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A Retrospective For Zandra Rhodes

A Retrospective For Zandra Rhodes
Zandra Rhodes, the iconic British fashion designer who calls San Diego home, talks about her insatiable thirst for work, her pink hair, and the inspirations behind her dramatic, outlandish designs. A retrospective of Rhodes' work recently opened at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Zandra Rhodes, the iconic British fashion designer who calls San Diego home, talks about her insatiable thirst for work, her pink hair, and the inspirations behind her dramatic, outlandish designs. A retrospective of Rhodes' work recently opened at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Zandra Rhodes is an internationally renowned fashion and textile designer. A retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles is currently on view at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park through April 3, 2011.


To see photos of the exhibit at the Mingei and read more about Zandra Rhodes, go to the KPBS Culture Lust blog.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and we're listening to These Days on KPBS. A woman who has influenced fashion from London's swinging 60s through the revolution of punk in the '70s and whose costume design is bringing down the house right now at the San Francisco opera is also having her work featured at San Diego's Mingei museum. The show is called Zandra Rhodes: A Lifetime Love Affair With Textiles, near 50 of her garments are being featured along with her original fabric designs. Zandra Rhodes is back in San Diego, her adopted home for most of the year, and she's here today to talk about her long career and why it truly has been a lifelong love affair.

It's a pleasure to welcome you to These Days, Zandra. Thank you for coming in.

ZANDRA RHODES: Wonderful to be here. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want our listeners to know that they can see a photo gallery of misdemeanors from a collection, Zandra Rhodes collection at the Mingei Museum at our culture blog on line so they can watch it on line while we're talking.


ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, that's great.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The show at the Mingei is a retrospective but I want you to make it clear that you are far from retired; isn't that correct?

ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, I'm not retired. I still make clothes for well, also lots of customers here in San Diego. So I still do a collection each season, but this is actually a traveling exhibition that was originally put together for my museum in London in 2005. And it's now been to Milan, to Australia, Melbourne Australia, last year it was called Passion for Fashion in Mexico City. Now it's come here to the fabulous Mingei Museum.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now walk us through your daily workday, if you would. Because your work ethic is truly impressive. Tell us tell us how your workday expands.

ZANDRA RHODES: Well, if I'm in San Diego, I usually start at four in the morning because I like to catch the people that work for me in London before they go to lunch. So I have to catch them between 12 and 1 to just check that they don't if you want things done, I don't want the afternoon wasted.


ZANDRA RHODES: So I try and deal with what I call boring faxes and sum e mails but I'm really a fax person. So I do that from home. And then try and go into work by into my studio, which is in so lana beach, by by probably about 8:00 o'clock, 8:30.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And then you do of course a full workday.

ZANDRA RHODES: A full workday there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And then at night?

ZANDRA RHODES: Well, then at night, I mean, one might go out socially. But I try and make sure that by the end of the evening I send a fax back to London so it's waiting on their door step of jobs that they have to sort of get on with, because in London itself, I mean, I do a range of sheets and duvets, and there's people coming in next week to look at new designs. I do a range of scarves, a range of handbags, a range of clothes for marked suspenders, printed, I've got my own collection, a range of shoes. So all of those things, I have various meetings throughout the week, ask then as well, I mean, now, things to Ian Campbell of San Diego opera who first got me to do the costumes for the magic flute. I mean, I've just done Aida, both the sets and costumes in San Francisco, and the Magic Flute costumes are going to Seattle next year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said in the introduction, you have been working, you have been at this, so to speak, since the 60s. And I'm wondering where to you get your work ethic.

ZANDRA RHODES: Ordinary care really from my mother. My mother was always working. And to me, I can't imagine what I'd do if I wasn't working. And when you say working, I mean, if I was given the chance to maybe go away on holiday, then I would have the discipline I would have to do at least two drawings in my sketchbook a day that would then go on to influence a collection that I might do, given you know, I'd love to have that opportunity sometimes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the creative process and work is just a single piece for you.

ZANDRA RHODES: Sorry? I didn't follow the

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The creative process is your work.

ZANDRA RHODES: The creative process is my work. But it doesn't feel like work.


