Categories: Chi Essary, Poetic License Tags: , ,

ZANDRA RHODES: Life through Rhodes-colored glasses


Artist Studio Visits by Chi Essary

Zandra Rhodes greeted me warmly with her legendary hot pink hair and theatrical turquoise eye makeup. I ended up visiting her studio twice because, despite her warm and engaging personality, I had surprised myself by getting star struck and needed a second visit to flesh things out. Lucky for me, she had graciously invited me back—suspecting, I think, what had happened—in case I “needed more info.” It was thrilling to be invited back by this iconic British fashion designer who started her career in the 60’s, designing for the likes of Princess Di, Elizabeth Taylor and Freddy Mercury. Besides creating her fashion collections, she has designed sets and costumes for several operas, founded London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, and has been given the honor of “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire”—the female equivalent of being knighted—for her work promoting British fashion and textiles. She is known for her bold and feminine fashion collections and her dramatic use of color.

On my first visit, she wore a bright pink sweater that matched her hair, fire-engine red pants, and a mirrored mosaic brooch designed by her longtime friend Andrew Logan. She invited me to sit at her desk and in a daze I pulled out the chair, sat down and took out my tiny notebook, all the while hoping I looked natural. She looked at my notebook a little surprised, and said, “Oh, you’re going to use that little thing?” I smiled sheepishly and revealed my mini calendar in my purse. Smiling, she pointed to her own calendar, a thick paper book sitting on the table, remarking she doesn’t go in for technology either.  We both cracked a smile and I relaxed a little.

All around her studio were drawings of Asian-inspired patterns and designs tacked to the walls and bookshelves. Pointing to a swirl of bold black lines pinned to the wall, she told me these are stage designs for the San Diego Opera. She is in the middle of designing the set and costumes for their 2018 production of Puccini’s Turandot. I started to snap a photo, and then asked her if I should even be taking photographs? She paused and said in her sing-song yet staccato British accent said that photos were ok, just not too specific. “There has got to be a surprise! Otherwise, there’s no reason for them to show up.”

Baffled by how one initiates the prodigious task of designing an entire opera, I asked her how she began the design for Turandot. She explained that she began by looking at her sketch books and older fashion collections. She popped out of the room and returned with her book The Art of Zandra Rhodes, opening it to show me sketches and designs that were inspired by her first trip to China. “I visited China in 1979 right as it opened up,” she said wistfully. She explained that she referred back to this trip when she started working on designs for Turandot, recalling how spectacular China was back then, how unspoiled. She refers often to her sketch books, she told me, always traveling with them and recording all that she sees.

Leafing through the pages of an oversized sketchbook, she slipped a white sheet behind its near-transparent rice paper to revealing her drawings to full effect. “These sketches are from willow pattern plates, so I can make designs for the magic trees for the opera.”  A tangle of whimsical patterns filled the page in a chinoiserie flattened and geometric style, alluding to the designs on blue-and-white willow pattern plates that date back to the late 1700’s. She told me she bought her first rice-paper sketchbook in 1971 and has drawn in them ever since. “So much can happen, I love the feel…the pen flows.” She turned the page revealing layers of disk-shaped leaves. “Here I visited Lotus Land—you never know what you’re going to find!” she exclaimed, adding that she never knows what will inspire a pattern for the fabric she designs for her fashion collections. She turned the page. “In this one, I was on the Queen Mary 2,” a transatlantic ocean liner: “I’d get up at 4 AM to draw…here is the statue of Liberty…” She pauses; a faraway smile suffuses her face with warmth, and I see she’s remembering something fondly. As she turned the pages, she slipped a plain piece of paper between the thin sheets to allow the drawing to take shape from the clutter of marks visible through several translucent sheets. Her love of nature is apparent in the delight she takes in sharing her drawings. “Here is a cactus—it was beautiful!”


She begins a new fashion collection much as she starts on a new opera. Referring to her sketchbooks and to older collections, she starts sketching new ideas. Strong influences from nature merge with visual themes from world history, architecture, and sometimes pop culture. Her work is unapologetically feminine, whimsical, bold, at times romantic, at times futuristic, with influences from all over the world and from almost any historical era. Looking at her 2016 collection I remarked on how feminine it is, with its ample bows and long flowing dresses. “You get to be your own private princess for a day.”  She chuckled. “I certainly hope so. So much goes into making them you want them to be magical.”

My next visit is a month later, sandwiched between her visits to London. She returns there every month to oversee her studio, where short runs of fabric are screen-printed in-house from her drawings before samples are made for her next collection. I couldn’t wait to see what ensemble she would be wearing, and I’m not disappointed. “This is my hippy knit sweater. A friend knitted it for me in 1969.” She has paired the sweater, striped with pinks, greens, and oranges, with leopard-print pants and—of course—an Andrew Logan broach sparkling on her shoulder. Her makeup has become even more theatrical to accompany the darker colors of her attire.

In brilliant blues and bold sensual lines, a finished mock-up of the magical trees for the Turandot set is pinned to the bookcase. Remembering the sketches tacked around her studio from the first visit, it is fantastic seeing how they have been transformed into their final version. I want so badly to take a picture! Buzzing around her work table, Rhodes smiles happily. “We don’t want to give it all away. Be careful not to show too much—We have to give them a reason to come!”

She strips two pieces of tracing paper from a large tablet and tapes them together, placing them over a schematic of the stage. Turning on the light table she begins tracing large circles with a pencil. I ask her if it was a pleasure to work with Princess Di. “Oh yes, of course. She was a very, very shy girl.” Rhodes explains that Diana was very careful not to be too extravagant, to not offend the public. Intently tracing another circle, Rhodes says, “It seems simple to people but it isn’t. They have to be very careful they don’t step out of line—They’re prisoners.” And then almost to herself, she murmurs “We’re all prisoners to different systems—the internet or whatever…” Pausing, she says a little more emphatically, “Everyone is stuck, with their faces toward a cell phone, it’s really alarming you know.” Watching her trace the miniature opera stage by hand, I can see how someone with so much creative energy and reverence for nature would look with alarm on this world that we are creating for ourselves, all tucked away in our cellphones.

She takes out a bare razor blade from a pouch, grayed from handling, and sharpens her pencil. “It gives you a much better point.” As we chat she cuts out multiple little, xeroxed figure drawings and tapes them to the tracing paper, slitting holes in different places to tuck in the figures or cutting them off where they would not be visible on stage. I’m struck by her love of all ways analog, right down to how she sharpens her pencil. She had been up until 1 AM on a call to her London studio directing a special order, and then up again at 6 AM to make sure everything was turning out the way she wanted. Yet here she was, bright-eyed, to meet me at 10 AM. The zest with which she approaches creating her fashion collections, directing her fashion shows, stage design, and her monthly trans-Atlantic flights, makes me wonder if her hands-on approach to life makes more sense than the unrestrained cell phone use and complete reliance on technology of our modern world. At almost 80 she is a force to be reckoned with. And not a computer in sight!

Zandra Rhodes drawings have been digitized and put online for learning purposes. See fifteen volumes of her drawings for every single Zandra Rhodes fashion design with the following link:   

Click the link below to view the Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection, images of 500 of her iconic garments, for use in learning, teaching, and research. 

Please contact the author with any questions at [email protected]

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