Photo by Laura Kelly
Zandra Rhodes OBE has spent 50 years at the forefront of British fashion, having dressed everyone from Freddie Mercury to Princess Diana in her signature printed chiffons. Her work was adopted by the disco crowd in the 1970s, her gold lamé dresses modelled by the likes of Donna Summer and Pat Cleveland. Then she lacerated her creations with safety pins and was dubbed the Princess of Punk, a name that matched her trademark fuchsia bobbed hair. To this day she remains independent, having never sold out her brand to a big fashion house. At 79, she is as DIY as ever.
The Last Bohemians caught Zandra at an interesting – and stressful – time as she was celebrating her career's five-decade run and dealing with the death of her long-term partner. Themes of life, loss, grief and relevancy weave throughout this episode, as do ruminations on creativity, routine, restlessness and how to find ideas, and stories about Studio 54, her eccentric friendship circle, her take on the royal family and more. Her work ethic is infamous – but has the death of a loved one shifted her priorities?
We meet the style icon in her multi-hued apartment on two separate occasions to find out how she manages to do it all...
This episode was produced by Holly Fisher.
With thanks to Kelly Robinson, Kitty Joseph and Fred Butler.
Music in this episode:
Chad Crouch - Negentropy
Chad Crouch - Organisms
Jeff Chenault and Andrew Izold - Exotica Revisited
Komiku - Merfolk Music Box
Leo Rossa - Ice Cream
Lobo Loco - Under the Frost Crust
Parallel Park - Swarm
Podington Bear - Disco Sheik
Zimpel/Ziołek - Memory Dome
TRANSCRIPT: Zandra Rhodes
[Advert] Hello, I'm Kate Hutchinson and this is series two of The Last Bohemians. I just want to give a big shout out to my friends over at Mr and Mrs Smith, who have rather brilliantly come on board as a partner for this series. Since 2003, the travel club for hotel lovers has been seeking out pioneering and independently minded escapes, and at mrandmrssmith.com, you can browse and book 1400 of the world's best boutique and luxury hotels. All the way from gregarious grand dames to seductive side street hideaways, and from the New Forest to Namibia - they're all handpicked and anonymously reviewed, so you know you're getting the good stuff.
Kate Hutchinson: Zandra Rhodes' Salon bell number nine... I wonder what happens when we press this... [Bell rings] Oh. We're going in.
Holly Fisher, producer: Zandra, can I just get you to describe this room we're in?
Zandra Rhodes: This room is my library and it's terrible and it needs complete tidying up
Kate Hutchinson intro: It's fair to say that the first time we meet Zandra Rhodes, there couldn't have been a worse day…
[Zandra: The room needs doing and now everything's awful]
Kate Hutchinson intro: In 2019 she lost her long-term partner Salah Hassanein, but she's also had a full on schedule to celebrate 50 years of her career as one of the UK's most iconic fashion designers. Today she's just done a talk at the V&A museum and is preparing for one of her infamous sample sales in her London apartment, while also trying to move house in San Diego. But maybe this is just a typical day in the life for Zandra Rhodes, still a self-proclaimed workaholic who, at 79, shows no signs of slowing down...
Zandra: Probably creatively people don't retire – they might do a bit less, but I don't think they retire, no. I don't see myself retiring. I do, when I look around my library, see that it would be nice to have half a day to make the library look alright and put all the things away, and suddenly see that things haven't just been dumped in my library where I can't find them.
Kate: How would you describe your, not your tidy ethic, but your work ethic?
Zandra: Ridiculous. My work ethic is ridiculous, I mean I start work as soon as I get up and I finish work either when I'm about to drop or if I'm going out to dinner. So I just keep on doing it til then. I worry, I mean, worry that I'm not gonna have enough ideas. I would like to have a bit of space to do things, um, and now it's raining, I can hear it! It's clattering on the roof of my library. I just know I need a bit of space, I know I need time to come up with some new ideas. They should come but you have to give yourself time, they don't, ideas don't just happen, they have to be hunted out, dug out to get the ideas and have time to play around with them, but still they have to look like Zandra Rhodes, you can't just do anything.
Kate: We're surrounded by photographs of big moments in your life. There's a picture of you meeting Princess Diana behind me, there's a picture of you getting your OBE over there. What do you think when you look back, when you're sitting here in...
Zandra: I don't sit here. I come in here to walk to the bathroom and I come here to go to bed, and apart from that I set the alarm so that I can get up in the morning, and at the moment I'm just trying to pull myself together to answer these questions.
[The phone rings]
Zandra: Hello? Oh! Oh I know, but oh God, is she...
