DRAMATIC, glamourous and extrovert. These are the three words that sum up fashion designer Dame Zandra Rhodes. With her bright pink hair, theatrical make up and art jewellery, she has, during a career spanning more than 50 years, firmly stamped her mark on the international world of fashion.
Indeed she was one of the new wave of British designers who put London at the forefront of the international fashion scene in the 1970s and she has been a key player in the industry ever since.
Her unique use of bold prints, fiercely feminine patterns and theatrical use of colour has given her garments a timeless quality that makes them unmistakably a Zandra Rhodes creation.
But now, after an iconic career that has seen the Bermondsey based designer constantly pushing the boundaries when it comes to creativity and originality of design, she has turned her attention to something new.
And in true Zandra Rhodes style, her latest creations – a collection of four wall art prints – are bold bright and fun.
The pieces, which will be launched next month in New York, are a result of a collaboration with interior designer Christopher Guy, and Dame Zandra is positively brimming with excitement at the thought of bringing them to everyone’s attention.
Given their different styles, she admits it’s not perhaps a natural partnership, rather a case of opposites attract, with her designs and Christopher’s furniture complimenting one another.
“I spend quite a lot of time in LA as well as London and I was introduced to Christopher when I went to his LA showroom and saw his exotic furniture,” she says.
“I fell in love with all his amazing pieces. They are elegant, wonderful and gorgeous and I imagined how amazing my designs would look on the walls next to his furniture.
“We met, got to know each other and talked about how we could work together on something that could combine our work.
“He said I should do it and it seemed a fabulous idea so here we are.”
We chat as Dame Zandra and her team are putting together the finishing touches to her creations for London Fashion Week and interviewing the models who will be wearing them.
“It’s keeping me very busy,” she chuckles. “This year I’m showing a collection featuring hand painted Malaysian textiles of vibrant and exclusive batiks.
“They are beautiful but as always there is lots of work to do. I always find Fashion Week is very busy and frantic.”
But if she’s stressed by all that’s going on she doesn’t show it. Indeed despite the fact that she seems permanently on the go and will be rushing off to New York to launch her wall art immediately after Fashion Week, she is full of energy.
And it is her collaboration with Christopher Guy that is uppermost in her mind. There are currently four pieces in the collection all based on her classic designs.
Each one is painted with a selection of hand mixed acrylics on to a custom made art board. Overlaid on to this is a fine clouded mist which she says gives “each piece a greater visual depth and sense of mystique”.
The four designs will be sold at all of Christopher Guy’s worldwide showrooms including London, New York and LA as well as online.
“They probably took about six months to create and I’m very pleased with them,” she enthuses.
“We tried to include those designs which we considered a Zandra Rhodes classic such as the Button Flower from 1971 and Lips and Nails.
“They are bright and bold but compliment Christopher’s elegant designs. They really work.
“I live in a wonderful rainbow interior but I now dream of getting a Christopher Guy couch which would zigzag across my room,” she adds warmly. “I think it would look amazing.”
If the collection is received well she hopes there will be more to follow.
“I’d love to do more and for this to be just the start,” she says.
“If these do well, I’d love to add to the collection with cushions and other products to create a whole range.
“When you are a designer you never know how your designs will be received. But I am always positive and hopeful.”
It is an ethos she has always adopted. She started off as a textile designer but moved into fashion design and has never looked back, becoming one of Britain’s most successful and most recognisable in the business.
“When I first started I didn’t know what would happen,” she admits. “I wanted to be a textile designer but everyone though my designs were too extreme.
“So I set up my own studio and learned to make dresses with my own fabrics and it went from there.
“I have been lucky and have survived and I don’t want it to end. I’m certainly not ready to stop!”
In the years since, she has nurtured, mentored and provided work experience for the likes of Philip Treacy and Iain R Webb and has dressed anyone who is anyone.
And after a period of having different parts of her business in different areas of London she is now firmly ensconced in a former warehouse in Bermondsey Street.
She moved there on the advice of her best friend, artist and former Bermondsey neighbour Andrew Logan.
It is here that she has her penthouse home, workshop and museum, the Fashion And Textile Museum, all under one roof.
“Andrew told me about this place and I love it,” she enthuses. “Years ago all the bits of my business were in different parts of London, now it’s all together and it’s so much better.
“This is such a vibrant area, though it has changed a great deal over the years. I always say you have to be positive about change as you can’t do anything else.
“I love it here though and I’ll be here til I die!”
As Dame Zandra has worked with so many people I ask if there has been a highlight from her long and illustrious career.
“I look back and think of the white top I designed for Freddie Mercury,” she remembers. “It was done a long while ago and it just happened to be memorialised by a gorgeous photo.
“I had a studio in Bayswater at the time and the band came to see me and I got them to try on different things from the rail that I had made.
“I made something for Freddie and got him to move around the room in it and it was extraordinary. But then I didn’t see them for years and when I did he was always wearing black.
“When he died though all the images of him was the one in which he was wearing his white top – it was incredible.”
As well as rock stars, others who have beaten a path to her door have included the likes of actress Dame Helen Mirren, pop star Debbie Harry, Bianca Jagger, Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Dame Shirley Bassey, model Kate Moss and Sarah Jessica Parker who wore her creations in the hit TV show Sex And The City.
She also famously dressed the late Princess Diana.
“She wasn’t ordinary at all, I still had to curtsey,” she says when I ask what it was like. “She came to the shop and had a look at my designs before I went to the palace to fit her.
“A lot of thought went into each piece. For example when I dressed her in a wrap dress she said I had to think about the neckline.
“She didn’t want it to be too daring because she knew there would be a photographer lying in wait who would take a picture the minute she stepped out in it.
“So we really had to think about the designs - people don’t realise how tricky that was.”
And she admits there is one person she would love to dress given the chance.
“Princess Kate,” she says without hesitation. “I would love to dress her. She has been well trained and is quite conservative in her dress but I would love to see what designs she would be drawn to.”
And then it’s back to preparing for London Fashion Week and the wall art launch.
“Life is always busy,” she says. “But I love it.”
Dame Zandra Rhodes will be launching her wall art on October 1 at Christopher Guy in New York.
Her Fashion and Textile Museum is in Bermondsey Street. Visit http://www.ftmlondon.org/ for listings.