Synthesis: the art and fashion of Zandra Rhodes
Fashion week in Dunedin was particularly good this year. I can’t decide if this was because the quality of local and emerging designers was also high, or if it was solely due to the halo of real celebrity, the glow of reflected light from a million-watt personality: designer and artist Zandra Rhodes, guest designer for Dunedin Fashion Week 2010. Accompanied by her friend Andrew Logan, UK sculptor and jeweller, Zandra was brought to Dunedin with support from the British Council and Dunedin lawyers Anderson Lloyd, and worth every penny. Interviewed by nearly everyone of note in New Zealand, she also consented to be interviewed for Context on the Friday afternoon of Fashion Week, shortly after a public lecture given that morning at Otago Museum. Zandra had spoken to a capacity audience of about three hundred people, mostly women (a quick count estimated proportions of women to men at nine to one, roughly equivalent to the opening night of Sex in the City). Her presentation was informative and polished, abundantly illustrated with images of her collections spanning forty years. Zandra presented her career as a progression of collections and their inspirations, many of which were from other cultures encountered during her extensive travels. The range, quality, and quantity of her work was astonishing, and was also (unusually) marked by the human hand of creation, rather than the machine of production.
Her work is frankly beautiful. The more I see of her fashion, the more it looks like art. Imaginative, innovative, she achieves in her work a uniquely balanced fusion of textile, dress, technique, colour, and design. She communicated all this with warmth, humour, and lack of pretension, so it was no surprise crowds flocked round her at the end to buy signed copies of her book.
An hour later, down at Otago Polytechnic, it’s my turn to meet Zandra, which has given me time to rewrite the questions prepared before the lecture. I know she is in her seventieth year, but it’s hard to tell her age, and age becomes irrelevant anyway when confronted with her person. Her hair strikes me first – it’s such a wonderful and startling pink. Then her eye makeup rivets my attention: extravagant ultramarine, turquoise, (and wasn’t there some gold?) plus a lot of eyeliner. She is instantly recognisable, even with her once–striking cheekbones blurred by age. Yet the details of her face diminish next to her striking dress and jewellery, which provide a new and distracting feast for my wide-open and curious eyes. Zandra wears several layers of dress on this cold wet day, with multiple colours, textures, and patterns, combined in colourful profusion and completely covering her short frame. Huge jewellery pieces adorn her body, beginning at her throat and falling well below her waist, dangling from her ears and wrists, while vast rings stud her fingers. The pieces blend and dazzle in a riot of colour, sparkle, and sound; they fall and slide and crash into each other with soft clicks – a timpani of paste, a cacophony of coloured light.
She makes no attempt to flatter her figure or steal beauty against time; it’s not the point. Ageless, beyond fashion, her style is her own self. A doyenne of colour and profusion, of subtle and beautiful combinations, of technically brilliant patterning – intricate and delicate yet assertive, she creates an unusual femininity which escapes the passive, yet which keeps the observer’s eye engaged on the surface, so that the female form becomes a means not an end to decoration, suggesting that a life in these clothes is a life portrait of display. Although that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s the best I can do. Perhaps I mean that this way of dressing is what display itself looks like: a subtle blend of surface, content, impression, and intention. It doesn’t say “look at me” so much as “look at what I present to you”.
Scraping our chairs on the lino floor, we take our seats on opposite sides of the long wooden table and I make my introductions. Various people hover about: members of the organising committee, fashion school staff. Andrew Logan arrives half way through with postcards in one hand and stamps in the other, bringing Stella along with him to show Zandra her blue blue eyes.
Textile and fashion designer, artist, fashion icon and instantly recognisable as herself, Zandra is also a businesswoman who has survived in the tough world of fashion for more than four decades – without backing. She runs her own screen printing company Zandra Rhodes Enterprises Ltd, sells her designs in multiple outlets and in media ranging from satin to rubber to ceramics, helped set up the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and has more recently designed costume and sets for international operas.
The New York Times has declared her work collectable, her bust (by sculptor Andrew Logan), is in England’s National Portrait Gallery she designed the white batwing costume for Freddie Mercury, her clothes have been worn by almost every grown-up celebrity known to gossip columnists, and she has been awarded a CBE and nine honorary doctorates in Britain. What other kinds of famous are there?
Growing up with art and fashion, Zandra started printing her own textiles as a young woman because she needed a job. They were at first seen as too extreme, so she made her textiles into dresses herself and opened her first shop in 1967. She had black hair in those days. In 1969 actress Natalie Wood wore one of her designs, gaining attention for her work in the US. Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland included Zandra’s designs in American Vogue (“in those days fashion magazines worked differently”) and the rest is history.
Her most famous work includes her one-sided dress designed in 1974, inspired by a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia; from 1977 her torn dresses joined with beaded safety pins and chains, i.e. Punk before Versace; she also pioneered ‘lettuce’ edging (rippled external seams) and made modern versions of the sari in India in 1987. Her designs have been copied as homage by several top designers (such as Marc Jacobs last season), but not all copyists acknowledge her (she mentions Versace and Dior). Zandra says it’s not worth pursuing copyright through the courts; it is very expensive and hard to prove. So although some work is a direct rip-off, she prefers to save her energy and instead see them as flattering imitations. She does however keep a book of these copies, which I hope will be collected by the Fashion and Textile Museum someday, for the record.
