On the Road With Zandra Rhodes

The designer went to Boston celebrate the opening of her traveling show, “Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles.”

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BOSTON — “I have known Zandra Rhodes since.…” mused Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley during a private dinner held in Rhodes’ honor Tuesday night at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design here.

This story first appeared in the October 22, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Since we were children,” Rhodes chirped.

“I was going to say since the Civil War. We were vampires,” Talley responded.

Such was the offbeat rapport between two Diana Vreeland protégés who met when Talley was an assistant to Andy Warhol and who have known each other the better part of 40 years.

Rhodes, who will receive an honorary degree from MassArt next year, came to celebrate the opening of her traveling show, “Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles.” Talley came to emcee the evening. The two sat beside each other at the front of the room: Rhodes, tiny with pink bob and frothy scarlet gown, and Talley, colossal in a black eyelet robe.

“You can’t survive in fashion without an original point of view,” Talley said, adding later that Rhodes’ authenticity “drove her to the top.”

Rhodes is forever defined by her flair for visual drama. In college, she designed a head scarf printed with hand-drawn curls. When she wore it, she’d use eyeliner to doodle a few more trompe l’oeil tendrils on the sides of her face. In the same period, she began experimenting on her “boring brown” hair. Green streaks, her first foray with dye, looked fabulous but left stains all over her sheets.

Vreeland got Rhodes her first sales commissions at Henri Bendel and Sakowitz in Houston, moves that helped her to open her own London store.

After admiring Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí to produce fabric with “rips” drawn on it, Rhodes tore her own fabrics and fastened them back up with beaded safety pins.

The run of torn dresses was a “fiasco for my shop. It frightened customers,” she recalled. But the look earned her the moniker the “Princess of Punk” and became iconic enough that the pieces are collectors’ gems. Talley’s Vogue colleague, Hamish Bowles, said he recently purchased a jersey punk dress from its original owners.

Talley asked her about the way ideas reverberate through the industry now — fast-fashion chains iterating runway looks in a six-week turn and bloggers reporting by the minute. (“Bloggers blogging on the street corner photographing themselves blogging,” said Talley.) Rhodes said designers shouldn’t be worried about being elbowed out of the process.

“A designer is someone who comes up with a new idea,” she said. “There’s always a place for originality.”

The show, which celebrates Rhodes’ skill as a colorist and is a tribute to her conscientious archiving, is staged so that fabric panels sit behind the garments constructed from them. Rhodes, who considers herself foremost a textile designer, doesn’t use patternmakers. Instead, she relies upon cleverly designed repeats to “engineer” garments. She’ll print a motif she wants on a neckline as a platter-sized circle so the fabric can be simply cut out at the center and draped over the head. For a 1971 dress, she cut out individual chiffon banana leaves, layering long, dangling pieces over another printed banana leaf fabric so the dress sways like an actual plant.

“We’ve had our digital textile class through to study how Zandra works,” said Lisa Tung, MassArt’s director of curatorial programs and professional galleries. “Because we are an educational institution, it’s so important to have opportunities like this to study great work up close.”

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