Your career has spanned an astonishing 55 years. What was your most memorable period?
Probably the ’70s when it was an adventure all the time. I was lucky; I did appearances all over America and travelled a lot. I was trying out different things. I’d probably still think of taking those risks, but I don’t have that sort of time anymore. Too much admin, not enough energy. I don’t like working late into the night now.
You talked at Queer Britain about living with Divine in the ’70s. Did you create costumes for him?
Divvie would have accepted any old lengths of fabric and felt great. So, I spent time with him and he’d dress up in my things – but it was more just having a lovely friend.
Did you work with other performers?
I’ve got two big pieces coming up for auction that I did for Freddie Mercury. I said to Freddie and Brian, “You’ll have to come in the evening, because I don’t have a fitting room.” It was right at the beginning of their career and when I put the phone down, I said to one of the girls working for me: “What do they play?” Because I don’t listen to records. I made the clothes, but I never saw them again.
How did America influence your career?
My career was made there. I’d met this wonderful US friend, Richard Holley and some mad Ukrainian-US models who said, “Zandra, you must come to America and make your fortune, we know someone who will back you.” So, I put together a collection, took them over and it was a ten-year whirlwind. I had a letter of introduction to Diana Vreeland, the High Priestess of US Vogue. She raved about my first collection and photographed it on Natalie Wood. Then Vreeland phoned Henri Bendel, who had the top boutique at that time, and they stocked my clothes. I really was like one of the darlings of American fashion. My feet weren’t on the ground.
Do you copyright your designs and fabrics?
No, but I do keep a book of copies called Knock Offs. You can’t do much about imitation. They only have to alter it a fraction and call it “an homage”.
Who influenced you as a textile design student?
David Hockney and Warhol. Artists who created themes I would take up – like the Campbell’s soup can, and neon light bulbs and OMO packets. At art college I created different metal fabrics. Then I started going into lipsticks that no one would buy, because they were too extreme – but they were used by Valentino in, what, 2017?
Fashion is notoriously fickle. How have you remained so relevant for so long?
One minute you’re up, next down. The thing is not to get too pig-headed, or you end up falling flat on your face. It’s never as glamorous as it seems. My mother had the best saying: “Be careful who you step on going up, because you might have to lean on them coming down.” In the ’90s, I felt no one was taking notice of my things, so I said I’d like to do a museum dedicated to textile designers. Half the time when people look at something – say, a fabulous Karl Lagerfeld suit – they don’t factor in that some invisible person made that incredible weave. The Fashion & Textile Museum in London was created to give textile designers more credit.
You’ve done a range of successful collaborations. How do you decide if you can trust someone else’s vision?
IKEA was my first major collaboration, just before covid happened. I’d always wanted to do it. I’m a trained textile designer who went into making dresses because people couldn’t imagine how my prints could look. IKEA sent a whole team over and ended up putting designs into the market in a way that I couldn’t, so they could be offered at a lower price point. Now, I’m working with Wallis and Poppy Lissiman.
You’re in an intensive phase of cataloguing your collections all the way back to 1969. Where will the key pieces go?
What we’re trying to do is to catalogue the things I consider the very best of my career. I would hope these would go to the top museums of the world: the Met, the V&A. I’ve already been in touch with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. In the meantime, we’re donating to the Fashion & Textile museum. And all our book work is going to De Montfort University, Leicester.
Who were the key people that helped you in your career?
Hmm. Definitely Ronnie Stirling, who believed in me for that first shop here in London, and writer Anne Knight. And my final partner, Salah Hassanein; I wouldn’t have had the museum if it hadn’t had been for him.
Were your mother and grandmother interested in fashion?
My mother was a big influence and taught dressmaking in art college. She was a fitter for Worth Paris before she married – the person who drapes the whole thing on the stand and then makes it work for the patternmaker to finish off. I was brought up in a home with fashion magazines around all the time. So, if I wanted a frilly blouse that looked exactly like something in Vogue, my mother could knock that up for me. I’ve got all the sketches I drew of my mother at the sewing machine. But she never saw me go into fashion. She was a chain smoker and passed away in the early 60s before my career took off. But she believed in me.
Who you would trust to take over your fashion empire?
I’ve already formed the Zandra Rhodes Foundation, run by Piers Atkinson, who makes the most marvellous hats.