INTERVIEW: Zandra Rhodes

Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes talks clothes, opera and sharp elbows over lunch with Tammy Moore

With her bright pink hair, flowing turquoise dress and glittery, chunky jewellery Zandra Rhodes is an easy woman to pick out of the crowd.  ‘I dyed my hair black once for a very short while,’ she says. ‘I just felt so un-me.’

It’s five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, an hour before she must give a talk on textiles and patterns at the University of Ulster as part of the Ulster Festival of Art and Design, and Rhodes has just grabbed her first meal of the day. ‘She worked until five yesterday,’ Patricia Belford, a Research Fellow at the University of Ulster, says. ‘Then she got up at six to fly over here and we’ve been dragging her around ever since.’

The lack of sleep doesn’t seem to bother Rhodes much. The legendary designer smiles easily and chats pleasantly in her slow, studied voice as she unwraps her cutlery. ‘I’ve been to Belfast twice before,’ she recalls. ‘Each time I’ve had to fly in and out on the way to somewhere else. But I’ve always been very spoilt and had a good time here.’

After being shown around the UU's Belfast campus Rhodes is enthusiastic about the ‘innovative stuff’ going on with the students there. ‘I’ve seen all the stuff that Patricia is doing with the concrete and getting different weaves and things set into it. Which is absolutely fantastic and a totally new thing.’

She gives Belford an impish smile and adds, ‘They don’t talk to each other enough. There’s a great print department, there’s a revolutionary area with weave and laser going on upstairs and the fashion and they all need to have a little mixing session so that they take full advantage of everything.’

That is Rhodes' philosophy in a nutshell. This is a woman who doesn’t like to let a scrap of fabric go to waste, never mind an opportunity. She has an interesting blend of hard-nosed commercialism - telling students never to print in more than 3 colours because it's 'uneconomical' - and whimsical artistry - one of her current projects is a book on flower fairies.

‘The world is in a very strange place at the moment.' (She blames the bankers.) ‘I love doing my work, I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but one survives by ducking and diving. You try all sorts of different things, different projects.’

In Rhodes' case different projects include everything from working on operas in San Francisco (‘I really enjoy dressing huge people who have to look like fairy princesses’) to ‘redoing’ dresses for old customers (‘I got a letter from America from a woman who said times were tight, her husband was a builder and her second child was getting married’). She also designs ranges for High Street stores - a woman in the auditorium during the talk is wearing one.

Aside from all of that, Rhodes has also designed a tent. ‘I’m going to go to Glastonbury. [My friends] said “Are you out of your mind?” but I’m going to try it out.’

Rhodes thinks that more young designers should take that tack and find a way to make their innovation work for them commercially. ‘I think there’s always a chance for people to make it,’ she says. ‘You've just to grow very sharp elbows and never give up. Think of how the Irish have infiltrated the rest of the world! You just have to find the right vehicle for you and see if it can be geared to work commercially.’

Although it is, she adds, important that designers don’t become so commercial that they stop coming up with new ideas. For Rhodes commercial success is important, but secondary to the art. Besides, she’s convinced that the next big thing isn’t going to arrive through the usual fashion channels but from left field. ‘I think the revolution will come from the cottage industry,’ she says. ‘That’s why we have to keep our crafts alive.’

Perhaps not a sentiment you’d expect from someone once called the ‘Princess of Punk’, but Rhodes has always been about personal innovation. As she tells one of the students in her talk later that evening, ‘When I got my first big order, my mum got her pinny on and came down to help.’

As Rhodes finishes her salad she tries to think about any ambitions she hasn’t yet fulfilled. ‘I’d like to meet JK Rowling,’ she says. ‘I never have and I love her books.’