ZANDRA RHODES: And my friends would be exactly the same. So I would go away on a holiday with a friend, and he'd sit and do his water colors and I'd sit and do my sketches so that it wouldn't really make any difference to something like that. And the actual, when you come into the exhibition at the beginning of it in the Mingei it shows you drawing and illustrations of the fact that when I drew when I both went to China and drew from their collection of Chinese hats then it lead me to do the Chinese print, then it lead me to do the pagoda sleeve ball gown that's in there that actually was donated to my museum by Valerie Cooper.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So that's an example of taking a vacation and yet being influenced in this way to create more

ZANDRA RHODES: A new collection, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now as you say, in the Mingei exhibit is called Zandra Rhodes: A lifelong love affair with textiles that lifelong love affair began, I believe, with your mother; is that right?

ZANDRA RHODES: Well, I mean the I mean, I love my work but I didn't choose to go into textiles till I went to the art college. So after I'd left school I went to an art college, of course, they're now called universities. But to an art college. And I thought I'd do book illustration. And then I was very influenced by a fantastic textile teacher who said oh, you ought to do textiles. Barbara brown, and she told me I should apply to go to the royal college of art, which is where hock no went.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David hock no. Yes.

ZANDRA RHODES: David hock no, who's gonna have his opera here early next year with the San Diego opera.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very exciting. So as you went in, were you a fashionable teenager while you were

ZANDRA RHODES: No. No, no, no. When I was working I wore just old clothes, no make up, you know, like genes and a sailor's sweater. I don't like working dressed up. I dress up for radio because I have to look all right, otherwise, I know you can't see me but I feel right. But when I'm working I hate the fact of wearing something lovely and then you walk by and you get a daub of paint on something that you love. So that I always I'm always fully made up, my hair of course is always pink anyway, and I always wear the jewelry, which I've taken off so it doesn't muck up the sounds on the radio.

THE COURT: And we appreciate that.

ZANDRA RHODES: And but apart from that, I have to work in old clothes, I can't work in good clothes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I since you mentioned your hair a lot, a lot has been made of the fact that you have a striking color of hair, it is pink. Some people call it fuchsia. Of and it is not a wig. This is your hair.

ZANDRA RHODES: My real hair, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But it didn't always used to be this color. Ive mean obviously not your whole life. But you used to prefer a green shade. Why did why did that change?

ZANDRA RHODES: Well, first of all, what happened was in the early '70s, Vidal Sassoon brought out green wigs and I tried on a wig and it it was really painful on my head. So then I thought as a textile designer, hang on, surely if wool grows out of I sheep, then it must be similar to do hair. So I went in and asked Leonard, the hair dresser to bleach my hair and try dying it green. And we tried all the dyes it used to leave all the dyes on the pillow in those days. And then when I went to China in 1980, I thought, it's time for a change. Instead of staying green, why don't I dye my hair pink or red for red China? And it's so easy to kept except for the fact that I to have it bleached. I don't intend to go gray. So it might sort of stay pink forever.

THE COURT: And as you said, you have this particular look with the hair and the jewelry, and also your make up, and it's elaborate, and it's something that follows you even as you sleep, I hear.

ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, yes, I don't take it off. And then if I get up on a late day, I just make up on top of what's left.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Saves time right?

ZANDRA RHODES: Saves time. And whenever people catch me at the end of the day, and I they say, Zandra, you look so tired and I say, just a minute, and I go and put new make up on. And they go, oh, you look all right now. So you know, the make makes all the defense but it's really just putting lines and color all around my eyes so you don't see any bags it doesn't really show.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with icon Zandra Rhodes, and we are talking about her exhibit at the Mingei International Museum, A Lifelong Affair with Textiles. Your textiles are full of wild prints and rich colors and they're dramatic. And what was your what was the response to your textiles early on before people began to associate them with Zandra Rhodes?

ZANDRA RHODES: When I first left the Royal College and I thought, I mean, I look quite well, sort of normal, I had dark hair. Although I did I mean I always tried to dress up nicely when I went to sell things so I had a folio of designs and I went to sell my designs and people would look at them and say these are far too extreme. And yet in my head, I could always imagine how they would look as clothes. Tried selling them, couldn't make a living. I taught two days a week to make the money to live, and in the end I thought I'm going to put a collection together and see how it goes. And my mother had died, and she had left me oh, it was something like $600. And I thought, that's it. I'm giving up teaching I'm gonna put a collection together and I met these two wonderful, mad Ukrainian models, and they said you've got to come to America and make your fortune. And I had only met two Americans then, one of them had been to Prague. His name was Richard Holly, and he's a top interior decorator now in Houston. And he said you can come to New York, and you can stay with me. And I sent a letter of introduction to Diana Vrieland of American Vogue, the high priestess, and another letter to Woman's Wear Daily. And Woman's Wear Daily ran a page on me, the front cover. And I went into and then Diana Vrieland land looked at the clothes and photographed them immediately on Natally wood, and they were then sold in Henry Bendell.


