Editor’s Note: This fourth installment of WWD’s look through the Fairchild Fashion Archive reproduces a Dec. 31, 1975, interview in London with the talented Zandra Rhodes, as well as a Feb. 15, 1977, interview in Paris with the iconic Madame Grès.
LONDON — Behind the anonymous tatty blue door on Porchester Road (the area of London estate agents euphemistically describe as “‘up and coming”‘) is a hive of activity where Zandra Rhodes and her team of workers print, make up and hand-finish her romantic fantasy designs.
“When Bill Blass was here I felt so awkward showing him ’round,” says Rhodes in her strident Cockney squawk. “You know how grand he is — but he wanted to see everything.”
“She represents an original approach to clothes,” says Blass, who met Rhodes a few years ago when doing a show in Palm Beach. “In London she and Jean Muir are the ones making worldwide contributions to fashion.”
Other grandees to climb the three flights of stairs stacked with cardboard boxes and rolls of fabric include Evangeline Bruce, Marietta Tree, Britt Ekland,Pat Harmsworth, Lady Lichfield and Pauline de Rothschild, who feels Rhodes “is the most talented designer in the world.”
“Tony Snowdon brought his kids for tea and said he wanted to make a film here. No one’s ever been nasty about it, but I think a lot of the ladies were nervous at first: It’s rather disconcerting to change in front of a dozen girls cutting and machining ’round you when you’re used to a cushy dressing room. When Lauren Bacall came here the first time,” Rhodes chatters, “she stepped right on a pin. I didn’t know what to say. But she’s such a sensational lady. She says I’m the worst dresser she knows because she always catches me in jeans looking dreadful.”
Whether she wears jeans or her own designs, Zandra Rhodes looks eccentric, never dreadful. Her hair changes color to match her moods: Now it’s blackish brown with a plume of peacock-blue. She circles her eyes in the same color and adds a blue beauty spot or two. She’s as small, sturdy and tough as a terrier, expecting high standards and conscientiousness from the people who work for her. She herself works a 14-hour day, starting at 7:30 a.m. “I’m always at work, even on a Sunday. I find I can’t separate work from pleasure.”
The London shop she opened in June has eased the pressure considerably, she says. It’s run by Anne Knight – “England’s Gerry Stutz” — and means that customers go directly to the shop, and no longer the studio. Still, Rhodes complains of a lack of space to design and work, and is looking for larger premises. She presently is using the front room of her colorful apartment nearby to accommodate cutters.
The cut fabric is transported to Porchester Road, put in plastic bags and given to one of the two dozen girls sardined in the room among boxes of feathers, frills, sequins and sewing machines. The only heating is from paraffin fires. “People are always telling me what a fire hazard this place is.”
A finished chiffon dress is “a work of art,” claims Rhodes. In the London shop, a dress retails around $600 and the customer is presented with a silk certificate printed with Rhodes’ assurance: “This is one of my special dresses, I think of it as an artwork that you will treasure forever,” signed by her and numbered. “With my sort of priced clothes, I maintain that each dress should be exclusive.”
Sixty-five percent of the customers who come into the shop are American, says Rhodes. “When we opened I thought, ‘I’m going to fall flat on my face with this but since then, business has tripled.” She is planning to open a similar shop in New York by the fall.
Would she consider living in the States? “I may well. I love it there, it’s very, very inspiring, but I haven’t made up my mind.”
America gave Zandra Rhodes her first opportunity as a designer nearly 10 years ago. “I flew over initially because Paul Young said he would back me. He didn’t…but in my pocket, I had a couple of letters of introduction — one to Gerry Stutz. She loved the tiny collection I’d brought.”
“I feel differently about Zandra than I do other designers,” says Stutz, who says the designer “has been a part of the store [Henri Bendel] for five or six years. She’s not a professional designer, but rather an artist who has chosen clothes as a medium. She’s talented and witty. Her interpretation of the Bicentennial, for example — her cactus prints (from her spring collection) are great. Her clothes glorious fantasies. They have everything to do with style and nothing to do with fashion. They are timeless, spectacular, wonderful to wear and marvelous to look at.”
According to Rhodes, “Americans go up and down whether they’re feeling classical or not. Luckily, nowadays, my ‘fantasy dresses,’ as they call them, have become status symbols.”
Rhodes first trained as a textile designer at Medway College and then at the Royal College of Art, where her contemporaries were budding young talents, David Hockney, Ossie Clark and Janice Wainwright. Her father was a truck driver and her mother, before becoming a senior lecturer at Rhodes’ First Art College, was a fitter at Worth in Paris. (Her aunt, she remarks, is Ena Twigg, the celebrated medium — “all that frightens me, I don’t want to know. I just know her as my auntie.”)
At college, Rhodes says, she was the blue-eyed baby, but when she left she was told her designs were unusable, too extreme. She built her print works with Alex McIntyre (who still works for her) and approached designers directly. “Then I thought being the middleman like that was ridiculous, especially as I always think how the garment is going to look when I design the print. A friend gave me three lessons in pattern cutting, and that’s how it all began.”
Her prints still pervade everything she does says Rhodes. “I want to build up the interior side of design and concentrate on my drawings. Everyone who knows me is very conscious of the facets that get wasted,” says Rhodes, mentioning as an example of another talent the metal drawings she has begun to do, exquisitely framed in pleated satin.
“I surround myself with people who are doing things, so that work and play get mixed together.” Her circle of friends in London includes Adel Rootstein, Duggie Fields, Andrew Logan and Carol McNicoll, the potter.
Her ambitions are to learn to delegate more, “because that’s the only way I can have more time to design,” and to establish herself in shops all over the world.
“I’m coming into my own now, doing better and better work,” says Rhodes, unabashed. “Fashion for me is so exciting because I can do what I like —the sky’s the limit — that’s how lucky I am.”