For some designers, mutual admiration amounts to a compliment in passing, but Zandra Rhodes and Anna Sui put their friendship on full display Friday at the Initiative in Art and Culture’s “Blue” forum.
In their “50 Fabulous Years in Fashion” discussion with Joan Agajanian Quinn, the designers walked the audience through their career highlights, kinship and inspiration. Rhodes and Sui have museum exhibitions on view. “Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion” will be running through Jan. 26 at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, a cultural institution that the designer founded. In New York, “The World of Anna Sui” will run at the Museum of Arts and Design through Feb. 23. After the talk at The New School, Rhodes and Sui each signed copies of their respective exhibition-related books.
Even after half-a-century, there is no direct route to finessing prints from Rhodes’ point of view. Asked how a designer knows when a print is done, Rhodes said, “I’m terrible. I don’t make instant decisions. I walk around with bits of paper, then I walk around with bits of print, and then I walk around with a half-made dress that probably gets half-injured. By the way, they don’t fit me anymore so there is a lot of imagination. As a designer, you hope you know when it’s right. The other thing is, you see someone else in it and then you know when it’s wrong.”
She continued, “Really and truly I don’t like to fit on a model. A model will make a sack look OK. It’s better to fit it on someone, who doesn’t stand very well. Then you think, ‘That dress has got to be made to work.’ Because people go into a dressing room, look in a mirror, and say, ‘What does this dress do for me?’”
Both designers discussed how their roots led them to paths in fashion design. Born in Chatham, an hour outside of London, Rhodes said her thoughts of being an illustrator switched when she started studying printed textiles at the Royal College, where artists David Hockney and Allen Jones were also enrolled. Born and raised in Detroit, Sui recalled how after a visit to New York at the age of four, she told her parents that when she grew up, she would move to New York to be a fashion designer. A self-described “huge fan” of Rhodes, Sui said she “studied, hunted down details about her and researched what she was doing” — drawn in primarily be her prints.
Starting her own collection in 1991 “at a time when the fashion industry was very vital in this country,” Sui said they were able to develop wools made in New England and cottons and denims in the South, but prints had to be made overseas. When printed styles, especially dresses, started to overtake her business, Sui focused more on that element. She then finessed them working with domestic agents for international textile companies.
Rhodes, meanwhile, started out by getting a little studio, building a nine-yard table with her boyfriend, and then making and printing all of the screens. Even today all of Rhodes’ designs are hand-printed in her London studio, as was the case with the black dress that Sui wore to Friday’s event. Her entry into fashion took some work though. Initially, her prints were deemed “too extreme,” said Rhodes, who taught part-time early on in her career, and designed hand-screened “slightly Pop Art prints for three girls on Carnaby Street for three seasons, before venturing “into lipsticks, teddy bears and all sorts of things.” Rhodes said. “They didn’t really see how they could use those.”
With no design training, she partnered “with another girl,” before deciding that she had to start to make garments or she would never get to use her prints. “Then I thought to myself, ‘When I was at Royal College, I didn’t think the people who studied fashion looked too much more intelligent than I was,'” she said. “The idea was to bring them to America where no one would say, ‘Well, you’re a textile designer. You can’t design garments.’”
After putting a collection together that British Vogue featured, Rhodes met “these two wonderfully mad Ukrainain-American models, who said, ‘You’ve got to come to America and you will make your fortune.’ So I brought a collection over, showed it to Diana Vreeland and it was photographed on Natalie Wood in American Vogue. She introduced me to Henri Bendel and that was the beginning of the story,” Rhodes said.
Sui, meanwhile, landed a job, while still at Parsons The New School, and then worked for a few big companies, including one that owned Henri Bendel. A Zandra Rhodes dress was one of her first purchases, after earning a paycheck. The first fashion show Sui attended (with her photographer friend Steven Meisel) was one Rhodes held at Circle in the Square. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We saw an ad in New York magazine. You could buy a ticket for $35. There was an escalator that went down and at the bottom was every major designer in New York — Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Adele Simpson, just all of them, Diana Vreeland. We were like, ‘Oh my God. Look at this room.’ When the show started, I think I went into euphoria at that point.” Sui said, noting how she saved the fan-shaped invitation and the program. “For the longest time, I always went back and looked at that and thought, ‘Oh, this is a designer. She has her look. She has her things. Every invitation, every detail is so Zandra,” Sui said.
As for trends, Rhodes said her creations must be a Zandra Rhodes whatever happens. Asked where she finds insight into what’s going on, the designer said, “You pray.” Acknowledging there are always indicators hinting at what’s next, Sui said that color direction, a movie, a book that’s popular, someone in the media. “I’m similar to Zandra. Even if I want to do minimalism, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
Referring to a look from her “Neon Cowboy” Las Vegas-inspired collection that was sold in her first shop, Rhodes said, “I only saw it on TV. I hadn’t been to Las Vegas.” Over the years, Sui collected Rhodes’ designs, finding them in antique stores and flea markets. “Last year I sent Zandra a picture of my collection and said, ‘This is how much I love you,’” Sui said. After asking Rhodes to borrow something for her exhibition at MAD, Sui received a bunch of photographs. “What did I say?” Sui asked. “Mine are in a better condition than yours,” Rhodes replied.
Sui’s first retrospective was originally staged at the Fashion and Textile Museum. “It wouldn’t have happened unless I was so obsessed with Zandra. I would go to the museum every time that I was in London,” added Sui, noting how the museum’s director [Celia Joicey] suggested she stage a show there after running into each other and sharing a coffee.
From the late Seventies through the Eighties, Rhodes was one of the few who had specific themes that were acted out. Film director Derek Jarman, for example, choreographed a medieval one for her, and Link orchestrated another one with ballet dancers. Unlike many designers who have teams that are dogged about dressing celebrities, Rhodes’ and Sui’s celebrity dressing is not strategic. “Usually you see the picture,” they agreed.
Rhodes’ foray into designing costumes for the San Diego Opera was more intentional. While living part-time in San Diego, the designer was asked by the head of the SDO if she had ever designed for the opera. “I said, ‘No, but [Franco] Zeffirelli once asked me, but I never rang him back.’” She subsequently designed costumes for “The Magic Flute,” which now belong to the Seattle Opera, and then sets and costumes for “The Pearl Fishers,” which had a 19-city run. She also had a hand in “Aida” at the Houston Opera. Sui recently designed costumes including skirts that were printed on a Lurex jacquard for one of the new works that the New York City Ballet premiered in September.
Rhodes’ signature hot pink bob can be a point of attraction for strangers, even in the heart of India’s countryside where little old ladies, who normally wouldn’t do anything, always want to come up and touch my hair,” she said.
Asked about being made a Dame Commander of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace in 2015, Rhodes recalled how she was joined by Quinn, British designer David Sassoon and her sister who looked like an English county lady with a big hat. Rhodes said, “I had a beautiful hat by Stephen Jones with a wonderful rhinestone egg on it. When I was announced, the lady next to my sister said, ‘Would you go out looking like that?’ My sister then said, ‘I wouldn’t but it’s my sister.’ The woman said, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry.’ And she said, ‘They always say that.’”
When an attendee inquired about getting rid of the cattiness among designers in the fashion industry, Sui said, “Well, it depends who it is.” And Rhodes added, “I assure you, I might look very nice but I don’t like everyone.”