Celebrity Fashion: As a new retrospective dedicated to the iconic designer opens in London, she sits down with Freegard to talk making it in fashion, inadvertently stalking Diana Ross, and her unique beauty regime
Since emerging onto the London fashion landscape back in the late 1960s, designer Zandra Rhodes has become an enduring figure of the city’s vibrant creative scene – with her unmissable angular fuschia bob, wildly embellished kaftans, and penchant for cobalt eyeshadow (which, FYI, she doesn’t remove for up to a week at a time) cementing her status as an industry icon.
Likewise, self-confessed ‘it girl and horrible boy’ Harry Freegard (or, as you might know him, @harrie.bradshaw) has become emblematic of a new generation of artists and designers injecting what has become an incredibly serious industry with a sense of anarchy and fun, alongside the likes of Matty Bovan, Gareth Wrighton, and Edwin Mohney. Notably, Freegard shares Rhodes’ love of a box of hair dye and a slick of a bold-hued lipstick, though is a slightly more handy with a face wipe than the designer confesses to be.
Now, Rhodes’ legacy is the subject of a new retrospective at Bermondsey’s Fashion and Textile Museum. Aptly named 50 Years of Fabulous, the show delves deep into the British designer’s archives and puts on display a selection of unseen garments, textiles, and accessories – some of which she’d even forgotten about herself.
Ahead of its opening, Harry and Zandra went head-to-head at her eclectic, cactus-filled penthouse, where they discussed everything from stalking Diana Ross and being star struck, to the ways in which fashion has changed and her late mother’s wise words (and not-so-wise mishap with a can of fly spray).
Harry Freegard: You have a very iconic image – do you ever feel pressured to keep it up or a pressure to reinvent yourself?
Zandra Rhodes: Not really, no. I once dyed my hair brown and it was so embarrassing! I remember being at a couple of parties and no one recognised me so I’d have to re-introduce myself and they’d say ‘Oh sorry, sorry, I didn’t recognise you!’ It was so painful I went back pink within a week, I couldn’t take the embarrassment of other people, so I just thought ‘pink is going to be it!’
Harry Freegard: Do you think image is important as a designer?
Zandra Rhodes: I do. I think if you’re a designer, you’re trying to put across your thoughts, and I think it really helps if you have a strong image that goes with it. You think of Warhol and his funny old wig that he wore, or Salvador Dali’s moustache… I think, if you’re selling something slightly different, it kind of cements your point of view.
Harry Freegard: Were you inspired by anyone when it came to your look?
Zandra Rhodes: Not really. When I used to do shows every season, I worked with some of the most fantastic make-up artists, like Richard Sharah and Phylis Cohen, and we’d all sit and invent the looks for the models and then I’d have a go. But I felt like if I was having a look invented for me I should just go with it. I used to traipse through Victoria station on the way to my teaching job with my three eyebrows, my punk look, and wonder why people looked at me (laughs). I would never want to be in a little three-piece suit, how boring.
Harry Freegard: I was listening to your episode of Desert Island Discs and remember you saying she had a fabulous silver twist in her hair… Did she inspire you?
Zandra Rhodes: Oh she did. She used to put her hair up and spray it every morning. But one day we were going to London, on a very early train, and she kept saying her head hurt. And instead of using hairspray, she’d used fly spray, so no wonder her head hurt! She was wonderfully mad.
Harry Freegard: Did she give you any advice, or are there any sayings she had that you’ve carried with you?
Zandra Rhodes: She had a fabulous one: ‘Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Never let it rest until your good it better and your better best.”
Harry Freegard: So, the exhibition. Can you tell us a little about it and what to expect from it?
Zandra Rhodes: Well, it’s going to take people through 50 years of fabulous, and it has garments from all the way back when I started in 1969. There’s the punk wedding dress that I did that was at the Met, and the collection I made after I’d been to India in 1981, which Stephen Jones created these snood-like hoods for.
“If you’re a designer you’re trying to put across your thoughts, and I think it really helps if you have a strong image that goes with it. You think of Warhol and his funny old wig that he wore, or Salvador Dali’s moustache… If you’re selling something slightly different, it kind of cements your point of view” – Zandra Rhodes
Harry Freegard: how did you choose what you put in the exhibition? You have such an extensive archive…
Zandra Rhodes: Well it was dictated partly by the accompanying book, and then by the photographs we managed to track down. We had to charm David Bailey and Richard Avedon’s estate to get one of Diana Ross in a particular gold dress and so on. Trying to get photographs from a photographer is very difficult!
Harry Freegard: What was Diana Ross like?
Zandra Rhodes: I didn’t know about that session, I just saw the finished photograph. But then years later she came into my shop in Mayfair actually, and not long after I was driving along in Hollywood with my girlfriend Joan Quinn and Joan says ‘Look, it’s Diana Ross getting out of her car, you know her, go say hello!’ So I got out and walked towards her and this icy voice calls out ‘If you come one step nearer, this garage door will shut on you,’ so I got back in the car. They must have been like ‘Who’s this weird girl with feathers on her head?’. She phoned up the next morning and apologised and came for breakfast!
Harry Freegard: Do you still enjoy all of the work you’ve made previously? When I make something, after a week I want to throw it away and I hate it. I can’t imagine looking back in fifty years!
Zandra Rhodes: Well, you might, but then you just put it into a pile and ignore it for 20 years. And then when you drag it out you’ll probably think ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad after all!’
Harry Freegard: You mention Diana Ross, but another famous Diana – the Princess of Wales – also wore your clothes. Are you fussed about dressing celebrities? Or are you more happy to see your creations on women on the street?
Zandra Rhodes: If you dress a celebrity, you stand the chance that it will be photographed, which of course helps to promote your work. But then, on the other hand, it’s always fabulous to just bump into someone wearing your clothes. If ever I’ve been at something and someone’s in something I’ve made, I always go up to them and say ‘you look fabulous!’
Harry Freegard: You have lived through so many iconic eras of fashion. Do you think we’re currently in one? Or do you think everything’s a bit boring right now?
Zandra Rhodes: No, I don’t think everything is boring. I think we’re in a period of great change and we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. But it’s coming. It’s on the horizon.
Harry Freegard: One of my favourite appearances from you is when you made a cameo in Absolutely Fabulous. What was it like being part of that?
Zandra Rhodes: It was really fun to do! I read the script and of course I said ‘yes I’ll do it!’ Basically, myself, Britt Ekland, and Lulu were sitting in the cafe having coffee while the girls did all their jokes around us and kind of fitted us in. They do a great job, they were so beautifully written.
Harry Freegard: I love how you always use the term ‘dress show’ as opposed to ‘fashion show’, it’s so much more feminine and gorgeous. What is the meaning behind this, and why is it important to you?
Zandra Rhodes: For me, ‘dressing up’ does actually make you feel special. I never go out without make-up. I might not always have lipstick on, but I always put eyeliner and shadow on, and my hair is always pink. Unless I’m, like, sweeping the doorstep or something and someone catches me and says ‘oh, are you Zandra?’ and I’m like ‘oh God, at least I’ve got the hair!’
Harry Freegard: You actually told me, when we were on a Dazed shoot a while ago, that you rarely take your make-up off…
Zandra Rhodes: Oh yes! Sometimes, if I’m late, I don’t clean it all off, that’s a lot of trouble. I wash around the edges and put make-up over the top. I mean obviously if you have eyelashes on then you’re likely to wake up with spiders on the pillow that will terrify you at dawn… but there’s just too much to do, it’s non-stop! But if I didn’t have anything to do, I’d just sit there and rot.
Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous is now open at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey, and runs until January 26, 2020. For more information head here.
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