Zandra Rhodes presented a lecture and slide show on her life’s work at Otago Museum this morning. The room was packed with a mixture of students and septuagenarians, and had to be cordoned off to avoid fire risk. She’s one popular lady. I arrived late and was forced to stand at the back of the room next to a crying baby and a young girl who kept rustling through a bag of potato chips. The first thing that caught my eye was a black and white double page spread of a young girl modelling a printed Zandra Rhodes sari. “If any of you have seen that American movie about the September Vogue, you might recognise the model; it’s a young Grace Coddington,” said Rhodes, drawing a loud cheer from the audience.
Other models included Jade Jagger in a multicoloured silk gown, Tina Chow in a printed kerchief and Jerry Hall in a white punk wedding dress. A wild, heavily textured, cream floor length coat – dubbed The Crocodile – from the early 70s was paired with some Manolo Blahnik heels, “From the first collection he ever did.” And a mutilated gown from 1971 caused quite a reaction among the establishment, “Nowadays, distressed fabrics are quite normal. When I started doing it back in the 70s, people thought I was crazy.”
As a pioneer of printed textiles, her work has influenced and inspired countless designers, some more than others. “Suzy Menkes wrote about how John Galliano copied one of my prints one season. She was banned from his shows for two years.” Recently, a Rhodes-ripoff appeared on the cover of another magazine. “People called me up to congratulate me on getting the cover. I had to tell them it wasn’t mine.”
To add insult to injury, trying to take companies to court is generally a waste of time and money. “I keep a book of all the copies of my work and two seasons ago Dior did a dress with circles that were the exact same size, proportion and which had a very similar look to my Mexican sombrero prints. Pity, they were just different enough that I couldn’t sue.”
At 69 years of age, Rhodes isn’t anti-technology, but she does believe that working by hand is the preferable method – for creativity and the environment. “Textile designers don’t benefit from computers, there’s not as much imagination involved. And all that printing! I say, ‘Don’t print that, that’s another twig gone!'”
Today, she devotes most of her time to designing costumes for the opera, and in the last ten years she’s done The Magic Flute, Aida and The Pearl Fishers. The only problem with getting the work, she said, is kissing the directors. “They should kiss you,” shouted a lady from the crowd. “That won’t work,” Rhodes laughed, “I think most of them are gay.”
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