Rhodes’ fashion retrospective transports us into her gloriously colourful world...

Fashion history hasn't been kind to Zandra Rhodes. More famous for her signature pink bob, eccentric appearance, and the pink and orange building that houses her Fashion and Textile Museum (a homage to British design from 1950 onwards) than her trailblazing fashion design, this exhibition shines a deserved spotlight on her stellar 50-year career to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her Bermondsey-based museum.

It may seem a little self indulgent to put on your own retrospective, but Rhodes clearly takes an "if you want something done right, do it yourself" work approach. Over the years, the Royal College of Art graduate has opened her own museum, her own stores, experimented with printed textiles, sketches, bold colours and surface embellishment at every opportunity and, most importantly, made all of her outrageous, vibrant and personal patterns herself from scratch. Treating them as decorative art in themselves, her garment silhouettes are of secondary importance.

"I believe I’m doing something that is historically important," quips Rhodes in one of the exhibition’s films. She was the first designer to use reversed seams, translate punk into high fashion through her 1977 'Conceptual Chic' collection, and to ethically engage with foreign workers through her beading initiative with the Indian government. Rhodes’ designs have been featured in American Vogue, worn by Freddie Mercury, Jackie Onassis and Kate Moss, and are collected by fellow fashion designers Tom Ford and Anna Sui.

Rhodes keeps a copy of every design she makes, and therefore had a lot of material to choose from when putting this exhibition together. Previously unseen artifacts, studio tools, memorabilia, films, sketchbooks, hanging prints and garments have been arranged into a physical timeline of her greatest fashion hits for the two-floor exhibition. So what has Zandra Rhodes chosen to reveal?

1. Her work process. Rhodes works "from the wrong direction to get something new". Her dress shapes are informed by the prints, not the other way round, and she will pin her textiles to herself to see how they relate to the body.

2. How versatile and transferable her zany and playfully feminine sketches really are. An assortment of Rhodes’ objects, from various licensing deals, open the exhibition: stamps, Diet Coke cans, London Underground maps and MAC make-up are just a few objects to have undergone Rhodes’ creative treatment.

3. The hand-beaded dresses that were her signature pieces in the 1980s, following her Indian travels. The examples from her ‘India Revisited’ and ‘The Indian Saree Show’ collections demonstrate how she incorporated Indian culture and techniques into her designs.

4. That she has more in common with Vivienne Westwood than you’d think. Both are of a similar age, with punk associations. But unlike Westwood, Rhodes wasn’t a punk cornerstone. Her unprinted 1977 ‘Conceptual Chic’ collection - pink and black jersey pieces sprinkled with holes, chains and safety pins - earned her the ‘Princess of Punk’ accolade anyway.

5. Some of Rhodes’ most successful prints were punk details, like jewelled pins, chains and holes printed in pastel blues and pinks on cream and peach chiffons. The prints, called Punk Squares, Torn Square and Punk Broderie, from her 1978 'Painted Lady' collection, featured on romantic ball gowns and evening dresses.

6. That she has embraced modern fashion's digital evolution. Rhodes’ 2013 ‘Sketchbook Dresses’ collection features colourful digital prints and sketches printed straight onto dresses and accessories.

7. Pink is probably her favourite colour. She uses different shades for her hair colour, outfits, her museum and her 'Conceptual Chic' collection.

8. Her role as muse to sculptor Andrew Logan. His crude renderings of Rhodes (a bust of her head and a huge moving sculpture of Rhodes in Indian costume) are included, adding drama to the space.

9. That she gives great soundbites. Make sure you watch the film at the end.

10. Finally, her legacy: elements of Rhodes’ work and practices can be seen in the new generation of fashion printers, spearheaded by Mary  Katrantzou.

The exhibition runs until 31st August.

Words: Felicia Pennant


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