Rhodes rides back

Zan­dra Rhodes has flown from the su­perde­signer scrapheap right back to the cut­ting edge of fash­ion. She talks to Anthea Ger­rie

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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

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