It’s not every day you meet a fashion icon but when I was back in Glasgow last week I had the good fortune to interview Zandra Rhodes, or Dame Zandra as she is soon to become.
From my perspective as a teenager in the Scottish Highlands in the early 70s, Zandra might as well have been living in a pink space capsule with an alien in-crowd. Her very name was a by-word for cool as anyone beginning with Z was thin on the ground in those avocado tinted days.
I was expecting to meet a hyper-talented version of Patsy Stone, full of anecdotes of the 60s and 70s. This after all is the woman who designed a pleated lurex top for Freddie Mercury.
In terms of exotic, Dame Zandra doesn’t disappoint – the trademark fuschia bob; costume jewellery of an industrial scale; and a beautifully constructed blue and orange print dress which looked as if it had been fitted on to her delicate frame with a sugar spinner.
You can tell from her purposeful bustle that in spite of the plumage, here is a grafter – self-disciplined, approachable and grounded, with just a wisp of vulnerability which makes her even more engaging. It speaks volumes that her seamstress, Frances, has been with Zandra for 32 years, although she is quick to point out that she also nurtures new talent.
She’s in Glasgow to launch her new bedlinen collection at Sterling and for Zandra, designing textiles for the home is a wish fulfilled.“I trained in printed textile design at Medway College of Art and then at The Royal College of Art in London in the 1960s,” she explains. I loved what could be done by printing on fabric and turning it into something else,”
“I tried to sell my textiles but no one wanted to buy them, so I started to make dresses to show how the textiles should look. Now I’ve come full circle coming back to interiors after a lifetime in dresses.”
“I usually work with my sketchbook and coloured Pentel pens, doodling and trying colours out on paper – I’d much rather do that than work on a computer, but I’m also very excited by what can be done digitally, allowing you to go round the actual shape of the dress.
“Collaborating on the bedlinen collection with Ashley Wilde has been a joy. He comes to my studio and looks at all the designs I’ve been working on. There are sketches all over the wall and over 100 metal trunks full of dresses I’ve designed over the years. I try to keep one of everything; they really need to be catalogued!
“I do all my own printing on an eight yard table and the dress is influenced by the way the print wants to go. I used to cut a hole in the design and look in the mirror to see if it worked.”
Colour has been a lifelong love affair for Zandra, going right back to the days when her mother made clothes for her young daughter. Zandra believes that people are under the false illusion that black is going to make them look so much better, and feels that wearing a dress that reminds you of summer is going to make everyone feel happy.
One of the floors in her home is picked out in all the colours of the rainbow with stripes climbing up the walls. Zandra did initially create the patterns in chalk but later translated them into Amtico tiles in the same colours.
Zandra divides her time between London where home is a penthouse above her fashion and textile museum, and in San Diego with her partner Salah Hassanein, the former president of Warner Brothers International Theatres.
Travel is as a huge source of inspiration and Zandra takes her sketchbooks with her everywhere she goes. “If I see something, I’ll stop and draw it, and make a record of it, be it Moroccan marble or the blue jelly fish like transparent sails that get washed ashore on the beach.”
Opera is yet another passion that ignites Zandra who has designed sets and costumes for productions all over the world including the Met in New York. “Of course you have got to be careful not to go over the top, as there’s enough of that going on in an opera.
“I love that it’s larger than life as on the stage a bold dramatic print doesn’t look that way. It’s also a great feeling to design something that will make the singer feel wonderful and glamorous when they are singing their heart out.”
“The thing about fashion is that if you do a wonderful dress and someone famous is photographed in it, then people will know about it. It’s always heartening when someone says they appreciate what you do as that keeps you going.
“I consider myself to be so lucky to be doing my work and when I get up in the morning, I can’t wait to do it.”
Zandra is a great admirer of Scottish designer Christopher Kane and would love to meet him. She tells me that she has yet to work with tartan or plaid as she call it. A Zandra Rhodes tartan? We’d all say yes to that.