As a textile designer and collector I particularly admire the work of Zandra Rhodes. She is a true original – creating her own artwork for fashion, home furnishings, jewelry, rugs, and more – she is an inspiration and a pioneer. Since the beginning of her career Rhodes has made her own rules and created a thriving business that is still going strong. Her emphasis is always on the handmade which is evident in her drawings which are turned into fabric prints, and the hand stitching and beading on her beautiful garments.
Zandra Rhodes is a figure that I had always been aware of but it wasn’t until she recently collaborated with Valentino for their Spring Summer 2017 collection that I really delved into the body of her work. I was intrigued by the fact that the storied fashion house tapped her in the first place – her hand drawn squiggly designs are very personal and have a loose, child like quality to them. It was fascinating to see how they were used on the Valentino fashion designs.
This led me to doing quite a bit of reading and research on Rhodes and her work. Her book “The Art of Zandra Rhodes” is especially fascinating in discussing the origin of each of her fabric designs and illustrating her creative process.
Rhodes grew up drawing and sketching everything around her. She initially planned to be an illustrator of children’s books. In the late 1950’s Rhodes studied textile design at Medway College where one of her teachers was Barbara Brown. Brown was a major and important textile designer for home furnishings, most notably designing many successful prints for Heal’s. Brown mentored Rhodes and encouraged her to continue her textile design studies at the Royal College of Art which she did after passing their strenuous entrance exams.
At RCA Rhodes learned the foundations of textile design – how to create repeats, the technical guidelines of printing requirements, etc. I find it particularly interesting that Rhodes began her education by studying textile design for home furnishings rather than fashion. Although Rhodes changed course and switched to studying fashion design, I wanted to explore Rhodes’ designs for home furnishings that have been launched at different points through her career. Clearly they have gotten less exposure than her fashion designs but they share the same individuality and unmistakable Zandra spirit.
Designing textiles for interiors is a different approach and way of thinking about pattern than it is for fashion. Because the fabric will be more permanent than if it were being worn on a moving body, the design must be well considered. The fabric may be seen flat so one must take into account the entire field of the pattern. But even though Rhodes was designing patterns for static things, she was not designing with that in mind or being hemmed it by it. She is not constrained by requirements or expectations which is what makes them so great. When designing a textile – it is purely an expression coming from her. Perhaps because she grew up as an artist she saw the textiles as works of art themselves.
What I learned most about Rhodes is that she has been drawing the things around her for all of her life. She takes sketchbooks with her on all her travels and these drawings are the basis of each textile design. The development of the fabric pattern was (and is) the most important step of her design process. From the genesis of her inspiration to sketch to creating the pattern, it is truly about exploring what is in Rhodes’ imagination and expressing that idea.
Rhodes’ subject matter has always been totally original and based on everyday things that she finds interesting; lightbulbs, lipstick, buttons, teddy bears, neon tubes, knitting, flowers. Rhodes has never been concerned with what was in fashion or popular – she designs from her heart and soul. That is what makes all of her collections so special and completely one of a kind.
Her drawings tell a story – but rather than being in a book they are on a piece of fabric.
For her graduation diploma show in 1964, Rhodes created a group of hand printed fabrics. The designs were based on her interests at the time; pop art, comic books, stars, and military medals. Rhodes did a series based on war medals and ribbons, apparently inspired by a painting by fellow school mate David Hockney. It is fascinating to see her original interpretation of this traditional and formal subject matter. The final print “Medals” is a rather abstract interpretation – I had seen the print many times in books but I hadn’t realized what its subject matter was until researching it. It has the feeling of a collage and the torn paper edging of the motifs makes it quite unique.
Heal’s purchased the design from her graduation show as a furnishing fabric for its line. They sold it as “Top Brass.”
Rhodes was inspired by the image in this ad for Christian Dior cosmetics. She transformed the image of the fingers into tubes of lipstick. This is one of Rhodes’ most iconic textile designs and has been used on many of her fashion pieces. I wanted to include this fashion textile among the home furnishings patterns simply because it is so original and I love seeing where the inspiration came from. The lipstick print was recently reissued as part of the Zandra Rhodes Archive Collection for Matches Fashion.
In the late 1960’s after launching her namesake fashion line, Rhodes met and became friends with the interior designer Angelo Donghia. He commissioned her to design a line of fabrics and wallpapers for his company called &Vice Versa. These designs show Rhodes’ proclivity for bold and graphic prints, and many of them incorporated her signature “wiggles” which appear in some form or another in almost all of her textiles.
The photographs below from Donghia’s New York apartment show wallpaper designed by Rhodes on the walls.
A few other patterns from the &Vice Versa collection…
I also found this wallpaper design called “Zandra” which was manufactured by Sanderson as part of a collection called “Palladio 8” in 1968.
Rhodes partnered with another interior designer in London named Christopher Vane Percy on an extensive range of home furnishings items which was branded as “Zandra Rhodes Living.” This included table linens, pillows, and upholstery fabrics.
In 1987 Rhodes collaborated with British textile house Osborne & Little on its first designer collection. The line included five fabrics and one wallcovering. I recently found a piece of one of these fabrics called “Srinagar” seen below. I love Rhodes’ interpretation of a paisley and how it’s combined with her wiggly lines and some sparkling jewels.
I came across some images from the sample book of the collection in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum archive:
In 2015 Rhodes came out with a small group of one of a kind wall hangings based on her art. These were shown and sold through the Christopher Guy showroom in New York. These pieces highlighted some of Rhodes’ signature motifs; the button flowers and lipstick among others.
In 2003 Rhodes opened the Fashion and Textile Museum in London which is dedicated to the art of textile design. In addition to exhibiting Rhodes’ work, the museum recently had a major retrospective of fashion designer Anna Sui.
Rhodes still hand screen prints all of her textiles in her London studio – one of the only fashion designers to do so. In 2016 Rhodes reissued some of her most iconic fashion pieces from her archive with Matches Fashion. They have just launched a follow up collection which is simply stunning and filled with Rhodes’ romantic flowy pieces and signature prints.
Rhodes has long been intent on keeping an archive of her work. She has each and every one of her sketchbooks dating back to the 1960’s, and has carefully preserved a piece of every garment she ever produced. These treasures are continuously referenced for new inspiration. Rhodes has also embarked on the huge task of creating a digital archive of all of her sketches and fashion pieces which is available through her company website. It truly is an incredible resource and it shows Rhodes’ dedication to sharing and preserving her vital legacy.
“I feel that one of the major contributions to the world of fashion I have been able to make is my originality of textile print designs and the way I have allowed the textiles to influence the garment shapes.”
From “The Art of Zandra Rhodes”, 1984.