Kate Hutchinson intro: It's clear that Zandra is busy.
Zandra: I can't take it for much longer...
Kate Hutchinson intro: So we leave her to it and decide to rearrange for a quieter day. Then again, Zandra's work ethic is infamous, which is just one of the reasons why she's so celebrated. She is a true British icon, having dressed everyone from Princess Diana to Freddie Mercury in her signature floaty creations with their fabulously daring prints. Her work was first adopted by disco in the 1970s, and she later lacerated her chiffons with safety pins and was dubbed 'the Princess of Punk', a name that matched her trademark fuchsia bobbed hair. Her career is an extraordinary testament to the power of colour and to staying independent, as she has done - fiercely - all these years. On a sunny winter's day, we revisit Zandra Rhodes, and she gives us a tour of her multi-hued apartment, discussing the importance of dressing up, why she needs to learn how to say no and falling asleep in Studio 54 along the way.
Zandra: I mean I call it the rainbow penthouse, and basically when I first moved into it I painted it white and my great friend Piers Atkinson who's done hats for a lot of things that I've done said, "Zandra, you can't paint it white, you've got to something that's more typical of you". So we decided on rainbow and we did coloured lines on the floor [reverberated overlapping: 'Richard of York gave battle in vain']. The kitchen is bright, bright, indigo fluorescenty blue, and then it goes to the end of the chandelier where the floor is pink and there's the triangular windows with a giant cactus and then my Andrew Logan crinoline lady with the Zs at the bottom of her skirt, and ah, a few cobwebs when I look closely.
Kate: [Laughing] You must've had some really incredible dinner parties in this place. Who do you invite around for a dinner party round this amazing table?
Zandra: Oh, I would have say, um, Duggie Fields, the painter who did the painting over there, I'd have Andrew Logan, and you've seen his things all around as the mirrored sculptures, Stephen Jones who did hats right from the beginning of my show, but this time he's in Paris so he couldn't come this week. Um... Oh, I've had, you know, I've had Zubin Mehta the conductor once, with some Indian friends, so, you know what I mean? It's quite amazing really.
[Background noise of walking]
Kate: You've got so many incredible
Zandra: Oh well everything - that is called storage.
Kate: [Laughing] I'm worried I'm going to knock something off the wall!
Zandra: Oh well, we quite often knock them off the wall, then we have to put them back. And if we're lucky we've got them in perspex, if we're not we stick them up with sellotape like that.
Kate: The last time we were here there was a lot going on, Zandra.
Zandra: I just know I completely lost my cool. I think I had a lot of things in my mind because my partner had died and I was having to move out of my premises in America, my mind kept being diverted to everything else. But now I'm now quite together.
Kate: Your partner of a very long time passed away which is really devastating, but in the same year that you were celebrating 50 years...
Zandra: 50 years, I know! I was celebrating 50 years of fashion, so I had to make sure that the book got ready and finished, I had to make sure that everything was organised and it was very difficult at the time.
Kate: Did that refocus at all your approach to work or how you view time?
Zandra: That's a lovely question. Um, I think I'm far too focussed on my work, or my life would be a long more organised if it wasn't. You know, because I mean I find that I create collections and it's even more exciting at the moment where I'm just doing, finishing off a collection for IKEA for them to do a whole Zandra Rhodes environment. So, you know, it's all lovely things that keep me going, and now I'm going to do a sketching trip with Norman Ackroyd. You know, so I feel very, I'm beginning to feel very inspired, and I should really get my life here more in order. It isn't, but I try. Probably it's true that my life is built around chaos.
Kate: I'm so curious as to what motivates you to work so hard. I mean, you turn 80 this year, in 2020. How do you feel about that?
Zandra: It's only when you say it that I mind, do you know what I mean? Rest of the time I don't notice really, I just get led along with exciting projects and suddenly I find I'm doing the projects, whereas I should really, you know, maybe you know, some of my girls say to me, "Zandra, you've got to learn to say no", and I'm not very good learning to say no. I didn't pass my say no exam. I don't know whether I'd say I was a people pleaser. I would say that I'm lucky enough to love my work so I'm lucky enough to want to keep doing my work, and my work is what has paid for me to do whatever I've done in life, and most of the friends I have are also people that are totally absorbed with their work and their work would probably almost take first place to everything.
Kate: Even if it's stressful?
Zandra: Well, that's part of the, that's part of what you sign up for. You know, you sign up for the stress and the other things, but to keep a small business going that is totally mine and doesn't belong to anyone else I suppose when I look back is an achievement. You know, I mean I, I love my work and the whole thing is that I've been able to do my work and continue to do it.
