Known for her vibrant pink bob, deliciously colourful textiles and punk, ‘who cares’ attitude Zandra Rhodes is a fashion icon who has been making her mark on the industry worldwide since the 60s. And meeting her at the end of the newly refurbished Southwold Pier, it is nice to see that her sassy outlook and sense of style is just as strong even though she is now a grand dame of fashion, literally since her recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year!
A sprightly 73, Zandra is full of passion and good humour. She now divides her time between London where her studio and penthouse apartment are above the wonderful Fashion and Textile Museum she founded in Bermondsey and San Diego where she lives with her partner of 25 years, former head of Warner Brother Theatres, Salah Hassanein.
Zandra is at the Pier today to launch a curated collection of her accessories that reflect the colour and style of the British seaside. From shell shaped clutches and bright blue shoulder bags to chain link bracelets and organic patterned big bead necklaces, they all add joie de vivre to any wardrobe.
We got a chance to talk to Zandra about her influence on the fashion industry, current trends and how she felt about her ideas being copied by other designers.
What been the biggest challenge in your career?
Probably keeping going [she laughs]. You can keep the passion yourself but if no one else wants to be part of that passion… There is no point designing just for yourself, you’ve got to hope you keep thinking of enough things to do that people find enough variety with your product and always try to be aware of the latest trends.
You have designed for Freddie Mercury and operas The Magic Flute and Aida what is the difference designing for stage?
With the stage you can be larger than life and you don’t have to have it selling, so it could be almost anything as long as the star likes it. But it has its restriction as well, in opera the star is likely to be size 18 and want to look like a 12, so you have to slightly design it with that in mind. In retail you can put in bright colours but you’re more likely to sell more black though sometimes you can be surprised. The other thing as a designer, if you’ve designed it you should be wearing it, otherwise what have you designed it for? You’ve got to put your belief behind it.
You live in California and London, what do you think are the differences in fashion between America and the UK?
They’re not as strong as you think. Yes people in the UK tend to be more conservative but I tend to design for people for special occasions. I could be designing a wonderful evening jacket for someone’s very special wedding guest outfit that they tend to like similar things both sides of the Atlantic.
You were at the forefront of the punk fashion movement in the 70s, how does that manifest in 2014?
There are lots of different off-shoots now, like you can get garments with bits of raw fabric on which you couldn’t get in the 70s, you can get holes in things. In fact my outfit was actually copied by Versace for the safety pin dress Elizabeth Hurley wore to the Four Weddings premiere. That was done 10 years after I did mine and luckily mine was recorded to be first as it was published in book. Sometimes it in annoying that it is copied but on the other hand you have to take it for what it is, that enough people are interested in something you’ve done.
Do you think it is harder or easier for women in the fashion industry today than in the 70s?
I do think that feminism has gone backwards. Though I don’t think feminism helped anyone. Even if you believe in it you always get further by not mentioning it. There are more women designers than people realise they are just behind the scenes. I do think it is harder for people to break into the fashion industry, men or women, I think it is purposefully difficult.
Who is your favourite celebrity to dress?
I’d love to dress Dolly Parton, she’d be fun to dress. I think she’d be great to put something on.
You are launching your new handbag and jewellery range today, inspired by the pier, what were you looking to bring into the range?
I felt we could style a range that appeal to many, knowing that people aren’t that different whichever area they’re in. They might choose slightly differently while the sun is out and, with luck, go for the bright ones.
What was it about the Pier that made you want to get involved?
I feel very strongly as a designer you should know what the grass-roots are. You should know the sort of people who like you so that if you’re doing a new collection, you can come up with something new. Sometimes it is finding time to do it.
Who best represents a stylish woman and why?
Someone who is really well put together. I think some people are just born with it. I went to college with a girl who always looked chic and I don’t think she bought expensive things. I looked like an old wreck when I was at college [laughs] I would find it very difficult to pull everything together and think about my work at the same time. I do like people who are always stylish. For me I always need to wear brooch and jewellery, hair ribbon and the rest styles itself.
What trends should Belles About Town definitely buy into this season?
Things are still going to be very figure hugging though I still do things that have a gorgeous flow and satin trim.
What is your next challenge?
First of all to get a new collection underway.Because I have to deal with my office on Skype, I could design something and then I’m not on hand when they are printing it.
I’m also doing designs for the central luggage claim area at Mombai airport. We having wonderful really old trunks stood in the middle and on them embroidered fabrics that will link up with the trunks and be supported by hidden wires. If the trunk has a leopard on it, the fabric will start out with leopard print then turn into spots and then wriggle along and turn into another design to link to another chest. It is very exciting.
What three universal truths do you live by?
1. Honesty to oneself because that means you’ve got to take risks, you’ve got to try to do things differently.
2. Work as hard as you can, don’t be put off by naysayers and always surround yourself by people who are encouraging because you can always find someone who will put you down, even if you’re right. Avoid them.
3. Keep going no matter what. Put blinkers on if that’s what it takes.
[photo credit: Nancy Gibbs]