Zandra Rhodes on pink hair, Freddie Mercury and an exhibition celebrating her fifty years in fashion

By Francesca Montero
October 16 2019, 09.35

Dame Zandra Rhodes launched a new exhibition last week celebrating her five-decade fashion career at the museum she also calls home in Bermondsey.

Zandra Rhodes – 50 Years of Fabulous opened at the Fashion and Textile Museum (FTM) featuring a retrospective of more than 50 key looks, as well as 30 original textiles from the distinguished career of the British design legend.

Dame Zandra, 79, who launched her fashion brand in 1969 and founded the Fashion and Textile Museum, the only one of its kind in the UK, in 2003, lives in an exquisitely decorated, rainbow penthouse above the museum.

Dame Zandra said: “I would say it’s an achievement to survive 50 years in the UK and to be a proud UK designer. I still produce two collections a year.”

In 1974, she created the white pleated top Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury, wore in what became one of his most iconic images, even though she didn’t know who he was when he telephoned her atelier to make an appointment.

Dame Zandra said: “I had a phone call in my little work room; it was a sort of attic studio in Paddington above the goods yard. It might have been Freddie, it might have been Brian, they rang up and said they would like to come and see me, and after I made the appointment I asked my girls ‘what did they play?’ They said ‘Oh it’s that hit on the radio’.”

“They came in the evening after six and I said ‘Let’s get things off the rails, try them on and move around the room’ and that top was actually a wedding top that I had designed. So I made the top, I can’t remember if I did a second fitting even, I just delivered the top.”

“I never saw them again, and then when Freddie died, everyone was asking me about dressing him because that was always the photo they use of him, that had captured a moment in time.”

In September 2016, luxury retailer MatchesFashion, founded in Wimbledon by Ruth and Tom Chapman in 1987, introduced a Zandra Rhodes archive collection of dresses.

They continue to stock her signature creations each season.

Natalie Kingham, fashion buying director at MatchesFashion, said: “I have always been a big fan of Zandra Rhodes and her designs and I love that her pieces from the 60s and 70s are still so relevant today.

“Each piece is screen printed with love in her studio in Bermondsey and have been reimagined for the modern woman. Her dresses are easy yet glamorous and the striking colours and prints make them feel wonderful when you’re wearing them.”

Dame Zandra is synonymous with pink, the FTM is an evocative shade of Tuscan farmhouse rose.

There is lots of pink in her apartment, the hue features heavily in her creations and, of course, her hair.

Dame Zandra said: “The main reason my hair has remained pink is it’s actually the best wearing colour. It’s just maintenance. Once my boyfriend was quite conservative and I thought I’d have my hair dyed brown, it lasted for a week.

“We went to a cocktail party and people were introducing themselves to me that I knew and I said it’s me Zandra Rhodes and they kept saying ‘sorry didn’t recognise you’, and the lesson from that is to keep my hair pink.”

Her textile designs and practices have inspired a whole host of international designers and the wider fashion industry.

Zandra Rhodes has been a huge inspiration for Brighton based print and accessories designer, Lou Taylor.

Lou’s signature, lifelike, perspex brooches of female icons are stocked in prestigious art gallery and museum gift shops around the world; the FTM gift shop sells her Zandra brooch and necklace.

Lou said: “My most well-known brooches are of iconic stylish women and so it made perfect sense to make one of Zandra. I’ve always loved Zandra Rhodes’ work, especially her patterns and incredible use of colour in her designs and her hair! The FTM is such a special place and Zandra Rhodes is such an important British designer.”

The fact that Dame Zandra has endured in such a fickle industry is in part due to the absolute originality of her designs; a Zandra Rhodes piece has an heirloom quality.

As the fashion industry in recent years increasingly reflects on the environmental impact of fast fashion and sustainability, Dame Zandra has always been ahead of her time.

Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions of The Fashion and Textile Museum said: “The beauty of Zandra’s dresses is that everything happens in the studio; selecting the textiles, they screen print everything by hand downstairs in the print room, they’re sampled in the sample room and then people’s dresses are sewn by a seamstress, there’s no mass production, so you get this amazing kind of industry in one building which is so rare and so brilliant for students who come to intern to see that you can create and you can produce world class dresses.”

Dame Zandra’s designs have a long association with the royal family. Princess Michael of Kent wearing Zandra Rhodes, cut the ribbon at the launch of this exhibition, and Princess Diana frequently wore Zandra’s creations both at home and on royal tours abroad.

Who of the current crop of stars would she most like to dress?

Dame Zandra said: “Our other Princess, Kate, that would be wonderful.”

Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous runs until January 26 2020 at Fashion and Textile Museum.

Related Articles