GFW digital editor Megan Doyle meets with Dame Zandra Rhodes in her Rainbow Penthouse in Bermondsey, London, to discuss her 50 year career, why she’s joining GFW as a lifetime patron in 2019, the secret to her longevity and more.

In Dame Zandra Rhodes DBE RDI’s 50 year career, she’s worn many hats. A textile designer, she helped put London on the map in the 1970s with her eccentric aesthetic of unapologetically colourful prints. Rhodes has been designed clothing, jewellery and handbags, created homewares, founded London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, and even made a cameo in Ab Fab. Looking back, was any of it planned? “No! I thought I’d be a textile designer and that I could live by doing my textile designs — WRONG!”

Zandra Rhodes by Sarah Mireya

Zandra Rhodes by Sarah Mireya

We’re sitting in Rhodes’ Rainbow Penthouse in Bermondsey, which is exactly what you’d imagine the interior of the 78 year old British icons head to look like. The impressive wrap round views of South London pale in comparison to the visual feast on the inside — technicolour walls and floors, busts of Rhodes (and one which I’m pretty sure is Vladimir Putin — offset by a mirror mosaic of Gandhi in the corner), rails filled with her next collection, and a handful of glittery Z’s which act as small plinths for trinkets and vases collected through the years.

We’re here to discuss Rhodes’ latest appointment as a lifetime patron of the Graduate Fashion Foundation — a role she’s proud to take on, despite her busier-than-ever schedule. “I think it’s a great cause. Our colleges are the best in the world and so much talent comes out of this country, we just have to make sure we keep it going somehow,” she says. “College started me off in the world, so I think you have to give back to keep the values we were taught going.”

After finishing her textile design degree at the Royal College of Art in the late 1960s, Rhodes began designing clothing using her own fabrics, which were considered too outlandish to sell to the establishment at the time. Now, in her brand’s Jubilee year, Zandra is dipping back into her archive to inspire the projects and collections she continues to create. “I try and come up with new ideas, but then I have people working for me that say: “Zandra, have you looked at this vast repertoire of things we haven’t used yet?”

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Z in studio revolutionary patterncutting 1960sArchived by Zandra With A Zee - Documentary about Zandra on run up to 50th Anniversary by Bridie O'Sullivan [ZR PERSONAL ARCHIVE].jpg

So extensive is her archive that in 2013, Rhodes and the University of Creative Arts launched the Digital Study Collection of 500 of her most iconic pieces, along with sketchbooks and technical drawings, making her work available online for students to pour over.

It has been an ongoing source of inspiration for herself and others — case in point: when Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli invited her to create prints for his debut solo collection (SS17) in 2016. “I did those prints in 1965 in college!” she laughs. “My designs are very personal to me, so it’s a matter of luck, really, if someone connects with them. [Valentino] picked up on something that wasn’t particularly successful at the time, but then later became a hit by accident.”

Looking back at the last 50 years, what does Rhodes believe is the secret to her longevity in the industry? “Not giving up. You never give up, you find what your strengths are, and you don’t get lead astray by people that divert you,” she explains. “I suppose I keep working because I think I’ve got something to give. I do whatever I can get a job for — I don’t work for money — I work to keep going.”

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Rhodes concedes that the industry now is unrecognisable to the one she entered in the late 1960s. “Looking at it from the outside, I think it’s tougher now than it was when I started,” she ponders. “I find it difficult enough to run a business, keep everything going, do everything I’m doing — and I don’t even have time to learn about social media!”

Like everyone in the British fashion industry, Rhodes’ main concern for the future is potentially disastrous impact of Brexit. “It really frightens me,” she says frankly. “I didn’t vote for Brexit and I believe we should vote again. Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know life’s going to be increasingly difficult. The main thing is, we’re trying.”

From her first job tutoring textile design part time to pay the bills, to her Digital Study Collection initiative with UCA, Rhodes has been involved in fashion education in one form or another for many years — she even had a GFW textile award named after her! It’s no surprise that Rhodes has a lot of advice to share with graduates moving from university and into the first stages of their career: “Keep a complete record of all your work, make sure you never give out your only portfolio, make sure you keep working somehow, and start to plan for a job before you actually leave school!”

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Currently, Rhodes is preparing her retrospective exhibition, Zandra Rhodes: Fifty Years of Fabulous, which will launch at the Fashion and Textile Museum in September, showcasing 100 garments and 50 textiles from her archive. She is also finishing her next collection, to be sold in Liberty London and on Matches Fashion, all the while splitting her time between London and the US. “When you have your own company, the one thing you think you have to give — which is design — is the one thing that you have to fight to find time to do! It’s not easy, but is it supposed to be easy?” she asks. “If it was too easy, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself!”

Dame Zandra Rhodes will be on the judging panel of the Hilary Alexander Trailblazer Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2019.

Words by Megan Doyle