‘Princess of Punk’ celebrates 50 years in fashion

Zandra Rhodes

With her hot pink hair and street-style punk clothing designs, Zandra Rhodes has become a staple in the fashion industry.

Looking back on her career, the Del Mar resident and known "Princess of Punk," has been a celebrated designer of some of the biggest celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Diana Ross and Freddie Mercury. The San Diego Opera in 2001 also commissioned Rhodes to design the costumes for "The Magic Flute," which led her to other opportunities with the opera, including set design.

The England native also founded The Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2003. Since its opening, the museum has featured work from some of the world's leading designers, including Anna Sui, Missoni, Kaffe Fassett and Bill Gibb.

To cap her 50th year in the industry, Rhodes will release a book all about her career, as well as a London exhibition. Both events are expected to happen in the fall.

She recently spoke about her continued excitement for fashion and how her career has transformed.

Zandra Rhodes
A model wears an outfit designed by Zandra Rhodes Courtesy

Q: What made you become interested in fashion? How did your experience with textiles foster your career in fashion?

A: My mother taught dressmaking and there were always fabulous fashion magazines around our house. I studied printed Textile Design at the Royal College of Art alongside such students including David Hockney. I fell in love with designing fabrics for dresses.

Q: Why has street punk fashion been important to you?

A: I could feel a change coming in the mid-to-late 70s. I guess one could say I got ahead of the wave of experimental fashion, incorporating street-style punk into my couture collection. This was unheard of at the time when street looks were limited to the street, not the runway. Punk fashion was a wonderful phase in my life and became a huge milestone in my career. Making gowns with holes and beaded safety pins on Jersey fabric was a break from my signature printed chiffon dresses. After my Conceptual Chic Collection in 1977, it was 10 years later that Versace used holes and safety pins in his collection worn by Liz Hurley at the Oscars. In 2017, my punk wedding dress was showcased at the MET in New York.

Q: How have your designs evolved over time?

A: I have always let my prints guide the shape of my dresses. Sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to travel to an exotic location and the culture will inspire my next collection. I like to draw in my sketchbook and often I look at my sketches and they will spark new ideas. All my work is hand drawn and most of it is hand screen printed in my London Atelier. I’ll occasionally incorporate digital printing but I like to stick to what I do best — everything done by hand. I feel it makes each garment special, it’s own work of art. Fashion is always changing and I always try to reinvent myself. Print and color are so important to me.

Q: What has kept you this interested in designing clothes that you have made it your career for five decades?

A: I have wonderful customers who love wearing my dresses, who come to my shows and are always interested in what I do. Now, after working on my upcoming book, Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous years in Fashion, I realize how wonderful it has been all these 50 years.

Q: What was your favorite period of designing clothes?

A: Of course my first collection in 1969 is always important to me. I remember having my garments photographed on film star Natalie Wood for American Vogue. The ’70s were a very fun, exploratory time for fashion. I still love the Freddie Mercury pleated outfit that he is always remembered in, especially in the new film “Bohemian Rhapsody” but I am still here and still designing wonderful clothes. But in amongst the fashion I have had lovely adventures: Opera (sets and costumes) with San Diego Opera, The Pearl Fishers by Bizet and The Magic Flute (Mozart) and founding The Fashion and Textile Museum in London.

Freddie Mercury and Brian May
Freddie Mercury and Brian May, of the rock band Queen, wear tops designed by Zandra Rhodes while on tour in 1974. Courtesy

Q: What's it been like designing clothes worn by so many celebrities?

A: Seeing my clothes on celebrities is always a thrill for me. I loved seeing Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana in my clothes. Freddie Mercury came to see me in my studio for a personal fitting and then he and Brian May wore my tops on stage for their tour. I was happy to see Sarah Jessica Parker looking beautiful wearing one of my tops in Sex in the City and Lorde wearing my dress for a music video. It has been such a joy seeing photos of all these celebrities assembled together for the book.

Q: Do you have any favorite memories from your career so far?

A: I will, of course, always remember getting my Commander of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen and my Dameship from Princess Anne. Seeing my garments displayed in the MET and V&A were also monumental moments for me.

Q: Has living in Del Mar helped shape or evolve your career at all?

A: Del Mar has played a very important part in my life. If I hadn’t been in Del Mar/San Diego I would have never entered the magical world of the opera. Right here in my Solana Beach studio, we have been able to work on commemorating my career for my anniversary year in the form of a book.

Q: You'll be releasing a book about your career in the fall. Can you give us any details about what will be included in the book?

A: This will be the first book to cover my entire 50-year career of designing; including fashion design, textile design, and opera costume and set design. World-renowned Vogue Editor Suzy Menkes (who also was the fashion editor for the International Herald Tribune) has written the foreword with additional celebrity essays written by Iris Apfel, Ann Sui, PierPaolo Piccioli (creative director of Valentino), Marylou Luther (former fashion editor for the Los Angeles Times), Joan Quinn (former West Coast editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine), and more. [It will include] dresses loaned from my friends and clients in San Diego, including Jeanne Jones, Martha Gafford, Reena Horowitz, Marion Ross and more.

Q: You're hosting "A Retrospective Exhibition" in September at the Fashion and Textile Museum. What can you tell us about that?

A: The exhibition will be Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous and will be shown at the fashion and Textile Museum in London starting end of September 2019. The book will coincide with this exhibition and is also a catalog for the exhibit.

Q: Where do you see fashion headed?

A: I’m not a philosopher, but I love my work and I always hope I will have revolutionary ideas.

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