After almost 50 years in fashion, the extrovert designer is still passionate about her work and seeking out new challenges, including a tie-up with fellow British institution Marks & Spencer
Spending a morning with iconic British designer Zandra Rhodes is a bit like inhabiting an alternate rainbow-themed universe. Her lounge-come-meeting room on the second floor of the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, south London, is part ‘olde worlde’ English tea room and part psychedelic Willy Wonka, resplendent in jewelled swans, miniature Buddhas and technicolour walls.
Rhodes, with her shock of bright pink hair, is dressed to match her surroundings in silver lamé leggings, a signature printed kaftan and an enormous mirrored bangle.
In terms of business, it is clear the exotic backdrop is little more than an indulgent smokescreen for a financially savvy woman, one who has just collaborated with the UK’s biggest clothing retailer, Marks & Spencer. “The M&S team came to my showroom to see which designs would look good with their collection, and I’m very happy with what they’ve done,” says Rhodes. “When you associate yourself with M&S, you know the collection will have quality and wearability.”
A shrewd businesswoman, Rhodes does not hide the commercial rationale behind the partnership. “With these times as they are, you have to be aware of pricing and I’m always interested in widening my customer reach,” she explains. “I still make beautiful clothes for private clients, but because of what we’re going through [economically], you have to be positive about adapting.”
Right from the start of her design career, Rhodes had an instant feel for sellable product. While her bright designs were considered too outlandish by traditional 1960s British manufacturers, she forged ahead with her creative path. By the 1970s, Rhodes was one of the most sought-after British designers, with fans including Elizabeth Taylor and, later, Princess Diana.
Fast-forward to 2009 and Rhodes’ capsule collection of clothing and accessories for M&S, which features her signature bold print styles, went into 55 stores earlier this month. The range includes a rose-print jumpsuit at £59, an orange trumpet-sleeved top at £49 and a neon snakeskin-print swimsuit for £29.50, as well as print scarves, bikinis, lingerie and bags.
“Zandra was such an inspirational person to work with, so passionate about the clothing she was creating,” says Neil Hendy, head of womenswear design for M&S. “She was very open to our ideas too, and understood that the pieces needed to be flattering to our customer. She actually tried all the samples on herself so that she was happy with them. As a brand, Zandra Rhodes was a great fit for M&S - we see it as a coming together of two great British institutions.”
Looking ahead, Rhodes has her eye on yet another first: a tie-up with party girl footwear favourite Strutt Couture in spring 10. Zandra Rhodes by Strutt Couture, as it will be called, is still in its infancy, so Rhodes is unable to discuss particular design facets, but laughs: “It won’t have flip-flops or wellies in there.” It is certainly a viable business link-up. It offers the footwear brand access to Rhodes’ distribution network in the Middle East, the US and Italy, and for Rhodes it provides an entry-point opportunity into a younger audience who may be less aware of her design personality.
Rhodes admits footwear is a new area for her, but feels that now is a commercially relevant time to be tackling shoes. She says: “Shoes are increasingly taking a stronger position on the fashion landscape, and as such, people are giving them more attention and spending more money on them.”
Rhodes is spot on about this renewed footwear interest. The past few seasons have seen a spotlight cast on catwalk footwear styles. Accessories designers who, in the past, may have been a footnote on the catwalk ‘thank yous’ are now commanding much more attention.
Ian O’Connor, co-founder and designer for Strutt Couture, suggests it is Rhodes’ willingness to accept other ideas and input that makes her a strong fit for commercial collaborative work. “Zandra immediately saw the opportunity for synergy between her name and the Strutt Couture label, how we can tap into each other’s client base and create a dual branded range,” he explains. “Strutt Couture is a commercial animal and we have to sell our product, and Zandra 100% understood that.”
Rhodes already has her finger in a staggering number of commercial pies. A flick through her website reveals a range of Royal Doulton china, own-label jewellery, handbag collections, books - even an embroidered tent.
In March, Rhodes also lent her designs to a range of organic cotton T-shirts for the Environmental Justice Foundation’s Pick Your Cotton Carefully campaign to raise awareness of the use of child labour in some cotton production. A fragrance line is also in the offing for summer in conjunction with toiletries firm Jigsaw. “The first bottle they suggested to me was dark and looked like it might contain poison - hardly my style. Where was the pink?” laughs Rhodes. She also has a number of projects designing costumes for the English National Opera.
Rhodes has not shown her collections on a catwalk for two years now and is unsure whether she would do it again. She says: “I find it upsetting how some of these high-end, ready-to-wear catwalk collections pay no resemblance to what you see in the stores. You cannot buy the product, so the shows are simply for PR.
“It is true that you are selling a dream, but if the public cannot buy into the dream, what is the point? All that sensationalism will make us resentful. The current climate has to change.”
In a time when recession is as common a British conversational topic as the weather, Rhodes knows it is her ability to keep the creativity which informs her designs within the confines of what consumers want that will keep her profits rolling in.
- 2009 Collaborates with M&S
- 2003 Opens the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, south London
- 2001 Designs the costumes for opera The Magic Flute in San Diego
- 1995 Enters the British Fashion Council’s Hall of Fame for outstanding contribution to the British fashion industry
- 1969 Opens her first shop on Fulham Road, west London
- 1961 Graduates from the Royal College of Art
- 1940 Born in Chatham, Kent
Who in fashion do you most admire? Adel Rootstein, who is the most amazing mannequin designer. I would go around shops and see these terrible mannequins not at all making the most of the clothes. Adel’s mannequins used to leap and jump around - they really were brilliant.
What has been the proudest moment of your career? I have all sorts of proudest moments. Working in fashion is like walking a tightrope and the proudest moments for me are the times when I look down and realise I am still going, still walking that fine line and not falling off.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on? I always sell loads and loads of my kaftans. I can go to town on the prints and really make them look wonderful. Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor have worn my one-shouldered kaftans.
Which retailers do you most admire and why? I love 10 Corso Como [a lifestyle and fashion store in Milan] because it is
such an eclectic shop. There are always such beautiful things in there; I could get lost in the experience. I love to have lunch in the garden cafe in among the camellias. I also like [London designer indie] Dover Street Market. It is amazing what it has done with an old car showroom.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? I’d like to maybe work in interiors.
I always wanted to be doing something that would create an image, producing work that people would genuinely be interested in.