Now it’s Dame Commander Zandra Rhodes: Del Mar designer honored by British Empire

Del Mar designer Zandra Rhodes — now a Dame Commander of the British Empire — shows off her medal. Photo by Joan Quinn

Del Mar resident Zandra Rhodes — haute couture British fashion designer — was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire on March 13 at a formal ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London.

The investiture was conducted by Princess Anne.

The centuries-old tradition was held in the palace ballroom, where Beefeater guards knocked their staffs on the floor to signal that the Princess — in formal naval attire — had entered the room, and the ceremony began.

Rhodes was allowed to bring three guests to the ceremony: her sister, Beverly Hayden; fashion designer David Sassoon, who made more than 70 dresses for the late Princess Diana; and Joan Quinn, her best friend from California.

“We were led into the throne room with its magnificent crystal chandeliers and red brocade banquettes bordering the walls and the two throne chairs,” Quinn recalled. “The royal band played throughout, and we had a great first-row view of Dame Zandra as she curtsied on acceptance of her award, backed away from the throne and walked into the anteroom.”

The award recognizes Rhodes’ contributions to the fashion industry and specifically for founding Britain’s Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2003; for her role as chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, which has campuses in Kent and Surrey, UK; as well as for her charity work.

“Zandra has been a vocal ambassador throughout the world as she demonstrates the positive aspects of the UK through her design work, speeches, workshops in colleges, and lectures to fashion schools, all of which reflect well on the nation,” Quinn said.

Rhodes was the only dame honored that day; the other honorees received OBEs, MBEs and knighthoods, she said. And she was the first in line.

“I assumed they would be first, but it was me alone,” Rhodes said. “But it was delightful.”

There was pomp and ceremony, and strict protocol about how to approach the dais and where to stand, as she received her two medals. Princess Anne congratulated Rhodes on her accomplishments and they chatted briefly. Then she shook Rhodes’ hand, which was the signal to retreat.

“I was so impressed with her because she did 90 awards, and she didn’t look at any notes,” Rhodes commented. “As she spoke to everyone individually, she must have studied and rehearsed each one ahead of time.”

Afterward, Rhodes was met in the palace courtyard by press photographers, with her portrait — in her boldly patterned blue suit and matching hat — being published world-wide by Reuters.

A reception followed at the Fashion and Textile Museum, with several British celebrities invited. Actress Jenny Agutter, former ballet dancer Wayne Sleep and actor Christopher Biggins were among them.

Thirty guests stayed for a sit-down dinner in the museum penthouse. Rhodes cooked up soup, poached salmon and her famed bread and butter pudding.

This is not the first royal award for Rhodes. In 1997, she was made a Commander of the British Empire for her contributions to fashion and textiles. She has nine honorary doctorates from Universities in both the UK and United States, and has designed clothes for many celebrities over the years.

Past clients include Princess Diana, HRH Princess Michael of Kent, Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen. More recent clients have been Kylie Minogue, Sarah Jessica Parker and Paris Hilton. Rhodes has also received acclaim for her operatic costume and set designs.

She contributes to many charities, including the UK’s Duke of Edinburgh Trust and the Prince Charles Trust; is the breast cancer ambassador for London’s mayor, Boris Johnson; and in the U.S., has helped raise $40 million for the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center.

At age 74, Rhodes continues to keep busy. Her latest projects include a large-scale design for the new terminal in Mumbai Airport in India.

The whirlwind royal affair in London and the reception — which in Rhodes’ signature, down-to-earth way, found her cleaning dishes at midnight — was exhausting, she said.

“But anything worthwhile is exhausting,” she added.