Interview with Zandra Rhodes

The fashion designer talks about treating a university education like a nine-to-five job, the importance of student interaction and defying graduation clothing convention

March 16, 2017
Zandra Rhodes
Source: Gene Nocon

Dame Zandra Rhodes is a world-renowned fashion and jewellery designer. She studied at the Medway College of Art, where her mother had lectured, before later attending the Royal College of Art. She is noted for her unique and extravagant designs, and was one of the new wave of British designers who put London at the forefront of the international fashion scene in the 1970s. She set up the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which was officially opened in May 2003. The holder of nine honorary doctorates from universities in both the UK and the US, she has been chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts since 2010.

Where and when were you born?

Chatham, Kent; 19 September 1940.

How has this shaped you?

I think where you come from and your background has to have shaped one. Chatham was a fairly small town, so I could grow up without diversion away from work.

What was your most memorable moment at Royal College of Art?

My exchanges with wonderful tutors who I have remained in contact with for the rest of my working life: Dicky [Richard] Chopping, John Drummond, Barbara Brown, and other students who were at college with me – especially those from other departments such as Norman Ackroyd, Royal Academician etcher. Dicky Chopping and his partner were close friends of Francis Bacon. Through Dicky, I also got to know some of his prized students. These contacts remain invaluable…you never know where they will lead you.

What did you wear to your graduation?

At the RCA in 1963, we were strictly told to wear black. But I didn’t. I wore a fabulous white suit printed with black Chinese circles with shoulder pads from the RCA college show by Brian Godbold and black-and-white platform shoes!

What are the best and worst things about your job?

The calendar of fashion pressures to produce a collection every six months is like having a baby twice a year; it is always demanding having to think of new ideas and finding time to meet with PR and to travel. [But] I don’t consider myself to have a job; it’s not like going to work. I love and live my work. So I suppose the best thing about my job is that it isn’t a job.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of work?

Zandra Rhodes clothes are linked to the body and designed by cutting around the printed textiles that I have designed. The results are unstructured and can be worn by many, are not rarefied or difficult-to-wear garments. They are kind to women of all sizes. They are totally linked to the language of the printed fabric: my original career.

What is the strangest letter or gift you have ever received?

I received a letter from a girl that I used to go to school with: “Dear Zandra, congratulations on your successful career. I used to travel to school with you on the bus. Sorry we used to laugh and make fun of you.” I’m lucky that I was born with thick skin and didn’t even notice!

How have your experiences in costume design differed from your experiences in fashion?

The garments in opera have to be practical in a totally different way from everyday fashion. A size 16 diva can be magically transformed into a princess by making the garment built around her hang and disguise and create illusion. Fashion cannot be so controlled.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said about your work?

Can’t remember. I am very lucky. I was born with very thick skin, so I missed people making fun of me and I just continue on. Sometimes people laugh at my look and make-up, but I’ve learned to embrace my personal style.

What advice do you give to students at the University for the Creative Arts?

Use your time constructively – never waste it! Exchange and interact with the other students. Learn and absorb. These are your formative years. Reach for the stars!

If you were a higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?

Clocking-in machines or signing-in books to encourage students to think of it more as a proper nine-to-five job. Neither would I allow them to work alone. I feel it is so essential to be aware of the competition.

Would you recommend a university degree for aspiring fashion and textile designers?

Definitely! Get whatever qualifications and education you can to prepare you for your future. Learn, learn, learn! This is the time you can develop yourself and not worry about the results or a boss.

Do you have a personal rule that you’ll never break?

Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Till your good is better and your better best!

What would you most like to be remembered for?

I would like to be remembered for founding the Fashion and Textile Museum to principally acknowledge the importance of British fashion designers and most especially British textile designers, who are the Cinderellas of this business and the best in the world. They are never acknowledged for the importance of their contribution to the final garment. For instance, there is a designer who created the beautiful weave of the iconic Chanel suit who is not acknowledged nor remembered. I’d also like to be remembered for my contribution to fashion with unique-looking shapes that I’ve created, garments totally influenced by my textile screen prints, my 1977 Punk Collection that featured garments with holes and beaded safety pins, and my first solo collection in 1969.

hilary.lamb@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Paul O’Leary has been appointed to the Sir John Williams chair in Welsh history at Aberystwyth University. Professor O’Leary has published widely on the history of modern Wales and Ireland, and was co-manager of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Wales-Ireland Research Network. He is co-editor of the Welsh History Review and a member of the AHRC’s peer review college. Martyn Powell, head of the department of Welsh history, said: “We are delighted with Professor O’Leary’s appointment to a chair that not only has a prominent leadership role in the discipline, but also such resonance in Welsh history and culture.”

Alessia Di Domenico has been appointed associate dean for undergraduate studies at EDHEC Business School in France, and also director of the school’s bachelor in business administration (BBA) programme. Ms Di Domenico began her career in invest­ment banking with Merrill Lynch in London. She joined EDHEC in 2014 as manager of the BBA career centre. She said that the BBA offered students a unique experience including international academic exchanges and corporate internships. Her priority, she went on, would be to continue developing partnerships with international institutions and companies, “with the aim of attracting globally minded, outward-looking students”.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris has taken up her position as associate pro vice-chancellor for student experience at the University of Portsmouth.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has named six new board members. The appointees are: Carl Lygo, former vice-chancellor of BPP University; Katherine Lander, global chief learning officer at training and professional development firm Fitch Learning; Gurpreet Dehal, a council member at Royal Holloway, University of London; David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford; Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England; and Martin Coleman, partner at legal service group Norton Rose Fulbright.

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