The Resurrection of Zandra Rhodes' Fabulous Archive

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The Manhattan Dress - Olympia Show 1985
Photography by Robyn Beeche

As her collection of reproduced archival dresses launches with Matches Fashion, the inimitable fuchsia-haired Dame shares her vivid memories surrounding the original designs – from fitting Princess Diana to dressing Donna Summer

Zandra Rhodes has just touched down in London after a whirlwind trip to New York, showcasing her latest collection aboard the QM2 cruise liner. “I had a wonderful time!” she exclaims over the phone. “But, my feet hurt from walking around the city in knee-high gladiator sandals all day. I was wearing these with some lovely loose chiffon, inspired by some of my older designs – I thought I looked the bees knees.” Reflected in her sartorial decision making is the 75-year-old’s outlook on combining a contemporary mood with an oeuvre steeped in a rich fashion history; one that has certainly helped to secure her position as an icon of British textile design.

Rhodes’ latest project with Matches Fashion feels only natural. Teaming up with creative consultant Grace Woodward, a collection of iconic dresses from her remarkable archive have been made anew, yet remain truly reflective of the era in which they were designed. The originals (worn by the likes of Donna Summer, Pat Cleveland, Grace Coddington and Princess Diana) have been exquisitely reproduced, hand-embellished and printed in her atelier. “It’s brought back so many fabulous memories going through my archive,” she adds. Below, we listened to some of the stories she had to tell through a selection of photographs by friend and collaborator Robyn Beeche.

The Manhattan Dress - Olympia Show, 1985 (above)
“The Manhattan dress really highlights my favoured relationship between shape and print; a theme present throughout so many of my designs. Michelle Paradise wears it in this photograph, a model I first discovered in Washington whilst she was walking in a show for charity. I brought her to London from New York in the 70s and she went on to work with Philip Treacy. She modelled for me when I had a concession in Bloomingdales and also for my Chinese collection in the early 80s. She had the most wonderful nose and bone structure! She’s now a psychotherapist in L.A. and we keep in touch regularly.” 

The Summer Dress - Grafton Street Show, October 1977
“This dress was worn by Donna Summer on her record cover Once Upon A Time. I also created a special colourway for Lauren Bacall and it was such a great honour to dress her. When I first met Lauren, she came into my funny little studio in Bayswater at the time for a fitting. I remember that she trod on a pin! I was mortified. The ‘field of lily’ design that you can see on this dress is inspired by a trip to Japan. Issey Miyake had seen some of my clothes, so he organised for me to do a dress show and I was given a great big bunch of lilies by a fabulous Japanese flower arranger; I remember sitting in the corner sketching them out to be worked into this print.”

The Frida Dress - Mexican Collection Photo Shoot, 1977
“This is the print we refer to as ‘the Mexican dinner plate’ – a large circle design taken from the shape of a sombrero. Around this time, I’d been across America and down into Mexico in a Volkswagen Camper and that completely influenced the making of this dress. I’d travelled the Baja Peninsular, across to Mazatlan and then down to Oaxaca; it’s just so romantic there and I took so much inspiration from it. I drew in my sketchbook the whole time, studying all the different things I could observe. I do recall that I was actually travelling with a boyfriend at the time (who has since completely disappeared, as they do!)”

The Star Wars Print Dress - Grafton Street Show, 1979
“The Star Wars print on this dress has been re-worked into a design in the new collection. The original theme came about because the film franchise was absolutely the thing during the 70s of course! I remember getting very inspired when I was in Los Angeles and went up to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills to sketch. And the environment brought back thoughts of Rebel Without A Cause; the film Natalie Wood starred in with James Dean that was shot on location there. Natalie was one of the first people to be photographed in my early designs, so I always think of her with such fondness.”

The Frilly Circle Dress - Olympia Show, 1983
“Natalie Wood was photographed in this dress too, but it also appeared in a very dramatic show in Japan where I used two models I had recently discovered: they happened to be Tina Chow and Sayoko Yamaguchi. Eventually, Sayoko came over to the UK and did some of my shows in London too. She ended up becoming the top model for Kansai Yamamoto and when she died, she said that I was the person who inspired her to continue modelling. It’s lovely to recall this memory in particular.”

The Diana Dress - Olympia Show, 1985
“This was worn by Princess Diana in pale pink whilst she was on a state visit to Kyoto in 1986. I remember she came into my shop just off Bond Street to see the dress, she chose the colour she wanted it made in and I went to the palace to fit her. She was wonderful as a fit model (of course I had to curtsey beforehand!) and always so shy and natural; as natural as I suppose one can be as a Princess. When I went to the Christie’s sale in New York during the 90s where another one of my dresses she wore was auctioned off, she greeted me there too and I remember seeing that same endearing shyness then.”

The Buttons and Bows Dress - Olympia Show, 1985
“The dress in this image is from my India Revisited collection. The country has been a big inspiration for me and I was flown there by the Indian Government in 1981, prior to the first Festival of India at The Barbican. I was shown around different cities by the Handicraft & Handloom Corporation and fell in love with the place. I’d be there a lot more if I could! The hair you see in this photograph was created by Trevor Sorbie and the make-up by Phyllis Cohen (who made stick on facial decorations for the models). The headdresses were built from sculputural twigs and the whole thing was utterly fabulous! It reminds me of all the other wonderful hair and make-up artists I’ve worked with throughout my life; such as Leonard Lewis and Richard Sharah who invented the 3-eyebrowed punk look for me.”