Dame Zandra Rhodes Interview
Meet one of the industries most innovative and entertaining fashion designers as she discusses her long history in fashion design
"It was on a remarkably clear day in the gardens of Buckingham Palace that in February 2015, Dame Sandra Rhodes was granted Damehood by Queen Elizabeth of England. "Never would have I thought at age 12, chalking in "Doodlebugs" in the London shelter with V2 rockets flying overhead that I would one day be standing in the gardens at the palace with such recognition. I didn't even know what a Dame was until much later in my life.
Having just returned from one of her frequent travels to London, sometime in 2016, Zandra was found at her studio working on designs and most willing to sit for a while allowing for a glimpse into what has been a most fascinating journey over the years.
What are your first childhood memories?
I was born in Chatham, England during the war. My first childhood memory is drawing chalk butterflies in the air-raid shelter in the garden. My Mother held me up to listen to the "doodlebugs" which were the V2 rockets heading for London. They would fly straight overhead and only an occasional one or two dropping from the sky.
Have you any siblings and which career path did they choose?
One sister who chose teaching in domestic science and also dressmaking.
Understanding that your Mom, a fitter for the Paris Fashion house introduced you to the world of fashion, at what age did it strike you that fashion would be the chosen path?
I trained as a textile designer and it was in my 20's that I decided that I would have to take those designs into fashion to make this all work. Textile design was very limiting, while the world of fashion was limitless to me as a young designer. Your designs from the start obviously were very unique.
From where did you the inspiration derive?
From that point of view, I was always painting and drawing and that led me to different designs; it wasn't any one thing that led me in any one direction. I actually think it came from within.
Having been advised by the British manufacturers of the time that your textile designs were too outrageous, is that what led you to the United States?
During that phase of my life, while designing textiles, I taught school to earn a living. I had studied at the Medway College of Art in Kent and also at the Royal College of Art in London, however, a very dear friend in the design studio thought that my designs would frighten away buyers, and right she was. We so happened to meet Vanessa Redgrave, who thought the designs favorable and who funded us the money to open a shop in London. It stayed open for about a year. I then decided that I would make a collection of my work, and actually it was two American models who encouraged me to head to the United States. My designs were thought to be outrageous to most buyers in the UK at the time, so it was across to America. English Vogue, did favor my designs, introduced me to Diane Vreeland of American Vogue, which opened the door for me. She chose Natalie Wood to model my clothing and so it began. I was then on the circuit, going from London and back to America doing shows for Sak's Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and the like. Vogue, New York had Natalie Wood model for my new designs and we were off to the races.
With that in mind, having the British fashion houses reject your designs initially, were there any hard feelings after gaining such instant success in America?
Not at all. I then returned and found a backer who helped me start a new shop in London, which I kept open for about 15 years. No hard feelings whatsoever. I felt very fortunate overall and relished in the work that I was able to do in fashion.
You certainly have developed a style, recognizable to all. Did it all begin this way or was their a Lady Gaga moment?
It was there from the very beginning. As my original partner so advised, my designs would frighten away the buyers. Look at it now and you would think that colored hair is close to the norm in many circles.
Once things stared rolling, there must have been some pretty wild party moments as your presence within the industry became increasingly visible?
People always think that since you wore a bit of color in your hair that you would have done all sorts of wild things, but it really was not a big part of my life. I was so focused on work that I really cannot say that there really was a time that I simply lived to party. I do think that I was at the opening of Studio 54 in New York and please do not remind me when that might have occurred.
Just how frenzied a scene would it have been designing something for members of the "Queen" rock band?
I had a funny little studio overlooking the Paddington Goodsyard. It actually had no dressing room, so I suggested that they come after hours, at a quiet time so that they could try things on and sashay about the studio looking into mirrors, and did they ever. Over the years,they certainly have made use of many of the designs, so I guess it turned out alright for them.
San Diego would hardly be considered a hub within the fashion industry. Other than the excellent climate, what led you to settle here?
My forever partner in life, Salah Hassanein, an Egyptian who's Mother was Italian and arrived in the United States on a troop ship in 1943 at Ellis Island became an icon within the movie industry as one of its greatest entrepreneurs, having opened theaters across the world, he always had Del Mar in mind in which to retire and of course, I followed.
How did you meet Salah?
