LONDON — Fifty years on, and the colors only get brighter and more saturated in the realm of Dame Zandra Rhodes, the designer with magenta hair, bubblegum pink Crocs and a bowl of rose-colored chocolate truffles at her elbow on a dark winter’s afternoon.
Sitting on a pink chair in the penthouse apartment above her studio, Rhodes is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of color, texture and pattern. There are racks of caftans, dresses and scarves done in her bright, nature-inspired abstract patterns, pottery and ceramics from British artists Carol McNicoll and Kate Malone and green plants galore.
Rhodes’ commitment to design — and a rainbow world — has only intensified over the past five decades, and she continues to be an evangelist for color. She’s recently returned from Formex, the Nordic interior design fair in Stockholm, where she blasted her stand with bright shades to replicate her multichromatic penthouse in London.
“There is so much room for color in Scandinavia. My color, in fact, looked brighter over there,” said Rhodes, who was the guest influencer at the fair last month, the first big event in what will be a landmark 50th anniversary year.
On Tuesday, Rhodes will present her fall 2019 collection at the Fashion and Textile Museum, and it will be filled, she said, with her “usual classics,” the signature bold prints, frills and gold metallic pleated pieces. “We’ll be playing on our strengths,” the designer said.
The metallic pieces are a nod to the Costume Institute’s upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum has chosen one of Rhodes’ gold Elizabethan outfits for the show, which this year is themed around camp, although the designer said she never thought of her metallic designs in that way.
The designer’s anniversary year will culminate in September, which she and her team have been referring to as the month of “Z.” She plans to unveil a retrospective book “Zandra Rhodes, 50 Fabulous Years of Fashion” (Yale University Press), with essays by her friends including Iris Apfel, Suzy Menkes and Anna Sui.
A retrospective exhibition will open on Sept. 26 at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, which she founded in 2003 and which sits right next door to her studio building on Bermondsey Street in southeast London. The designer is also planning jubilee presentations during London Fashion Week, and will host the premiere of a documentary by one of Rhodes’ former students, the filmmaker Bridie O’Sullivan, called “Zandra With a Zee.”
Rhodes also turns 79 in September, but she isn’t slowing down, despite the day-to-day challenges of running a business. Her plans include more collections, more designs for the opera, and possibly a branded shop next to the Fashion and Textile Museum.
The fact that she is still standing on those Croc-clad feet and running an independent business after 50 years is staggering, especially given how rapidly designers in this town rise and fall, go broke, fall out with their investors or pivot to new jobs or careers after they’ve given fashion their all.
“Sometimes I feel like I am 150 — and that I’m always swimming upstream,” said Rhodes, who is quick to smile, make a joke or offer a cup of tea. Driven and detail-oriented, she is known for her immaculate archive, which includes at least one of every design she has ever made.
She would argue that she survived all these years in business by “ducking and diving. And I haven’t ever thought in terms of giving up.” She is also quick to mention that her best friend, the designer David Sassoon, also ran his business for 50 years, during which he dressed nearly every female member of the British royal family.
Her business has grown to encompass jewelry, wrapping paper, china for Royal Doulton and furs for Pologeorgis in New York. She is reviving her prints and giving them new life with Absolut Art, the Swedish e-commerce platform and advisory, and has regularly designed opera costumes in cities such as Houston, San Diego, San Francisco and London.
Designing for the opera, she said, “is a lovely sideline where I end up making very large ladies feel like fairy princesses on the stage. It is quite fun what you can do, and I have really enjoyed it.”
Indeed, the big 5-0 would have passed her by had it not been for the Fashion and Textile folks. “I wouldn’t have even thought about this anniversary, as such, if the museum hadn’t suddenly decided that they were going to do the retrospective exhibition. Don’t ask me what it is going to look like — because I don’t know,” she said good-naturedly.
Rhodes has always pursued her own path: In the Sixties, when British manufacturers dismissed her textile designs as too outrageous, she just worked them into dresses of her own design — and opened a store in London called the Fulham Road Clothes Shop. The year was 1967 and her business partner was fellow designer Sylvia Ayton.
Two years later, Rhodes took her outrageous prints to New York, where WWD and American Vogue’s Diana Vreeland spotted her talent, helping to get into stores including Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. She would remain a mainstay of American retailers’ eveningwear floors for decades — and, even when British fashion was in its deepest doldrums, was enough of a reason for U.S. buyers to make the trip to London.
In London, she had her own space at Fortnum & Mason, and by 1975 she’d opened another store off Bond Street. A shop-in-shop at Marshall Field’s followed, with Rhodes building up a loyal base of clients on both sides of the Atlantic who could not get enough of her prints, bright colors and wafting creations.
“Zandra’s creations are timeless — and very individual to her,” said Kerry Taylor, founder and owner of Kerry Taylor Auctions, the London house that specializes in vintage clothing, costumes and textiles. “At times, she would lead the trends, and when she wasn’t leading the trends, she would very happily live in her own world. She very much plows her own furrow.”
Taylor described Rhodes as a “creative artist” above anything else, because she designs her own prints, embroideries, embellishments, shapes and silhouettes. She said new generations are always rediscovering Rhodes, and the designer’s late Sixties and early Seventies romantic prints, including lilies of the field and Ayers Rock, are among the most popular.
“The ethereal, floaty Seventies shapes are highly desirable,” said Taylor, adding that Rhodes’ Renaissance collection — the one with all the gold metallic designs — has also done very well.
Rhodes’ client list is a who’s who of 20th- and 21st-century pop culture: She has dressed characters as diverse as Princess Diana and Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Freddie Mercury, Debbie Harry, Bianca Jagger, Kylie Minogue, Paris Hilton, Joan Rivers, Helen Mirren and Sarah Jessica Parker.
She was right there with many of them, hanging out at Studio 54. “There’s a picture of me at the reopening of 54, sitting asleep with Tina Chow. There are others of me dancing. It is so funny,” she said, adding that she only realized much later that Andy Warhol wore wigs. “I thought, ‘Oh, he has got very funny hair.’”
Her own hair, in the Studio 54 days, was green. Rhodes moved onto pink in 1980 when she started going gray. “The pink hair disguises a lot. Green doesn’t wear very well, whereas the pink wears very well,” said Rhodes, who colors her bob about every eight weeks.
Today, her collections sell at Liberty, Matchesfashion.com and she still does a big business in private orders. “I have got ‘forever clients’ who pop up again, which is quite wonderful. Of course I do shows in San Diego, so I have my clients there,” said Rhodes, who lives part time in the Californian city with her longtime partner Salah M. Hassanein, the retired Warner Bros. executive.
She’s been short on time lately, and said that she needs to take a trip — a pattern and color safari — to India or Australia with her old pal Andrew Logan, the sculptor, artist and jewelry designer, and her sketchbook.
“Lately, there has been so much donkey work of getting the book done and making sure it reads OK. I don’t feel I even have enough time for what I am really here for,” she said. “But the passion is still there. That is true.”