If a recent visit to the La Jolla studio of Zandra Rhodes reminded me of anything, it’s that life is too temporary not to take risks—and that means always living as you are.
Not that I don’t already practice this. The trip also confirmed that no matter how lively a visitor dresses when meeting with Zandra, she will always pale by comparison to the designer. Just days after Yves Saint Laurent’s passing, I was in a black cotton vintage Rive Gauche speckled with bright orange polka dots, which had a high neck and sleeves trimmed in ruffles. I resembled a jester in spectator heels. Once in her studio, I may have just been wearing a solid black sack.
Wildly maverick and colorful (literally) as ever, Zandra was kind enough to interrupt a mad work day that begins with faxes at 4:30 a.m. to reminisce about her visits to Beverly Hills in the 1970s, when she was among the new talents from London showcased at Giorgio Beverly Hills. Her impressions will be in the biography I’m writing on Giorgio co-founder Fred Hayman.
Zandra will hit 68 this September, and she remains totally punk. And by this I mean in that fierce, DIY and totally nonconventional way. Yes, her hair remains a shocking pink ("My colorist is a friend who lives just up the street here," she shared), her makeup and clothes a joyful clash of colors. Today she’s wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned on the front with a vivid portrait of her face.
The psychedelia-ethnic textiles, printed on silks and chiffons, are everywhere in her studio, too. A sink in one corner is loaded with paintbrushes and plastic jars smeared with bright hues. The zany squiggles and geometric patterns, the signature scroll of her label and notes, the rainbow palette and metallic marks are all Zandra’s hand.
“I’m a print designer who became a clothes designer,” she likes to pop off. Textiles, printed or otherwise, have never received due props, which is why she opened the Fashion and Textile Museum in 2003, a hot-pink and orange block in South London, where she also keeps a studio and apartment upstairs. The museum, now a part of Newham College of Further Education, houses fashion and textiles from the 1950s on, including the works of Thierry Mugler, Issey Miyake and Ossie Clark among many others. Getting it opened was nearly impossible, and much of the financing came from the American Friends of the Zandra Rhodes Museum.
Some of those friends are still in Beverly Hills, but most are in the San Diego area, where she splits her time between living there with her longtime beau, Salah Hassanein, a retired Warner Brothers exec. “I’m on a plane about every two weeks. Really I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up,” she sighs, although you don’t get the sense she’s hinting at stopping it all as much as she’s just letting off steam. She's kept up the zigzag for more than a decade.
Certainly, more than love has had Zandra racking up the frequent flier miles. There are the touring retrospectives, including one that recently closed in Australia. There’s the new signature collections of handbags and jewelry. And never mind the brisk sales for her vintage designs that have been popping up on red carpets and in many a young designer studio as “inspiration” (it seems the runways have been awash with Zandra Rhodes references in the last three years). In 2007 alone, she collaborated with M.A.C., TopShop and Pologeorgis furs. There also are the entirely too-fun shorts she did with director Ben Charles Edwards, a surreal dinner party hosted by Zandra entitled “Eat Your Chiffon, released online in January. (You can watch them all at the jump.)
I have a colorful drawing Zandra did of one of the costumes she designed for the The Magic Flute, commissioned by the San Diego Opera, which she continues to support.
But standing at the edge of long stretches of fabrics blanketing the floor of her studio, expansive swaths of patterned textiles in unimaginable combinations and colors destined for her 2008 cruise collection, Zandra looked as energized and inspired as any kid designer in fashion school. That’s why she stands well apart from her peers and so many others in fashion. Zandra Rhodes is more than just another clothes designer or, for that matter, iconic English eccentric. She's an artist.
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