was the man who really founded the Dior new look.”
As a purely commercial venture, without Halston at the helm, surely it’s not the same, though?
‘Is Pucci? Is Chanel?’ she quips, bluntly. ‘ I hope they’re going to do the same with me. If I’m pushing up the daisies, then it’s better innit? Do you know what I mean?’
‘If someone comes along and they feel that they can take these things and make it go, in their own way, I think it’s quite wonderful. You only have to look at those having revamps, like Louis Vuitton. Not just the old, brown handbag anymore- a whole range of stuff.’
How does she feel about the rise of the stylist?
‘I feel that life has got so frantic, particularly for people at the top, that they do not have the time to go and do the background research. I sometimes think that I could do with one.’
This prompts scoffing from your truly. She seems the last person in need of fashion tips, but Zandra’s serious and insistent.
‘Well, because they’d say- Zandra, I’ve seen you in that pair of boots for weeks, why don’t you find something else?‘
Asked to name a male style icon; dead or living who she admires, Zandra’s overwhelmed by the question. ‘
Oh, my God’, she declares, repeating the query, like it’s a riddle.
She sips on coffee, then goes into deep thought.
Zandra hangs her head, seemingly lost in the enormity of the question. There is gnomic murmuring from within her pink bob. Worried she may never return from the searching contemplation, it seemed best to prompt her.
‘I mean Elton John has developed a superb style, she concludes, eventually. ‘One time it was the glasses that took it away. He didn’t like losing his hair. Fred Astaire. You could never query his style.’
Will Zandra be voting in the forthcoming mayoral election?
‘If I’m here, I’ll vote for a mayor, yes.’
Who might she plump for?
‘Well let’s say I’m not happy with what exists (Boris Johnson). I don’t think that there should be double lines everywhere in Mayfair. I DO agree with the congestion charge. If you want to stop cars from coming in, you don’t do it by narrowing roads, causing more traffic and therefore exhaust fumes.’
She’s not fond of the 20mph speed limit on Tower Bridge and feels that the speed cameras are ‘cheating altogether’.
At this point in the interview, one of the FTM staff starts hovering nervously, trying to wind up the interview. Fabulously, Zandra is having none of it.
‘He hasn’t even got through his questions,’ she reasons, suddenly quite high pitched.
‘Oh, you couldn’t bring me a cake?’ she asks of the interrupter.
‘Then he can have the interview while I’m eating my cake.’
Asked what she feels is the greatest threat to an individual’s creativity, Zandra ponders, then answers, almost in a whisper.
‘Sometimes, it could be a relationship- that would stop people from being an individual. Especially if they feel it would affect that relationship. Unfortunately, when I thought I ought to look a bit more ordinary for a relationship, I didn’t feel ‘me’ enough. And then my complex comes out.’
At this point, the cakes arrive. She snaps up a Danish and insists we have a petite madeleine. If she can style Naomi, it would be foolish to ignore her advice on pastry consumption.
‘I feel that if I don’t do something that identifies me, then I feel like a lost person. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t like it, that doesn’t matter. What matters is…I haven’t compromised myself…inside.’
On that wise spiritual note, Zandra departs, an inspirational vision in pink and metallic fabrics.