Zandra Returns

International Herald Tribune
Monday, August 20, 2007

NEW YORK: When she breezed into Manhattan last week, Zandra Rhodes had shed some elements of her operatic style. Her fuchsia hair, which she tends to wear upswept in a chopstick-anchored bun, was straight and fastidiously groomed. Her eyebrows, crazy semaphores that she sometimes pencils in like arrows, were conventionally shaped. And her eye shadow, which she applies in a rainbow-colored medley, was confined to two or three tints of blue. "The first thing I said to her," recalled Ed Burstell, an executive at Bergdorf Goodman, where Rhodes had paid a sales call, "was, 'Zandra, you've calmed it down.' "

If so, it is just as well. At 66, Rhodes, the doyenne of British haute punk, has surfaced in yet another incarnation - not a tame one for sure, but surprisingly accessible. A style-world rara avis as famous for her personal eccentricity as for the clashing colors and vividly exotic prints she has shown on the runway since the 1970s, she is emerging as a commercial force, with several new projects in the works.

Rhodes is aware of the irony, having once confided, "Whenever I've tried to make myself a bit more mass, it never worked." Now it seems she has reversed herself. She has introduced a flamboyant makeup collection for M.A.C., furs for Pologeorgis and a jewelry line. In New York last week she fluttered about in a squiggle-patterned jumpsuit with butterfly sleeves, a look from her spring collection for Topshop, the fast-fashion chain based in London. She was here to talk up her latest venture: a line of lambskin handbags patterned with her exuberant prints.

They represent a distillation of Rhodes's design identity, a zany fusion of the ethereal and the raw. Her chiffons have unfinished seams. They are typically embellished with motifs inspired by Native American, Egyptian or Chinese culture. Some are incongruously festooned with chains. Safety pins, a hallmark of her punk collection of the late '70s, have resurfaced on her bags, a brash emblem of Rhodesian chic.

Rhodes is the first to acknowledge that she is riding the crest of "a Zandra moment."

Her vintage designs - origami-folded coats and elaborately layered caftans that fetch $1,200 to $6,000 - are catnip to collectors, and have turned up at red-carpet events on personalities as disparate as Helen Mirren and Kate Moss.

In recent seasons, interpretations of Rhodes' prints have surfaced on the runways of Dior, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. This month interpretations of her looks found their way into Fashion Rocks, the fashion and music magazine from the publishers of Vogue.

"Someone congratulated me," she said diffidently, "but those clothes weren't mine."

Seeing her designs routinely knocked off appears not to faze her.

"I quite like people talking to me and saying, 'Your look is coming round again,' " she declared, her working-class accent intact. "It's like the Beatles coming round again."

In an era of pallid conformity, her periodic resurrections seem to feed a gnawing hunger. "Her influence returns in cycles, but when it comes back, its essence comes back clearly," said Burstell, who commissioned a collection of zestfully patterned shawls and patchwork designs for Bergdorf. "It's original. It had a clear identity from the start."

Cesar Padilla, an owner of Cherry, an influential vintage clothing boutique in New York, carries a selection of her designs. "In America she is still a bit under the radar," Padilla said. "But in the fashion crowd, even the youngest people know what she's about."

For all her resurgent popularity, Rhodes has not lounged on the sideline, letting others cash in on her past hits. A gypsy in more ways than one, she shuttles between her studio and home near San Diego (she lives with Salah Hassanein, a retired Warner Brothers executive) and London, where she also has an apartment and work space. Last year she showed a runway collection, her first in 20 years.

In 2003 she opened the Fashion and Textile Museum, a hot-pink and orange rectangle in South London that houses her archive as well as the works of her own fashion heroes, including Giorgio Armani, Issey Miyake and Thierry Mugler, and those of influential textile designers.

"The textile people never seem to get enough credit," said Rhodes, who began her career designing fabrics. Today the museum, disparaged at first as a vanity project, is part of Newham College of Further Education, housing textile and fashion designs from the 1950s onward.

In New York she still turns heads. "Looking at me, people think, 'Oh, she must be somebody.' " They do, indeed, sometimes addressing her as Ms. Johnson (as in Betsey) or Ms. Westwood (as in Vivienne), madcaps who have likewise sustained famously long-running careers. "I don't correct them," she said with a shrug.

Her own trajectory, which peaked in the mid-'80s, hit something of a low point in 2000, when Rhodes was issued a standing-room ticket to a Matthew Williamson fashion show. Even the ticket-taker, a fellow Londoner, did not recognize her.

But then, Rhodes has never lived for the spotlight, having mostly sidestepped the London club scene of her high-profile contemporaries, designers like Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell. "I tended to end up working," she said.

She rises before dawn to send faxes around the world, then withdraws to her studio. Her stringent work ethic leaves little room for frivolity. She has said she sleeps in her makeup, because, "to put it on every day would simply take too much time." Her nails, lacquered in a searing pink, were peeling at the edges.

"When I'm busy I find they get chipped," she said. "But I'm learning to move my hands quickly, so you won't see."

Shop for original Zandra Rhodes designs with VFG members Couture Allure's 80's silvery purple print velvet dress and Vintage-a-Peel's gorgeous and rare early piece dress from 1971 (pictured).

And of course you can read more on the designer on the VFG Label Resource.