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Zandra Rhodes is not slowing down

The iconic designer and all-round style legend talks about her Valentino collab, creating a Malaysian print and the secret to her longevity

By Florence Song | Published: 21 Dec 2016

Interview: Zandra
Photo: KL Alta Moda

"I wouldn't know what to do; I think I would just rot in a corner," replied Zandra Rhodes when asked if she plans to retire anytime soon. The 76-year old British designer who was down in KL (it's her fourth time here now) for the recent KL Alta Moda held at Starhill Gallery where she showed a collection of beautiful songket pieces alongside her signature chiffon print dresses, shows no signs of slowing down even after an extensive six decade-long career that has seen her dressing both rockstars and royalty.

Dressed in one of her designs – a stunning midnight blue, tiered kaftan dress covered all over in gold squiggles, huge pearls and her trademark fuchsia bob, red lips and blue eyeshadow-rimmed eyes, Rhodes maintained a spirited, bubbly cheer at Ritz Carlton where we finally sat down with her after stealing her away mid-tea with the crème de la crème of Malaysia's society.

What's the story behind the collection that we've just seen?
We did a collection initiated by Dodi Mohammad – one that really focused on songket. We chose lovely iridescent greens and pinks, and various groups of clothes. Then I designed and worked on the weaves to make suits and short dresses. It was really to give it another look. Three quarters of the collection are made up of Malaysian songket weaves.

Photo: KL Alta Moda

What about the archive looks that you included? How do they relate to the new collection?
I had students who couldn't believe how people were copying the things that I've did in the past – like the pink dress for Princess Diana or the gold dress that Pat Cleveland wore dancing at Studio 54. They suggested that I produce the collection again in a new look, so we did that for Matchesfashion in UK.

Your AW16 collection is said to be inspired by Studio 54 back in its heyday. Would you be able to share with us an interesting story of your own at Studio 54?
I remember with shame going to Studio 54 when they reopened. I sat down in the corner and I was so tired, I fell asleep. I'm sure I was the only person who would fall asleep in Studio 54. I also remember lots of times it was like the parting of the Red Sea when you went in there with Bianca Jagger or Pat Cleveland.

Could you tell us about the Hieronymus Bosch-inspired prints you created for Pierpaolo Piccioli's first solo collection at Valentino?
That was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. He flew over with two of his assistants, opened the Hieronymus Bosch book and said he wanted the collection based on that. And I'm thinking, "Do we want naked people all over it?" It was a fantasy look that I was completely overwhelmed with. I came up with five or six initial ideas and he would look at the things I did and say, "I like your wiggle" or "I like this." Finally, he looked at one of my designs – a lipstick design I had done in 1963 – and said that he wanted daggers and hearts, so we turned that into daggers and hearts and it was wonderful.

Is there anyone else on your collaboration wishlist?
Oh gosh, that's difficult. I think I really just pick and choose. For example, we're currently working on the idea of me doing a print for Anna Sui who is going to have an exhibition in my museum in London. We're going to do the print here in Malaysia using Malaysian fabrics.

Your dresses have been worn by iconic stars from Princess Diana to Pat Cleveland. If you could design an outfit for a current It girl, who would it be for?
I would love to do something for Princess Kate. It would be fabulous to do something for her. She always looks good.

If you could describe Malaysia as a print, what would it look like?
Mad Malaysian houses! I love looking at these tall blocks with curved roofs. I've done a Manhattan print but I think I should do a KL print. You'd need to put the Twin Towers in. I think there's room for a lot of things.

What projects have you got lined-up for the future?
At the moment, I'm designing for the Turandot opera, which is about a mad Chinese princess and a pair of lovers that get beheaded. It's wonderfully mad. It's due to be out in San Diego in 2018.

You've been working since the 60s, any plans of settling into retirement soon?
I wouldn't know what to do; I think I would just rot in a corner.

What inspires you?
Wonderful people. I think it's one's friends. It's very important to do something and exchange ideas. I also love traveling when I get the chance. It's really a case of seeing how far my adventures can take me.

What do you think has been the key to your longevity in this industry?
I'd say longevity is the result of hard work and enjoying what you do. If you do something and it doesn't succeed, you pick yourself up and have another go. You never give up.

Photo: KL Alta Moda

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS

Describe yourself in 3 words.
Pink, short, makeup.

What would your hair be if not pink?
I think it will be several different colors. I see all these people with all these different colours, I think I might try that next.

What's your hobby?
Cooking and gardening.

If you weren't a fashion designer, what would you be doing?
I don't know, I don't have time to think about that.

What's the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Oh, good one! Be careful who you step on going up, cause you might have to lean on them going down.


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