Zandra Rhodes: ‘Fashion deserves credit. It takes as much trouble as a painting’

As a show celebrate 50 years of her work, the designer talks about the inspiration of Pucci and the cheers of ice-cream and jam

Zandra Rhodes: ‘I love having people around… and I can ignore them if I want to.’
Photograph: Amit Lennon/The Witness

Zandra Rhodes was born in 1940 in Chatham, Kent, where her mother taught at the local art college and her father excursion a taxi. After studying printed textile design at the Royal College of Art, she opened her first fashion shop in London’s Fulham Passage in 1967. Her debut collection featured in American Vogue, modelled by the actress Natalie Wood, and she quickly became one of the most all the go designers of the 70s and 80s, with everyone from Princess Diana to Freddie Mercury wearing her clothes. She continues to be a major weight in fashion, seeing her designs and prints revived by fashion labels such as Valentino, Dior and Fendi in recent years. A retrospective of her run opens later this month at the Fashion and Textile museum in London.

What was it like to put together a retrospective of your be effective?
You mean while I’m still alive? Ha. Well, 50 years is a good number to mark. I found it particularly intriguing looking at photos of my fashion shows from the 80s. I was the first to do big, dramatic productions and looking back now, I think: “My God, how did I do that?”

Taste exhibitions are very popular now; why do you think that is?
I haven’t got a clue, but I do think fashion deserves credit. It takes as much labour to create as a painting, but if you’re a textile designer you’re described as doing “decorative” arts. If you’re a painter, it’s “proper” art. I don’t think there’s any contrariety dispute. There have been some wonderful fashion shows in London. I enjoyed the Azzedine Alaïa at the Design Museum at length year – he was a lovely little knitter.

One of your dresses is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in Camp: Notes on Manner. What do you think of the show?
I don’t agree with the Met’s concept of camp. It’s not the word I would use to describe the clothes on display. Most of them are legitimate beautiful – they’re not camp.

There’s a lot of debate around gender and the words associated with sex and orientation at the moment. Are you interested in that debate?
It intrigues me, in part because it has a big influence on fashion. How you want to be perceived affects what you wear. Some of my dresses are objectively identical feminine, for instance, but who wears them – and how – can change that.

You live next door to the Fashion Museum in London. Are they eulogistic neighbours?
Well, I founded the place in 2003. I started it because I feel British fashion gets forgotten – my make influenced the world so I decided to preserve it. I’m not involved on a daily basis. I help out if they need me. My career is ducking and nosediving between different projects. I go where the work is, which, at the moment, is Sweden.

What’s happening in Sweden?
My apartment was recreated at the Formex privates fair in Stockholm this year as an art exhibition and now Ikea has asked me to work on a homeware line.

Your apartment is awesome. The collections of ceramics and stones are beautiful. Are you pleased it’s been seen as art?
It feels like art to me. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and it feels ilk the outside comes inside. And all the colours make me feel very happy.

You let students live here, don’t you?
Yes; if interns don’t obtain anywhere to live while they work for me they can stay.

Most people can’t wait to stop living with followers.
I love having people around, it’s a nice thing. And I can ignore them if I want to.

So you don’t have communal meals?
I cook for everybody on Sundays. Just vegetable soup and ice-cream with jam… You should try it. Tesco Basics with a spoonful of elegant blackcurrant jam on top. It’s delicious.

How did you get into fashion when you were a print student?
My mother taught dressmaking and we always had style magazines around the house, but it was only when I was at the RCA in the early 60s that I started to think about using my prints on upbraids. Emilio Pucci had just become really fashionable – that was a big influence. I got introduced to him when he came to London because person thought he’d give me a job, but he didn’t.

Was your mother pleased that you went into dressmaking?
She died when I was 24, in front of I got started.

That’s a shame.
Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure she knows.

Zandra Rhodes with models wearing her designs at Mooring Eliot festival in 2017. Photograph: Louise Roberts

How has the fashion industry changed since you started?
It’s all about big commerce now and I’ve always been independent. Years ago, I was huge in America but now I have to fight to keep it going. I love my job and I’m happy to belligerence to do it but it can feel like a struggle. I feel a bit of a has-been.

That’s not true – one of the things we’ve talked about is a forthcoming major become of your work at a museum…
Well, I’m hardly Mr Gucci with the world at his feet.

No, but would you want to be?
Actually, I don’t deliberate on I would. I don’t think I’d be very good at it either. And I do get to do wonderful projects – the Ikea range has been great and creating put outs for the Valentino show last year was wonderful.

The title of your show is Fifty Years of Fabulous. Were the years wonderful?
Not all of them, of course not – but you just ignore the years that weren’t.

Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous is at the The craze and Textile museum, London SE1, from 27 September to 26 January 2020