Kate: Why did you always keep one of your designs? Did you know you were going to be famous?
Zandra: I kept one of my designs because I'm not always inspired, and when the rest of the world was taking no notice of them it meant that I could locate something of mine and that, you know, the world would see it in the end even if I was dead and appreciate them for what they were.
Kate: Where did that self belief come from?
Zandra: Probably the self belief came from someone like my mother, who was an amazing, quite an amazing woman, and I think that self belief would've come from her. I suppose she always sort of inspired me to believe in what I was doing and everything like that.
Kate: Was there a bohemian streak in your family?
Zandra: Oh, my mother was. My mother taught at Medway College of Art and she was very exotic and she had this silver sprayed curl, she was just a very exotic amazing lady. My aunt was a famous medium called Ena Twigg, but I didn't really have anything to do with her. It was only when some of the American high society discovered that she was my aunt that they got in touch with me, but otherwise I mean I'd never considered it, you know, she was just my auntie. I hadn't seen her for years. She came to my house once for tea and she said, "I can see flames shooting up the wall behind you", and I said, "You are here for tea as my auntie, I don't want to know. You're not to talk about it". So that was that.
Kate: So you're not curious about the supernatural world?
Zandra: Nope. Don't want to know. Don't wanna frighten myself.
Kate: What does frighten you?
Zandra: I get distressed about not getting my work done. Frightened that you don't get new ideas, whatever you put into it. The more so-called 'successful' you are, the less time you have to get on and hunt out ideas and get on with what you're doing. It's terrible, really difficult. I try, I don't try and say to myself, "I've got no ideas”', I have to hunt round and grasp into the wilderness and hope that I'm going to get ideas. Sometimes I don't see any anywhere, you just have to keep working till they appear.
Kate: What do you do when you get artist's block, print block?
Zandra: I phone my friends and get them distressed on my behalf. I think, you know, there's no point in being with people who say, "Why are you doing that? What's the point?". You can always find people who say, "Why are you doing that? What's the point? You're not earning a fortune" – or you're not doing this or you're not doing that. That's no good. You've got to keep going. I mean and I think that's with everything, I mean I hope with people that I've taught that I've taught them encouragement to want to do things with their lives and enjoy doing things with their lives.
Kate: What tough love or good advice have your friends given you?
Zandra: Nowadays most of my friends say I should do more exercise. I mean I've been trying, I try to go to the swimming pool in the mornings... I don't know, I mean, I don't see enough of my poor friends, I've got to change my life now, I've got to make sure I see my friends.
Kate: Do you feel different? Do you feel like you've got to approach your life and your work in a different way? Has something changed?
Zandra: With the passing of my partner I've of course got that gap so that I don't have to be in America so much, so now I can concentrate and pull my life together over here. I mean, he, it was wonderful being with Salah because he was a workaholic. He was more of a workaholic than I am, and could work incredible, incredible hours. How else would someone starting from nothing in Egypt become the president of both United Artists and Warner Brothers? So he could do all that and he could work all different time frames.
Kate: This idea of a workaholic, you would describe yourself as a workaholic, right?
Zandra: I'd describe myself as a workaholic, yes.
Kate: I wonder how, how do you think your assistants would describe you, Zandra?
Zandra: I think my assistants would describe me as a hard task master.
Kate: Why would they say that?
Zandra: Because I always expect people to be working.
Kate: People call your work brave a lot, and I wondered, when have you felt like you were brave?
Zandra: When have I felt like I'm brave? I suppose brave in that having founded the Grafton Street shop off Bond Street and then when I thought that the mood in the street had changed and I turned to doing dresses with holes and safety pins, it was revolutionary but of course we didn't sell anymore, so I couldn't be brave for very long, I had to turn back to doing my wonderful chiffons.
Kate: You're talking about the 1977 Conceptual Chic Collection?
Zandra: That's it, yes.
Kate: Why was punk such a big inspiration for you at that time?
Zandra: Well you could go to nightclubs when people were dancing around and bashing themselves on the head, or falling down or whatever, I don't think they were necessarily on drugs, and it was, everyone was suddenly doing something different and you were thinking maybe chiffon dresses should take a turn like that. You know, and so that's when I tried to do the other things with them. I don't think my beaded holes were very violent, I think they were just beautiful with the hole being made to fall over and look lovely and then caught with a safety pin and a chain. And it was quite difficult to work out what sort of cut would make a thing look like a tear - it doesn't just happen, you can't just go goonk goonk and cut through. But then, and then you get things happen like Gianni Versace doing his holes and safety pin collection, what, 12 years later. And then when Susie Menkes who was then the International Herald Tribune, when she mentioned that Zandra Rhodes had done it 12 years before she got banned from his show for two seasons – only two, you'll note. I was only told that later.
