Rhodes rides back
Zandra Rhodes has flown from the superdesigner scrapheap right back to the cutting edge of fashion. She talks to Anthea Gerrie
IT IS a shock to discover that, in person, the larger-than-life, neon-haired fashion designer Zandra Rhodes is small, round and more kindly grandmother than scary diva as she fusses round making the visitor comfortable in her workshop. “I do apologise for my appearance,” she says, unnecessarily, since she is in full turquoise and kohl slap by 8.45 on a Monday morning. Perhaps she means the notes pinned to her black polo-neck sweater, or the daubs of printers’ ink on her suede workman’s belt. It cannot be the shocking pink coiffure — that is immaculate.
“I don’t like to ever start work later than 7.30 in the morning — but sometimes I get tired,” she says, to explain the extra note to “self” on her desk which screams “GET UP!”
She could be forgiven a lie-in after the weeks of frantic activity dressing Aida — perhaps the first English National Opera production in which the costumes have attracted more column inches than the performances.
But at 67, Rhodes is busier than ever. It is not just the 100,000 miles a year she clocks up flying back and forth to San Diego and the long-term partner, a former movie mogul she describes as “the token Egyptian in an all-Jewish business” with whom she shares a home on the Californian coast. There are collections to get out, celebrities to dress and, next month, a museum to reopen. Given how hot she is today, it seems astonishing that, 15 years ago, Rhodes, who designed clothes for Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury, had almost faded off the fashion map.
“My clothes weren’t fashionable by the early ’90s, when prints had gone out altogether,” she recalls, “and it wasn’t till [fashion designer] John Galliano did a show, and someone said: ‘That’s you’, that they started taking interest again and I was on a whirlwind back, had a resurgence.”
Rhodes has become determined to establish more definitely a Jewishness which all her life has rested on an assumption. “I had a great-grandfather who went off in the California Gold Rush and never came back to tell the story, and grandparents who never practised during their years in the East End,” she explains.
“My mother could never get to the bottom of why the stallholders would only speak Yiddish to her when she went to the market as a young girl. Then, by the time I was born, the family was already miles away from the East End, in Kent.”
So no candles, no synagogue, no Hebrew classes. But the pull of family and the sense of a collective ancestry struck Rhodes like a jolt once a return to London, where she qualified at the Royal College of Art, threw her into an intensely Jewish social life.
“My great friend David Sassoon, who takes me everywhere, says my Jewishness is obvious and takes it for granted. And it only intensified d uri ng my 12 years in the States. I’ve been to end- less barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs and sung all the Passover songs.” This instinctive urge to identify explains, she says, all her work f o r J e wi s h charities. “It comes back to the closeness with which we wereraised;my mother may have worked, but she never allowed us to be latchkey children or come home to an empty house.”
Amazingly, Rhodes was once a conservative dresser, embarrassed by the flamboyanceofherownmother, a former fitter for a French couture house. “When she lectured at the art college where I later studied, she would wear her hair up in a big curl and spray it silver… At school open days, I’d say: ‘Mummy, you look different from all the other mummies. Please, please, don’t wear that hat!’ Of course, that was when I was a child, still had black hair and didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.”
The trauma did not last long: “By my early twenties, I had left home to go to the Royal College and started to work on my own dramatic sense. It was the early ’60s and I was already wearing quite heavy makeup round my eyes. I felt quite a weak person inside, but my mother died when I was 23, and then I felt like a very strong person — it was as though all her strength, all her ambition came into me.”
Green hair preceded the pink, which has been in force since 1980, and is not going to give way to her natural whiter shade of pale any time soon.
But why the move to California? “Life is harder in England,” she says. She then adds that she has a constant need to fly home to Bermondsey, South-East London, where she lives above the workshop.
“Lots of the friendships here are deeper. I have to swing between the two, because of having my partner over there and being determined to retire by the sea. I don’t know that I want to live there all the time; I miss my friends over here too much, and all my work is here.”
America, however, first gave Rhodes her chance to design for their opera. Her lauded Magic Flute and sets and costumes for The Pearl Fishers were followed by those for the current co-production of Aida, which was first seen in Houston earlier this year to riotous acclaim. She had more fun tweaking the costumes for the Coliseum: “I could do more things, and the wigs for London are particularly wonderful.”
Her Fashion and Textile Museum in South-East London is due to reopen next month, after failing following its first incarnation in 2003. It has remained closed for two years. It was dismissed as a “vanity project”, although it features the work of other designers as well as her own archive, and Rhodes points out: “My aim was to celebrate the textiles — I print all my own, but some designers, like Vivienne Westwood, wouldn’t say who printed their fabrics when I asked.”
Unable to raise Lottery money, the museum has been funded by Newham College of Further Education. “We’ll still need grants to maintain it, but if we get turned down first time, they’ll know how to reapply.”
With any luck, the Rhodes resurgence alone will keep the interest going; today she dresses celebrities from Helen Mirren to Kelly Osbourne and Kate Moss — and does a regular sell-out collection for Topshop, the ultimate recognition of her 21st-century cred.
Designed by Rhodes: a typically exuberant outfit from her 2007summer collection
Zandra Rhodes, famous for her pink hair, her heavy make-up and for clothing A-list celebrities such as Helen Mirren and Kate Moss