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The Drapers Interview: Celia Birtwell & Zandra Rhodes

Parallel worlds: Celia Birtwell and Dame Zandra Rhodes have long been icons of UK fashion, but are now working together for the first time.

A casual observer could be forgiven for assuming British designers Celia Birtwell and Dame Zandra Rhodes have worked together in the past, as they are both known for starting their textile design careers in London in the 1960s. But their collaboration with UK hosiery brand Jonathan Aston for autumn 15 is, in fact, their first project together.

The pair have produced a small collection of around 15 pieces each to mark Jonathan Aston’s 50th anniversary, which they have clearly stamped with their respective personalities. Rhodes’ punk-inspired collection features peacock feathers, safety pins and her signature wiggly line design in typically bold colours - including the pink we’ve come to expect in keeping with her hair - while Birtwell’s softer designs include florals, stars and illustrations of her daughter-in-law’s dog. The collections will drop into Jonathan Aston stockists, including House of Fraser, John Lewis and Asos.com, from August 1. Retail prices range from £10 to £18 for socks and £15 to £35 for tights.

The two designers have followed parallel - but distinctly separate - career paths for the past 50 years. Rhodes was made a Dame last June in recognition of her work across the fashion and textiles industries, while Birtwell received a CBE in 2011 for her services to the fashion industry.

Birtwell was married to designer Ossie Clark for almost a decade and was therefore part of his ‘set’, while Rhodes was connected to designers Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin (now a knitwear designer and potter respectively). Birtwell and Rhodes would see each other at events throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and used the same printer in Shepherd’s Bush for a time, but did not run in the same circles.

Joan Burstein, founder of London designer store Browns, met Rhodes in the 1960s when she bought the fledgling collection Rhodes had produced with designer Sylvia Ayton [Ayton took over from Brian Godbold as head of outerwear at Wallis in 1969]. “They were making simple wool dresses that flew out of the shop - a very talented duo,” she recalls.

Burstein later met Birtwell when they were both awarded honorary doctorates from University of the Arts London in 2007. “Both Zandra and Celia have made a great and unforgettable contribution to fashion, both completely original with no reference to the past, and are still doing so,” she adds.

However, the designers’ paths almost converged at several points. Birtwell designed prints for three Topshop collections, which first hit stores in spring 2006, while Rhodes did a capsule collection of summer clothing, including maxi dresses and swimwear, for the chain in July 2007.

Both are now in their mid-70s but still hands-on businesswomen, working in their respective studios every day. Birtwell’s is in Holland Park, west London, while Rhodes splits her time between her studio in Bermondsey above the Fashion & Textile Museum, which she founded in 2003, and her base in Solana Beach, California. The Jonathan Aston collaboration is just one of many irons they each have in the fire (see following pages) - both believe in hard work.

Neither views their gender as a barrier to success, perhaps because they both had strong, influential mothers. Rhodes’ was a fitter for House of Worth, a Paris fashion house, and later taught dress-making and fitting at Medway College of Art. Birtwell’s was a seamstress, who would spend hours creating copies of designer dresses at the request of Birtwell and her sister. “We used to almost tie her to the sewing machine,” Birtwell recalls. “I always admired her.

I can’t sew at all, but I think she was a good influence. And she taught Ossie some of her techniques.”

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8, Birtwell reels off a list of female designers she admires, from Coco Chanel to Elsa Schiaparelli and Agnès B. “I don’t think women have been hard done by,” she says, although it irks her that they are often still not paid the same as men.

Rhodes agrees with her overall sentiment: “I was brought up never to think there were barriers. I think you get further by not mentioning it [gender] at all.”

These two very different women have, in some ways, led remarkably similar working lives. Perhaps the biggest - they might argue only - similarity in their personalities is in their passion for creating.

Birtwell admits they are fairly unusual. “A lot of textile designers are rarely mentioned because the designer of the clothes takes the credit. Zandra and I are the only two that managed to keep our names.”

Rhodes adds: “When you get to our age you can get written off. I think one survives through hard work, mixed with a certain amount of talent. The challenge is to do something new and fresh - and you just have to hope the market will say ‘I’ve got to wear that’.”

Dame Zandra Rhodes

Zandra Rhodes

Rhodes studied textile design at the Medway College of Art in Kent (which later became part of the Kent Institute of Art & Design, now the University of Creative Arts) from 1959-61 and the Royal College of Art in London from 1961-64.