Kate: That Conceptual Chic Collection, why did that cause controversy at the time?
Zandra: Well I suppose I was a designer known for doing very elegant beautiful chiffon dresses, and suddenly there we were with a shop window with holes and chains and safety pins and a torn pink tree. You know, I think that the sort of people that wear the beautiful dresses hadn't seen themselves to be in the dresses with the holes and safety pins. Did I enjoy shocking people? I don't think I did it from the shock point of view. It didn't shock me.
Kate: Famously you were called the ‘Princess of Punk’, Zandra. [Laughing] You're shaking your head. Did you not feel comfortable with that term?
Zandra: I think it's a very elegant term and I think it's quite lovely that people bother to give me a nice title, so I won't disown it, it's one of my titles. Look at me with my raked pink hair, I could look a bit better, couldn't I?
Kate: I bet Vivienne Westwood was pleased when you were called that.
Zandra: I think Vivienne Westwood said something like, "She's nothing to do with punk".
Kate: Is there a rivalry between you two, did you guys ever get on?
Zandra: I've been to her shows and congratulated her. I might recognise her on the street. She probably would deny the relevance of my things but that's her.
Kate: What about the relevance of her things?
Zandra: I don't know what they look like.
Kate: When you started getting people like Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury just casually knocking on your door asking for custom garments and clothing, how did you feel about that, what was that like?
Zandra: Um, they funnily enough, they started knocking on my door right from the beginning when I did the quilted kaftan and made one for Britt Ekland when she was married to Peter Sellers, or when Sandie Shaw wore my kaftan for the opening of one of her songs. So it was just a wonderful adventure that just kept zipping along.
Kate: Why do you feel like your clothing appealed to royals? What was it about your style?
Zandra: Oh that was a great compliment. I mean it means that to some extent you've reached the height, um, and it was very experimental for them, you know like Princess Anne having my dress for the cover of American Vogue. I mean, oh no, a lot of magazines, that's right, Jours de France and English Vogue were two of them. So it's rather nice when you think of that. I'm a royalist, I think it's awful how they get condemned. I think that it must be quite frightening being one of the Royals and what they have to go through, and I think they do a wonderful job, and I think that it's because of the wonderful job they do of being figureheads for this nation that it brings extra things into the country, which is quite fantastic.
Kate: So do you think you can be a royalist and be bohemian at the same time?
Zandra: Oh course you can, I mean I'm not one of them, I'm a person, I mean it would be like I say a great honour to dress the current Royal Family. You know, I think Kate's gorgeous, I think it'd be great to do something if I got considered.
Kate: What's your proudest moment?
Zandra: I think that's my dameship. I don't know, I'm very proud of getting the dameship.
Kate: I've heard you talk about the importance of having friends that push you forward. Was there a time when you had to ditch your wild Studio 54 days of going out and find friends that helped you focus on your work?
Zandra: It would've been in different... I would've gone to sort of go to see a studio, wild Studio 54 but then I would've come back to London to be focussing on my work, so it was either focus or you know, the two things were two totally different things. I suppose it was a double life for a while, I don't know whether I regret that period of my life or not, it's a strange period.
Kate: Why was it a strange period?
Zandra: I was sort of, I was very friendly with someone who always loved going out to nightclubs and I suppose I did too, and it was burning the candle at both ends. On the other hand, it was a period when you saw what people were dressing in and it gave me a different, a different angle to some other people. I'd go there with… um... a sort of... a friend of mine called R. Couri Hay who, because he was writing about what was going on, was always in there. So when we came the people would see us at the doorway and they'd push the crowds apart so it would be walking in with the crowds who wondered who the hell you were and trying to look exotic in the different evenings, so it was quite amazing.
Kate: What did you wear?
Zandra: Zandra Rhodes, of course.
Kate: Donna Summer is wearing your dress on the cover of her record Once Upon a Time. Did you ever fall for disco?
Zandra: Disco one could sing to which was quite wonderful. I don't imagine how you could sing to rapping. So I suppose it was a period when I could wear my chiffons and dance in my chiffons and be quite exotic in my chiffons.
Kate: Did disco influence your designs, or did you influence disco?
Zandra: Oh that's very difficult. I don't know which, you never know which is first, the chicken or the egg. I mean I know that, um, that they're doing an exhibition in Brooklyn on Studio 54 and there's a couple of hideous pictures of me asleep in Studio 54 and dancing, and we've lent them outfits for it, so it's quite, quite fun.
Kate: Why were you asleep in Studio 54?
