Zandra Rhodes’ Colourful Character Lights Up Lady Sew Sew in Henley

  • Zandra Rhodes at Lady Sew and Sew in Henley
    The Lady Sew & Sew Family and Zandra

Zandra Rhodes who recently launched her first FreeSpirit fabric collection for the craft market was the special guest at Lady Sew Sew in Henley last week to talk about her life, and how she became accepted into the fashion world, when her first designs were considered ‘too outrageous by the traditional British manufacturers’! She was interviewed by Sharon Brant, author of the Ultimate Knitting Bible.

Zandra with her trademark pink hair and heavy make-up (which she never goes out without or takes off to go to bed!) told her story from the time when she was introduced to the world of fashion by her mother, a fitter for the Paris fashion House of Worth and later a lecturer at Medway College of Art.  She then went on to tell that how she studied at The Royal College of Art in London and how she got into her specialist area of printed textile design. She said, “I thought I would never go into art!”

Her early textile designs were considered too outrageous by the traditional British manufacturers so she decided to make dresses from her own fabrics and pioneered the very special use of printed textiles as an intrinsic part of the garments she created. She said, “Even today it is a shame that all the credit goes to the designer of the clothes not the fabric designer –there’s always a story behind the fabric itself. My inspiration for the first FreeSpirit collection ‘Lace Mountain’ was Ayres Rock and the grass that grows around it.”

Zandra still starts with sketches and paper patterns which she holds up against herself to create the transparencies for the printing screens – she doesn’t like technology! She doesn’t have a favourite part of the design process but said, “The initial sketch is the most painful in case it doesn’t work out and I have no rules of mixing colours – I just go with what makes me feel good that day.”

In 1967 she opened her first shop: The Fulham Road Clothes Shop in London with Sylvia Ayton. In 1969 she set up on her own and took her collection to New York where it was featured in American Vogue, after which she started selling to Henri Bendel in NY.

Zandra then went on to talk about how her career has diversified in the last few years by designing the sets and costumes for operas internationally. She first worked for the opera in 2001, when San Diego Opera invited her to do costumes for the Magic Flute. She was then asked to design both sets and costumes for Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in 2004.

The audience was then told about Zandra’s challenging journey to set up the Fashion and Textile Museum in London after selling her own house in Notting Hill Gate, converting an old cash and carry building in run down area in Bermondsey, losing a National Lottery bid and eventually opening with the money from a new design of building with flats above which were sold to finance it. Zandra said, “I am good at dreams but not at selling my dreams.”

Zandra has dressed some amazing people over the years including Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Mercury and more recently Kylie Mynogue and Bianca Jagger. Asked who she would like to dress she replied, “Of course the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate) and Dolly Parton.” Having recently been made a Dame, but hasn’t been yet to receive her award, the audience really wanted to know what she was going to wear. She said, “It will all depend on the weather, it will definitely be a suit with a dramatic hat.” Asked whether she’s friends with other fashion Dame, Vivienne Westwood her immediate answer was “No and she’s not even a Royalist, why is she a Dame?, she’s not very respectful!”

It seems that Zandra never throws anything away. She has kept all her original screens and has over the years recycled some of her prints. She has also kept three sets of her favourite things in 100 chests in her studio. When she dies, she thought that one set would be donated to the V&A Museum in London, the second to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the third set would be sold at the Sale Room down the road! A member of the audience asked how she protects her things from mould etc. Zandra replied, “I pray! They are just wrapped in acid free tissue paper with bars of soap.”

At the age of 74, Zandra is continuing to create new collections, only a few weeks ago she was in Toronto launching a collection for Colebrook by Windsmoor for Spring/Summer 2015 which will be available in House of Fraser and Debenhams.

With many people in the room probably thinking before the start that Zandra was a real fashion ‘Diva’, she was certainly the opposite which not only came through during her talk but afterwards when she spent so much time with the guests signing books and having photographs taken.

Lady Sew and Sew are the main UK stockist for Zara’s new collection Lace Mountain. They can be found in Farm Road, Henley on Thames, RG9 1EJ Open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm with regular weekend Open Days detailed on their website