While at the latter, she met fellow student Sylvia Ayton, and in 1967 they opened the Fulham Road Clothes Shop, with Ayton designing the clothing and Rhodes supplying the prints. They went their separate ways in 1969 and Rhodes began creating her own collections.

“We didn’t have the funds to continue with the shop and Sylvia was offered her job at Wallis [as head of outerwear in 1969],” says Rhodes.

In 1977 Rhodes presented her Conceptual Chic collection of dresses with tears, holes and chains, which earned her the nickname Princess of Punk. She uses the same silk screen-printing techniques as always, getting an assistant to translate them into digital afterwards.

“[Silk screen printing] is my forte,” she explains. “I left RCA when there was no computerised textile printing. Computers have only entered this business in the last 10 years.”

Since those early collections she has become a household name, designing for clients including Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor and Freddie Mercury, and working with high street retailers, such as Marks & Spencer for autumn 09.

When asked what stands out for her, even she struggles to narrow it down. “I’ve done some fabulous things with Topshop [in 2007], M&S and Simply Be [in 2011], and now I do Colebrooke by Windsmoor [the plus-size sub-brand Jacques Vert Group launched in November 2014].”

She also highlights the Jonathan Aston project and her partnership with ethical brand People Tree, which started in 2013. Product quality is key. “If you don’t like the product and wouldn’t wear it, there’s no point putting your name to it,” she says.

Celia Birtwell

Celia Birtwell

Celia Birtwell met Ossie Clark while she was studying textile design at Salford School of Art in 1956. However, it was almost a decade later, in 1965 - by which time they were both living in London - when she began designing textiles for his collections.

The pair became close, marrying in 1969, and gained critical acclaim for their professional collaboration, with Birtwell creating the prints for Clark’s beautifully cut womenswear designs.

Birtwell says the partnership worked so well because they balanced each other out. “His work was quite structured and hard edged and mine was sort of feminine. Our relationship was quite 50/50 - he was a showman and I was a homebody. I got a buzz out of seeing what he did with my prints.”

They divorced in 1974 (after which it all went “a bit haywire”), and in 1983 Birtwell set up a business designing prints for interiors and opened her eponymous shop on Westbourne Park Road in west London, which she ran for 25 years.

“I chose home over fashion, because it was much calmer and I had two young boys. And I didn’t have an Ossie to work with, so to find someone who I could strike that same balance with was difficult.”

But she always felt a “yearning” to go back into fashion. In 2000 she was introduced to womenswear design duo Clements Ribeiro - Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, who at the time were creative directors of French label Cacharel - for whom she designed
four print collections.

But the first sell-out capsule collection for Topshop in 2006 was her real fashion renaissance. “That led me to a new audience,” she explains.

A variety of projects followed, including a collaboration with outdoor specialist Millets on a range of tents and camping equipment in 2008 and with Uniqlo on a spring 13 collection.
For her latest project, she designed a range of floral prints inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera for Valentino’s autumn 15 collection.

Celia Birtwell met Ossie Clark while she was studying textile design at Salford School of Art in 1956. However, it was almost a decade later, in 1965 - by which time they were both living in London - when she began designing textiles for his collections.

The pair became close, marrying in 1969, and gained critical acclaim for their professional collaboration, with Birtwell creating the prints for Clark’s beautifully cut womenswear designs.

Birtwell says the partnership worked so well because they balanced each other out. “His work was quite structured and hard edged and mine was sort of feminine. Our relationship was quite 50/50 - he was a showman and I was a homebody. I got a buzz out of seeing what he did with my prints.”

They divorced in 1974 (after which it all went “a bit haywire”), and in 1983 Birtwell set up a business designing prints for interiors and opened her eponymous shop on Westbourne Park Road in west London, which she ran for 25 years.

“I chose home over fashion, because it was much calmer and I had two young boys. And I didn’t have an Ossie to work with, so to find someone who I could strike that same balance with was difficult.”

But she always felt a “yearning” to go back into fashion. In 2000 she was introduced to womenswear design duo Clements Ribeiro - Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, who at the time were creative directors of French label Cacharel - for whom she designed
four print collections.

But the first sell-out capsule collection for Topshop in 2006 was her real fashion renaissance. “That led me to a new audience,” she explains.

A variety of projects followed, including a collaboration with outdoor specialist Millets on a range of tents and camping equipment in 2008 and with Uniqlo on a spring 13 collection.
For her latest project, she designed a range of floral prints inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera for Valentino’s autumn 15 collection.

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