Seasoned world traveller and visual magpie, Zandra keeps her eyes open for sources of inspiration which she appreciates at the level of detail. She explains this process by looking around the room for a moment and calling my attention to the rather wonderful wood grain in the table, and then to the view from the window. Through mist and rain a silhouette of stone battlements is visible on the city skyline. It’s the tower of Otago Boys’ High School, a landmark and institution in Dunedin, but to Zandra it’s a castle. She describes how she sees such forms as possible patterns. First and foremost a textile designer, she collects these impressions by sketching, later developing a select few into her signature prints which are then screen printed by her company. Working from her final drawings, the patterns are separated by hand onto screens, then printed layer upon layer, colour upon colour, onto coloured cloth. She often works with satin or cotton, and says of her choice of materials: “You have to [see] quality in the garment somewhere.” Although never printing more than three colours, these are applied to a coloured textile, which both expands and unifies the palette. The colour range is expanded in a different way by printing the same colours onto different coloured textiles. Emerging from these combinations are luminous, complex, yet harmonised colourways. For example: imagine a cloth of pale green, printed with layers of red, pink and black. Try to imagine these colours overlapping and blending, not competing, and then imagine red, pink, and black on a ground of soft orange: soft and dynamic at the same time, and all part of the same collection.
Crucially, the separations and printing are done by hand. Zandra doesn’t use computers in the printing process because she says they generate an unmistakeable sameness which she rejects– she can always see when a print has been computer generated and this is not what she aims for. For her, computers also waste a lot of paper (“there’s another twig gone!”) Zandra always works to reduce waste in the design process, which is also apparent in her characteristic synthesis of textile and dress. Unlike most designers, her textile is never subservient to the dress, and the prints are worked out with the final shape of the dress in mind. The positioning of the printed pattern anticipates the placement of sleeves, neckline, waistline and hem: the ‘dress pattern’ is virtually printed on the cloth which privileges the design motif while keeping waste to a minimum. A variety of dress shapes is still possible, even from the one print. The textile directly influences the shape of the garment, which becomes a vehicle for the print, so she doesn’t torture the cloth or lose the print with a lot of cutting, shaping, and joining, as other designers do. Instead her dresses wrap or fall with a fluidity that gives life to the textile, simultaneously flattering the body to achieve a rare balance between revelation and concealment. The result is an effective display of body, dress and textile, in a kind of radical femininity, an artful balancing act. Her art lies in the synthesis.
She keeps her screens, and although some were broken by builders during renovations, most have survived. She recently reprinted one of her early designs, making a kind of retro reproduction. This allowed her to show some examples of her early work in Dunedin, since many of the early surviving garments are now too fragile to be worn. They made an appearance in the grand finale of iD Fashion Show, along with her more recent work, all accessorised to great effect by Andrew Logan’s outsize jewellery. And what a finale it was.
“What drives you?” I ask as the rain starts to pour. She doesn’t understand the question, so I try again. She can’t imagine what else she might have done. Reflecting on her long career, she says that it has never been easy, but that she always pretends that it is. She gets to do what she loves for at least part of every day, and has done that throughout her career. She describes herself as “an artist in the field of fashion”, and says it’s just as well she is “a workaholic because you have to be to find time for everything”. Spending half her time in Britain and half in San Diego, not counting trips to India, China, or the Pacific, she is always working and travelling. While in Dunedin she gets up very early to attend to her business emails before Fashion Week consumes another ten or twelve hours of the day. She has survived in a tough business by “ducking and diving, knocking on doors”, and “always looking to where she can sell”. She has to fight to get enough PR, to get another break. Although not being backed by anyone makes it harder to survive, it also means she is her own boss and her company is small enough to be flexible. I find her description of her career as survival very telling.
She always wears her own designs because she believes in them. And this is what strikes me most about Zandra: her self belief. She is successful as an artist, fashion designer, business woman, and individual in the world, partly because she is so confident. Her individuality is what she sells. Her brand is as much about her colourful hair, clothing and makeup as it is about her designs. She tells me she is selling a dream, and that people buy into the image because it makes them feel good. (I wonder later if they are buying into her individuality or their own?)
The impact of her persona on me is huge; her colourful look, her fashion, her clothes. And she is selling that image, but for her it’s much more than colour. She looks at colour a lot, and she likes it, but its only part of things and not the whole point. She doesn’t dress by colour selection. She tells me that when she gets up in the morning she quickly selects what to wear based on ease and practicality, she just makes a choice from her wardrobe (imagine her wardrobe!). Her colour choice each day is not connected to how she is feeling (unlike me) and I realise I have confused her colourful persona with colourfulness more generally. She doesn’t even think Dunedin is a city of dull colour (as I do). Zandra only comments that “fashions come and go… if you look fabulous then people will compliment you, which makes you feel good, and on it goes”. In any case, some people like to hide, so strong colour is not for them. Zandra recollects how The Daily Mail once challenged her to wear black for a week and she was surprised at what a struggle this was – but only because she didn’t have enough black clothes! It took her “a while to work it out”, and she had to go out and buy a pair of black pants. (How many of us would be challenged to dress for work for a week without wearing black?)
If she could do it all again she “wouldn’t change anything”. She doesn’t “want someone else’s life”, and she can’t imagine doing anything else. She is proud that she can “do prints and work them into garments”. Acknowledging that textiles are her first love, she also knows she just did her own thing to see if it would work, and it did. Otherwise she would have had to teach, which she hated (much to the disappointment of her mother).
She has really loved doing costumes for Opera, and has done several for New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company, printing kimonos and saris for costumes: in other words she ‘Zandra-fied’ them. She tells me that in Opera the director selects the whole design team, so “if you want to do the costumes you have to kiss the director”.
She loves seeing “that castle” out the window. She keeps turning her eyes to its battlements showing against the skyline in the pouring rain. She pauses briefly to contemplate the castle as an idea for a new print design. I think Otago Boys High School Old Boys would be astonished if they knew.
This article was first published in CONTEXT, journal of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand http://www.costumeandtextileco.nz
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