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WHITE SILK CHIFFON DRESS printed with Chevron Shawl in black, designed in 1969. Dress is cut out around the print, with white feathers on all the tips of the dress and a lace-up front. Model: Katie McGill. All photographs by Carol Sonstein, courtesy of the Mingei International Museum, from the Zandra Rhodes Fashion Show, presented in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition, Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles, shown from October 2, 2010 through April 3, 2011.

Zandra Rhodes

The Art of Significant Loveliness

Creators struggle with the need for recognition. It is one part of the complete parcel of being able to do what you want to do and, importantly, make a livelihood from it. If one is lucky enough, perhaps a legacy is established from which other generations will draw inspiration. There are many wreaths of laurel that have rested on British designer Zandra Rhodes famously pink hair (which has also been colored blue). Her distinctive painted visage, laden by loads of big jewelry by her friend sculptor Andrew Logan, lends her a certain notoriety and celebrity, but the effect belies the determination, ambition and energy that is her heart and soul. It is diligent hard work as much as her native gifts that have brought her continuing appreciation during forty years of her prime creative development, from the distant reaches of the 1974 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in London to the recent Mingei International Museum show in San Diego, California. Her clothing is found in collections like the V & A, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution in the United States.

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LOOSE BRIGHT MAROON SILK CHIFFON BLOUSE printed with Dandelion print in gold, black and lilac; top edged with fine gold pleating. SHORT LAYERED BLACK SILK CHIFFON SKIRT. Model: Lisa O’Brien.

Her devotion to contemporary fashion and textiles led to a singular achievement, in 1999, of her founding the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, housed in a refurbished warehouse redesigned by the illustrious Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. In 1997 she was a recipient of the Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth and in 2010 appointed Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts in the United Kingdom.

So, Rhodes’s life at sixty-nine years has seen an accrual of many awards, exhibitions and collections, lectures, books she has authored or has been the subject of, and magazine articles, wherein not long ago, one in the New York Times testified to her clothing’s collectibility.

Voraciously curious and willing to pursue anything that adorns the human form, Rhodes has also taken to designing costumes (and sets) for the opera, beginning with Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2001, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Verdi’s Aida. Designing costume for the opera follows a natural progression, since from her earliest designs and influences, her interests were driven often by ethnographic and ancient costumes and subjects, which she providently stored and later turned into visual platforms for inspiration and uniquely contemporary originality.

While her garments occupy a place in the expensive fashionable world, Rhodes’s genius for printing textiles, usually begun on a blank canvas of silk chiffon, is what makes the Zandra Rhodes identity so identifiable and draws many more than just the elite to pay homage to her creativity.

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WHITE BONED BODICE, all over beaded with a bowl of fruit in center front; edged with silk tulle, from 1983 Venetian Collection. Worn over BLACK TULLE CRINOLINE SKIRT completely edged with blue/black turkey feathers. Model: Kassy Kova.

She avers to what she says is a lifelong love affair for textiles and the practice of her craft has resulted in an art of significant loveliness. Over her career, Rhodes’s textiles remain fresh, pulsing with vitality; and this is no small achievement in a domain where designers often flame out or move into repetitive iterations. Known for her single-minded focus on whatever is her current project or to-do list, it is this inborn intensity by which she plays and plies with her craft and where she loses herself to the selfish desires of the creative muse.

Her works initially seeded in her beautifully drawn, enchanting sketchbooks reach full maturation in a textile print that might be retrieved from an idea drawn on her travels, an abstracted zigzag, a wiggly squiggly line, her own distinctive script, circles, textures, more textures, and more, since the world is a beautiful place filled with pattern, color and form. There is the infinite from which to derive a personal vision for physical expression, coming alive on the universal, dynamic human shape. She understood early, given her natural inclinations, that to base her art on pattern, color and the human form would be an endlessly inventive exercise in freeing the creativity within her.