ZANDRA RHODES: And the actual coat that is on the wall is one of those coats.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, so what you're saying is you were almost forced into fashion design to show people how to use your textiles.

ZANDRA RHODES: Yes. Because I couldn't sell the textiles, and and then I had to get a friend who people would say oh, you're a textile designer, you can't be a clothes designer. And so I had to get someone who was trained as a librarian librarian and gone into fashion who was sympathetic enough to say I'll teach you how to make patterns so that I could do something like that. So it was and my mother had always been making clothes at home because she taught dress making but I wasn't taught by my mother because I never thought I'd go into making dresses.


ZANDRA RHODES: So you know, it was a wonderful adventure. And the sort of adventure really was a big influence in fact from folk art and folk clothes like you there's a wonderful book by gosh, I can't remember. There are a couple of really wonderful folk art books and they're probably in the incredible book shop in in the Mingei.


ZANDRA RHODES: Which show folk costumes out flat. But in fact, the wonderful thing about the Mingei is it's collection of native things from various places. So there's an incredible Rumanian exhibition that I've got to go in and draw. And you've got to look at the hand work that people put into those things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think that textile designers are still not given enough credit in the fashion industry.

ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, this is why I founded the fashion textile museum in London. That I actually have my penthouse on the top of that, and it was designed by Ricardo Ligaretta, the Mexican, top Mexican architect, and it's of course origin pink. And it stands out in London and it was really to give credit to mainly textile designers and the fact that they're, you know, fashion designers just cut up textiles and they don't really give credit to the fact that that textile is also saying something really important. If you look at opinion incredible Chanel suit, they designer did that we've, but they get ignored. That's a Chanel suit. Do you know what I mean?


ZANDRA RHODES: So I think it's something that's of increasing importance that one has to notice. I mean, my textiles are influenced by all sorts of things, also in the museum, I have to give a lot of credit to my wonderful assistant Chet Nabat. We met in the '80s when I did a sari show in India. And we've chosen textiles from the actual Mingei, their own collection.


ZANDRA RHODES: To show how these things can also fit in. So it's not just an exhibition that doesn't fit in with anything. You hook at what goes on in the streets and it can filter upwards as well as downwards so you think, why can't a tear be as beautiful as a print? Why can't a safety pin you could pin a dress together really elegantly, and I mean, my safety pins were done in 1977. They beaded safety bins and they were good enough for Armanni not Armanni. For Versace to copy ten years later. And this was noted by Suzie Menkis of the International Tribune, Herald Tribune, who said they had been copy asked she got banned for his show for two seasons.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you. A little inside fashion there. Thank you for that. And in fact, not only do your designs sometimes get copied and mistaken, but I hear that you are sometimes mistaken for both Vivian Westwood and Betsy Johnson.

ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, yes, when I go to the Oscars, all the people on the on those benches out front always go Betsy, Betsy! And I wave, I'm not gonna tell them that I'm not Betsy but we meet each other and it happens to Betsy too. You know, she was in London they might say Zandra Rhodes, and if I bump into French people where Vivian's well known, and I don't look a bit like her, and they go Vivian! Vivian! And I just wave. There's no point in saying it's not me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I hear that music is very important to you when you work. Tell us a little bit about that.

ZANDRA RHODES: I enjoy listening to opera, although I have to admit, I actually work with Nation Public Radio.


ZANDRA RHODES: Yes. I have that on, and if I do get fed up with that, because it repeats on my computer I can put the World Service, the UK World Service.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay, so I'm so glad that I asked you about it. I'm going to ask you about since we're since we're talking I bit about music, about this really remarkable experience that you've had in designing the collects for Aida up at the San Francisco opera. Of and that's currently it's running in rotation now with several other operas out this, and in reading the reviews if are the for Aida, it's just remarkable that your clothing design, these vibrant colors, the look that you've given this opera, is getting more attention well, let me just say, as much attention as the music and the singing. And I wonder if that is how do you feel about that?

