The invitation to afternoon tea was irresistible and I arrived to find a room decked out in attractive colours, with journalists seated around a stand-out purple sofa for the guest of honour, who arrived all pink hair and flowing gown and settled majestically amongst a selection of her latest handbags.
Zandra Rhodes epitomises the successful, independent woman. The English fashion designer, founder of the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts is probably better known for her individual dress sense and eye-catching bold and creative fashion designs.
Zandra is a London designer who put the capital at the forefront of the international fashion scene in the 1970s but it is only now that she has turned her attention to handbags.
“I suppose it was always something I wanted to do but never got round to doing until now. Practicality is very much a feature. I like my bags to be roomy. I can’t fit everything into a small bag. I favour lots of compartments to keep me organised and you can’t very easily run up and down tube stations wearing high heels, so I like to be able to carry shoes and an umbrella, as well as my usual handbag necessities. Most important for me is a shoulder strap as I like to have my arms free.
“I have a good team to work with who interpret my designs well. When people see my bags they know they have the Zandra Rhodes personal touch. The beautiful pink lining, the signature ‘Rose Gold’ trimmings all help to make the range unique. The Rhodes bag is something to be treasured. I have designed bags that I will use and I hope my buyers will also want to use.
“Shoes and bags are important; they always get noticed whatever you are wearing. You can lift a plain black dress with your choice of shoes, or enhance colourful garments with a co-ordinating bag”
For a woman of 69 years her style is amazing.
“I’ve never tried to fit in and being original meant I stood out,” says Zandra, who was born in September 1940 in Chatham, Kent. Her father was a lorry driver and her mother, who introduced her to the fashion world, was a fitter in The Paris Fashion House of Worth. Zandra has also lectured at the Medway College of Art, which is where she began her studies, continuing at London’s Royal College of Art, where the printed textile design was her major area.
“No one would buy the fabric because the patterns were considered too extreme. To overcome this, I learned to cut the fabric myself and made dresses to show how they would look. It was then that people started to believe in the designs. Fortunately, we became more adventurous as a nation and off the back of that ‘new wave’ my popularity grew.
“My mother was an amazing influence and such a talented woman, she taught me to believe in what I was doing and more importantly to believe in myself. I am still designing today because of her philosophy and it remains a craft I love”
Zandra opened her first shop with Sylvia Ayton in Fulham in 1967. In 1995 from the sale of her house in Notting Hill and with the help of her partner, film producer Salah Hassanein, an enormous five-storey warehouse was purchased in Bermondsey, which now houses her workshop, flat, a shop and a self-funded exhibition space that became the Fashion and Textile Museum.
She has always kept examples of all her fabrics and garments. “I have about 60 chests of clothes, which really should be archived” and recognised a need for her own museum of 20th-century clothing and textiles.
Zandra Rhodes collections are in stores and boutiques all over the world. She has designed for clients as diverse as Diana, Princess of Wales, Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and even Freddie Mercury but her work does not stop with dresses and printed textiles. She has her own collection of jewellery, wrapping paper and china for Royal Doulton and has collaborated with MAC on a limited edition make-up range. In collaboration with Millets, she designed a matching turquoise welly and umbrella, taking them to Glastonbury with her.