A Rhodes design does not exist to hold a woman in bondage (although she has experimented with the concept) but rather to free her from restricted clothing construction; so Rhodes’s pieces are much more likely to be loosely shaped. Women do not have to be so conscious of how they need to have a dress move around their body or fear that they will become ridiculously laughable with what they are wearing. The clothes are also not hostile or angry to femininity, demeaning, or suggestive of a lewd, promiscuous sexuality, which have had quite a run among some modern designers both female and male. Even her punk clothing of the 1970s does not seem to have been created with the entire intention to shock or out of rudeness, but seem more a fanciful interpretation of what happens when you rip and tear the fabric. The name of the game is what sort of effects can be achieved, and some of them are quite lovely and interesting.

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SILK SATIN CAFTAN in several different Zandra Rhodes prints. Blue Andrew Logan necklace. Model: Alex Womack.

Woman are always honored by Rhodes’s garments, transformed into creatures of ethereal sensuous grace, but also shown off as sexy, bold, individualistic, and unique due to the ravishing qualities of the print’s texture and color. That is the Rhodes look since her first collection in 1969 and it was a different way of thinking how to clothe. Some designers consider themselves sculptors of silhouette but Rhodes arrives at her signature look with the printed fabric determining the structure. For example, necklines and sleeves emerge from the lines and circles in the actual design. From there as the garment assumes its shape, which might be gathered about the body or essentially flat like a caftan or kimono, she may or may not embellish the finish with feathers, beads, tassels, and cording.

Also emblematic of Rhodes and intrinsic to her natural creativity is her gorgeous color palette from strong vibrant yellow, red, blue, and violet to delicately toned pink, green, aqua, ivory, and gray. Her palette seems drawn from a deep unconscious strength and confidence for knowing just what color is exactly right placed alongside or conjoined with another, whether harmonious or surprising.

Coming from the “New Wave” British designers, Rhodes was a gifted contributor to the startling changes taking place in the 1970s fashion scene, causing fertilizing reverberations across the Atlantic and shaking up the Parisian status quo on the Continent. Political, economic, social, scientific, and artistic convulsions were the order of the day, so that a form of normalcy was bred based on continual upheaval. It was an age of throwing off the cloaks of old, making possible fruitful challenges to the establishment, and while the possibilities were turbulent, looking to the future with hope.

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SILK SATIN CAFTAN printed with bold turquoise Matisse Leaves print. Model: Traelee Costello.

Rhodes experimented with conventional notions of how a dress should be made; this was itself a form of revolution, style though it was, and not active rebellion against everything considered to be usual and acceptable. She was one of those who brought a different interpretation of how cloth could be used. Interior construction detail became exterior construction detail, such as seams which she utilized as decorative elements to help delineate the garment’s shape and structure. Silk was deliberately slashed to reveal raw cut edges. A satin sash held together a jersey panel with beaded safety pins and chains. Rips, tears and holes, uneven hems, and pinking the edges brought a dizzying awareness that indeed the times had changed and with it the cultural standards indicative of what it was to be a lady of fashion.

The universal and timeless urge to adorn is unleashed and celebrated in her work and world cultures are a source of critical inspiration over her long and productive career. She developed themed collections and drew on influences from everywhere, impressionistic responses to Africa, Australia, China, Egypt, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United States, and of course, her native England. As an example, a dress named Chinese Pagoda (1979) contains a silk organza blouse with pagoda-inspired sleeves in jade green, with Chinese squares fabric in lacquer red, white and pink, accompanied by a silk organza skirt with a stitched and boned jade green satin waistband.

For Zandra Rhodes the very nature of her life and work is to follow through on the strength of her vision. The practice of her craft, its quality and technique, is paramount to the successful resolution of her creations and her personal quest to make the world more beautiful. She, like all of us, appreciates the beautiful and longs for its pure and healing nature. It is in our DNA, for somehow with all the ugliness that is also part of life and living, to search for the beautiful is to reach out for our true hearth, where it is within our being to be whole and true.

SUGGESTED READING Monsef, Gity, Dennis Nothdruft, and Robert de Niet. Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles. England: Antique Collectors’ Club, Ltd. and Zandra Rhodes Publications Limited, 2005. Rhodes, Zandra and Anne Knight. The Art of Zandra Rhodes. London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited and Zandra Rhodes Publications Limited, 1984. Safer, Samantha Erin. Zandra Rhodes: Textile Revolution: Medals, Wiggles and Pop 1961-1971. Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, Ltd., 2010.

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