LONDON — Zandra Rhodes may look perky with her flaming pink mane, matching lipstick and coordinating caftan, but her reality is far from rosy.

“It’s sucking the life blood out of me,” says Rhodes of her latest project, the Fashion & Textile Museum slated to open here in May.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I should be spending my time doing things like traveling to Paris, chatting with Karl,” she says, the tiny seashells in her hair tinkling as she talks in the sunny top floor of her south London headquarters, with its rainbow-striped floor and caftan-clad mannequins. “Instead, I’m trying to get this project off the ground.”

Rhodes has only herself to blame for this project, which started after some existential ponderings. “I realized that so many famous British designers — like Ossie Clark and Jean Muir — were dying on us, and that there should be some permanent record of British fashion. Fashion is something the whole world is interested in,” says the designer, now 63.

Seven years and $4 million later, Rhodes is preparing to open the museum, a 5,000-square-foot space attached to her headquarters and workshop that will accomodate exhibitions, educational programs and the odd cocktail party.

“I want it to be a place where fashion doesn’t feel so precious or rarefied,” says Rhodes, “where people can understand the contribution that fashion makes to the culture and character of society.”

For the first exhibition, “My Favourite Dress,” Rhodes asked 70 fashion designers, including Valentino, Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan and Thierry Mugler, to choose a favorite dress from any of their own collections, and describe the reasons behind the choice. Rhodes herself chose a 1974 dress in Pernod green. “It was a dress that I know for a fact Jackie Kennedy shared with her sister,” says Rhodes with a giggle.

Although 3,000 original Rhodes garments along with her sketch books and silk screens are now part of the museum’s permanent collection, the designer took a communal approach to the first show, “because I didn’t want the museum to be thought of as an homage to Zandra Rhodes,” she says. In addition to the Rhodes archive, the museum boasts 10 Clark and 30 Muir garments. Gity Monsef, the museum’s creative director, is planning a Rhodes retrospective “at some point,” and hopes to do a Halston exhibition.

The museum was designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, and is his first project in Europe. Rhodes, who spends her time between London and San Diego, discovered him during one of her regular trips to California. “I love his use of color and his wonderful, simple shapes,” she says. “He also happens to be incredibly charming.”

The entrance, known as the Grand Pink Foyer, lives up to its name. It has a swirly mosaic floor made by the Australian terrazzo artist David Humphries and the design is based on one of Rhodes’ wiggle motifs. The electric blue Fashion Archway leads to the split-level Grand Gallery, which is spare, with custard-colored walls and industrial lighting. Meanwhile, the building’s exterior is bright orange, adding a jolt to Bermondsey Street, a narrow cobblestone road straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.

The museum will put on three shows a year, and there are no plans for a permanent exhibition, as Rhodes believes it isn’t good for clothing to be on permanent display. Her team, however, is working on a digital fashion and textile archive where students will be able to access the museum’s designs. The museum will also have a library and lecture room, and has already begun children’s educational programs.

“I started work on it in 1997 when no one was really paying attention to my designs,” Rhodes says with a sigh. “Little did I know, my work would take off again, and I’d be so busy. Like life, it’s either feast or famine.”

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