Del Mar resident Zandra Rhodes named a ‘Dame of the British Empire’


By Diane Y. Welch

Damehood — the female equivalent of knighthood — has been awarded to fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes, a resident of Del Mar and London. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth bestowed the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) status upon Rhodes as part of her annual Birthday Honors list.

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 charitable work as breast cancer ambassador for London’s Mayor Boris Johnson; and for her role as Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, which has campuses in Kent and Surrey, England.

Rhodes received a letter from Britain’s Prime Minister’s office informing her of the award and inquiring whether she would accept it, “which of course, I did,” said Rhodes. “Then I filled out a form asking what I’d like to be known as, so I chose Dame Zandra Rhodes.”

Although Rhodes knew on May 19, the news was kept under wraps until the official release that coincides with the recognition of the birthday of Queen Elizabeth, which is a Saturday in June. (Her actual birthday is April 21, 1926.)

The official title will be given to Rhodes, with the DBE medal, at a formal luncheon at Buckingham Palace with a choice of three dates later this summer. “I do hope it will be the Queen giving the honors,” said Rhodes, “but it might be Prince Charles.”

Rhodes has designed for the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and continues to dress celebrities, including Kylie Minogue, Sarah Jessica Parker and Paris Hilton. She is renowned in California for her dramatic opera set and costume designs, and is now on the board of the San Diego Opera.

She has helped raise $40 million for the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center in La Jolla, including donating artwork for the past 18 years of fundraisers. She has also done numerous charity fashion shows, such as “Go Red For Women,” which raises awareness to help prevent heart disease in women, and more.

Some of Rhodes’ closest American friends feted her at a luncheon at La Jolla’s Herringbone Restaurant when the Dameship was made public. Organized by Dixie Unruh and Rachel York, the group of women — Iris Strauss, Erika Torri, Joyce Butler, Sally Stiegler, Marion Ross, Fiona Tudor, Chetna Bhatt and Valerie Cooper — sported pink wigs in homage to Rhodes’ signature cotton candy-colored bob.

“I got there a little early and the waitress complimented me on my hair,” said Unruh, “I explained that it wasn’t my own hair, but a wig. Then Zandra arrived and the same waitress complimented her on her wig, and she said, ‘It’s not a wig, it’s my own hair.’ So we all laughed about that.”

Each person around the table mentioned something about Zandra that was special and how she had touched their lives. “To me, she deserves this honor so much, because she not only designs fabulous opera sets and costumes and incredible outfits and dresses, she is so kind to everyone she meets and she is a fabulous cook, despite all the stress and pressure,” said Unruh.

On the other side of the pond, Rhodes said that she will have a celebratory dinner in the penthouse suite of the Fashion and Textile Museum. Her friend Andrew Logan will probably hold a ball in his London glass-house studio, “and probably compulsory crowns will be worn by all,” she added.

Rhodes’ fashion collections were the subject of a short documentary that was included in the La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival, held July 24-26. The film was nominated for best costume and best art direction.

Despite her fame, Rhodes remains humble and pokes fun at her situation, “Now I’ve got the problem of thinking of a hat and an outfit. It might sound simple, but it’s not,” she joked. “I’ll have to do something very chic, probably a suit rather than a dress.”