I met him at a dinner party at a charity event in New York. He then came to London to open cinemas all across Europe and then again into Japan. I so happened to be in Japan myself on projects and we have been together ever since.
Who would you consider to be the fashion leaders here in San Diego?
Leonard Simpson certainly is responsible for many of the good shows. I suppose I would be another. Do keep in mind that not only do I choreograph the shows, I also design the fashion, which takes it to another level, I suppose.
Of the numerous gala events supporting non-profits here in San Diego, which are some of your favorites?
The Heart of San Diego, which is a UCSD gala, I have supported for the last 18 years. It certainly is dear to my heart. Go Red for Women is another that I have close ties with and both are very close to me.
Which country would you consider to be the fashion leader in today's world?
One would always have to say France as the fashion leader. Some of the big ideas have come from London, however, the Americans will always be the consumers. The UK system is where the foundation is laid and there are those graduates from the UK who find themselves throughout the fashion industry.
What troubles you most in the world of fashion as it has evolved over the years?
There are aspects to the fashion industry, particularly in bulk clothing that cause me great concern. Preparing those styles in large quantities and at such low prices causes great harm to those in the sweat factories where the clothing is manufactured. There have been several instances where harsh, unsafe conditions have resulted in the loss of life. That is a real concern and a real sadness.
Obviously, fashion can be a highly competitive industry. Is there camaraderie among the players or is it a cutthroat kind of business where envy and jealousy reign supreme?
Certainly it is a competitive industry and one must really develop a thick skin. Mind you, I have made a go of it and being here in San Diego certainly keeps me out of the main stream. It also has to do with how you choose your friends. My friends are usually top in their fields and usually very direct people. I admire them deeply and for the most part they are not in fashion. I don't think that envy or jealousy will get you very far in any field of endeavor.
Of all the many well known figures that you has assisted in fashion, be it Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor or members of "Queen" who stands out as the most difficult to please?
Zsa Zsa Gabor tops the list. She was by far the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in all of those years. She was the cutest of kittens when a man was in the room and quite something else when alone with her. She told me that she disliked all of my designs, yet when I met her several years later to ask whether she gave those dresses that I designed to her daughters, she said, 'Never my Darling. I love those dresses.'
You certainly have diversified and have licenses with jewelry, wrapping paper, and Royal Dolton China to name a few. How did all of the evolve from fabrics and prints?
Once you arrive at a certain stature, you find that people begin to come to you and ask you to design for them, in all regards. I did not necessarily seek them out; they began arriving at my doorstep.
Given the easy access to exposure these days with the Internet, Facebook and Instagram, to name a few, do you think it much easier now than it was for you at the start?
No, I think it more difficult. When I started, I came to American with my clothing on my arm and it just seemed easier. Yes, I do have accounts on all of the social media, but my staff are the ones who handle all of social media, certainly not me.
When did you open your design studio in Solana Beach and after so long, from there to where?
About 20 years ago in Solana Beach. It was there as in the new location in Del Mar that I can focus on my designs without interruption and it has worked out extremely well. I tried over the course of time to work at home, but find that to gain focus it simply works better for me in a studio away from home.
You absolutely have a vibrancy about you. Can only imagine what you must have been like at age 22! What keeps you firing on all 12 of those cylinders?
I love my work and have lived with a workaholic who drives me as well. I really do enjoy what I do, and sincerely enjoy coming to the studio. Years ago, I was approached by the San Diego Opera to do design costumes for the Magic Flute and thereafter went on to design for Bizet's Pearl Fishes back in 2004. More recently, I worked with the Houston Grand Opera on Egyptian-inspired designs for Verdi's "Aida" which showed at the English National Opera in 2007 and was the opening and the close for the San Francisco Grand Opera in
2011. It was performed here in San Diego in 2013. It just keeps coming and I just keep going.
Had you been as enthralled as the rest of the world with Downton Abbey?
I certainly am acquainted with Lord Julian Fellows who has written the script and actually have designed dresses for his wife. The producers have done a fine job selecting the actors, particularly Maggie Smith. I have caught some of the series here and again, especially so if shown on an air flight where I have nowhere to go and not much else to do en route.
Plans after retirement?
A: You will find me in my studio at my desk on that given day. I would not know what to do if I retired.
Note: Dame Zandra Rhodes left her studio in Solana Beach to a location in Del Mar. After the passing of Salah Hassanein she returned to England in 2020 where she presently lives.