ZANDRA RHODES: It's a great compliment, I mean, it's just so wonderful. I mean, to me, I've been coming to opera so late in life, as it were, has been one of the wonderful experiences of being in San Diego area, you know, the fact that I got if I'd have been in London no one would have ever bothered to contact me, so it was just a great experience to be involved and I've I've been able to use my textiles to complete advantage like in the Aida, the priests have what's called a bald paint, which is really like a flesh colored swimming hat on. And on it, they've got as if turquoise zig zag tattoos and they wear gold pleated skirts, and over that, they have leopard skins but the leopard skins are turquoise, and they're made from the leopard skin print, and in fact, the chiffon print original is actually hanging in the mickey. And originally we did do an exhibition just on Aida Etnian library in April.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. I'm wondering request the excerpts that I've seen from the Aida costume design that you that is on display, it's so vibrant, there's so so many bold colors, it's really so breath taking. Do you think that is might be too much for London expectation, Londoners' expecting of what an opera experience should be?

ZANDRA RHODES: Well, they did it this actual opera happened because the jack domain who ran the opera Pacific, which is really sadly closed, but he came to see the pel fish that I did here in San Diego opera. And then said, I think you should do Aida. He commissioned me to do Aida, and then went into partnership with Houston opera. So the Houston opera, then I did the initial ideas, and all the costume designs, and opera Pacific couldn't continue.


ZANDRA RHODES: They then I then went to opera to Houston opera, and they took into partnership English national opera.


ZANDRA RHODES: And opera San Francisco.


ZANDRA RHODES: And so it's already been shown in Houston, then it went to London.


ZANDRA RHODES: It showed in London and it was so popular that they did it two years running.


ZANDRA RHODES: So they did it, then it got back on a boat to San Francisco.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. I want to ask you about one of the fashion, one of the pop stars that's emerging as a fashion icon now is Lady Gaga. I wonder would you would you like to design for her.

ZANDRA RHODES: Oh, I'd love to have a go at doing something for her.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you like about her?

ZANDRA RHODES: I mean, I think she's got great guts. You know what I mean? And I am we're dealing with a different generation but I'd feel greatly complimented if she came to me for an outfit. And I'm sure I could think of something. I mean, I dressed Freddy mercury right at the beginning of his career. And it's still the photographs it looked fabulous.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Zandra Rhodes and I'm talking to her about a lifelong love affair with textiles. It's a show open now at the Mingei international museum right here in San Diego. Just a word about dressing famous people. How does that work when when someone like Freddy mercury or Lauren Bakal or a Lady Di comes into your office? Do you do they tell you what you want or is it a class action?

ZANDRA RHODES: It's a collaboration. Things I mean when we saw what he could move in, and feel great in, Lauren Bakal came through Holstern, who was a friend, and Holstern rang me up and said Lauren Bakal would like to come to you for a dress so she came to me direct to my studio in London when she came.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, and it must be thrilling to deal with people like that, and to dress them.

ZANDRA RHODES: It's wonderful. And then when you see them out in the garments


ZANDRA RHODES: And you could, this is wonderful to see how you can make them feel great in the garments that you mad for them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the things that I know and we're running out of time, just a bit, but I know that you want would love to establish a store to feature your designs. Why is that important to you?

ZANDRA RHODES: I think I used to have a store off of bon street. It just means that people automatically know, if you have a studio or they see all these exhibitions they think that you're maybe a historical past, up, whereas if there's a store and it's got your things they know that you still exist. I mean, yes, I still exist. But, you know, the world today is so fast that even if they look on the website and they say ooh she's got collections for I mean, for example, my collection from 2006, where I did a show, which was with Mac Cosmetics who did a Zandra Rhodes line. And in fact Vicki from this town, we invented this great big hair style this was like a big like balloon type bun on the top was being totally copied by John Galiano this season. Do I get a credit for it? No!

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, you have not. Except here.

ZANDRA RHODES: Do you know what I mean?


ZANDRA RHODES: And so it's I suppose only history will tell you what happens with these things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what kind of progress have you made on getting a store? And we only have about 30 seconds.

ZANDRA RHODES: I haven't had any time to even go any further. But there's a book at the Mingei store. So they mustn't miss that. And when I get a store, I'll tell you and you can put it on the show.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ordinary care please do. I would love to do that. I would like to let everyone know once again, that Zandra Rhodes, a Lifetime Love Affair with Textiles, is currently on exhibition at the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park, and it will run through April 3rd of next year, and you can see a photo gallery of imagines from that collection or exhibit on our website, the cultures blog at Zandra, it was just a pleasure. I'm so happy you came in. Thank you so much.

ZANDRA RHODES: Fabulous to be here. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go on line, KPBS.ORG/THESEDAYS. Thank you for listening, and you have been listening to These Days on KPBS.