Zandra: Because I was sitting at the edge and I got tired of dancing, and then the minute I get tired of something and then I sit down if I'm not working I fall asleep, and so I fell asleep in the corner!
Zandra: I think it's just an exotic period of my life.
Kate: Exotic is a word that's cropped up a lot in our interview. I wonder why that excites you, that idea excites you so much.
Zandra: I like to think I'm exotic. You know, I mean I don't think about all these things straight away.
Kate: Where did your love of glamour come from, Zandra?
Zandra: My love of glamour probably came initially from my mother who was very exotic and I suppose I, going out in the evenings, I would still dress up to be part of glamour.
Kate: How does one be glamorous? What is your approach to glamour?
Zandra: Dress up to the teeth and feel wonderful. Be the Zandra Rhodes. And I think my dresses represent glamour and can look very lovely and then I wear them with a gorgeous Andrew Logan so I feel quite fabulous. At the moment you're looking at me in a pink printed dungaree suit which it doesn't matter if I get dye on it, it doesn't matter if I'm pinned, if I catch on a door, um, because I think that when I'm working I'm not there to be thinking I'm all dressed up, and I could catch one of my lovely chiffons on a corner of a table. I'm in a working outfit and that working outfit is going to, is just, it's a job of work and I'm a working designer, and that's what I'm doing.
Kate: And you've got a very, a striking Andrew Logan brooch on, which is of you.
Zandra: Well I don't know that it's of me but it's a very nice striking one that he did for me fairly recently. And um, but my necklace is Indian and the one underneath I did a range of jewellery and it was from a range of jewellery. So, you know, it's all just, all bric-a-brac that I wear. I never go out without makeup, always have makeup. So it's my uniform, my designing uniform, that I'm in.
Kate: Tell us about your sketching holidays with Andrew.
Zandra: Oh well, we get up and when we were in the middle of the desert in, where was it? Morocco, we'd get up as the sun rose and we'd be drawing the sunrise and then we, we'd have a bit of breakfast and then we'd draw something else. And then we'd have an adventure trying to toboggan down the sand dunes, and then we'd go onto something else. So there was always something exciting and each one of us would just see something different, and we'd be drawing and doing things, it's been wonderful doing trips with him. Sketching trip is hidden inspiration for what else you could do with your life and what you're doing. I suppose one of the most marvellous was the trip to Ayers Rock in Australia, before they'd built the hotels there and everything, it was quite wonderful. Yeah, I really loved that. Have you seen Ayers Rock? I mean, I was lucky, I went there before the big hotel so it was just a funny little sort of hotel that was more like a caravan sight, and you'd get up at six in the morning, or five maybe, to see the sunrise and it was quite cold! Very cold! And doing a sketch was cold but it was wonderful to do and I loved doing it. I'm just looking to see things that are exciting, see things where, like when I look at Ayers Rock and the different curves in Ayers Rock or you might, going to Japan and Issey Miyake sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. You know, just looking at different things and seeing the inspiration in them. Or an Indian doll, I've got umpteen Indian dolls that need dusting, I can tell. Um, you know, so there's all sorts of different things that come one's way.
Kate: How have you managed to balance friendship, love, work, family throughout all these decades - the 50 years that you've been in fashion?
Zandra: I don't know that I do manage to balance those things, I don't think my life is very balanced at all! On the other hand I don't want to answer that and say it's depressing, I mean I just find I don't have time to, to, to do what I want to do. I think as a designer one has to constantly reinvent what Zandra Rhodes is and what Zandra Rhodes can give to the public.
Kate: I'm just really trying to get at this sense of, you know, what's the secret Zandra? I still don't feel like we've cracked what the secret is, why do you keep going when things clearly stress you out sometimes?
Kate: You're laughing there!
Zandra: Um, gosh. I keep going because I don't know what else I'd do! You know I mean, I, I do what I do and I suppose I like what I do and so I keep doing it! As a designer you somehow, on whatever level, you're always a designer and you'll always keep going. I mean maybe in fashion, I would've thought that you look at it, I mean I went to an exhibition in Brooklyn on Pierre Cardin who's 97 and doesn't stop! So, you know, if you've got something to contribute to the world and you can do it constructively then keep doing it because it makes your days, it gives your days a sort of wonderfulness.
Zandra: Indigo, blue, pink...
Holly Fisher: This episode of The Last Bohemians was produced by me, Holly Fisher. For more episodes you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and do check out the portrait photographs by Laura Kelly at thelastbohemians.co.uk
"My work ethic is ridiculous. I start work as soon as I get up and I finish work either when I'm about to drop or when I'm going out for dinner. Creative people don't retire"