Zandra Rhodes on the RCA

Celebrating the college's 175th anniversary, the extrovert designer talks collaborating with Ossie Clark and signing her mates in when they were late

Fashion Q+A
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Sitting with Zandra Rhodes in the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which she opened in 2003, you're overcome with a sense of respect for the designer's creativity, which is emblematic of both swinging London, when she began, and a vibrant, technicolour idiosyncrasy.

She honed her talent during her time studying at the Royal College of Art, currently celebrating its 175th anniversary with an exhibition 'The Perfect Place to Grow'. The institution also counts David Hockney, Ossie Clark, Christopher Bailey, Tracey Emin and Quentin Blake amongst its alumni. We sat down with Rhodes to talk about her time there, competition and Grace Coddington.

DD: Dazed Digital: Did your mother, working in fashion, encourage you in that direction?
Zandra Rhodes: My mother was a fitter at Worth in Paris before she was married. She taught at the art college I went to but I never imagined I'd go into fashion at all. That was something I hadn’t thought about until I became attracted to fabrics for dresses and garments. Then, I had a vehicle and I needed to sell them.

I had a very clever mother who never made you feel you were pushed to do anything. She was one of those people who could manipulate you without you knowing you were being manipulated.

DD: You're doing something and you find yourself not understanding quite why…
Zandra Rhodes: The person who really influenced my life was an amazing teacher called Barbara Brown who was very exotic and slightly Victorian. She wore lots of jet beads and dyed purple and she was strong and dynamic. She was one of those people that if you worked hard she liked you and if you didn't, she just wouldn't bother with you. She told me that if I really want to do anything, I had to go to the Royal College of Art. That was the goal.

I very proud to be at the Royal College of Art! Remember, everyone had really fought to be there. You sent your folder and they set up an interview. You had to come up to London and they gave you work, a practical task, and then you'd be interviewed during that time. I didn't buy any clothes. There wasn't anything I needed except for maybe equipment. We didn't have TV. I don't know if I even had a radio in my room!

When I went there, the textile school, there were eight people accepted and for each place there were, I don't know, fifty people who applied. We were all coached to go there. Then when I went there, Hockney was in his third year. My work was very influenced by him, by Warhol, all of that, but everyone else was doing quite traditional things.

DD: There wasn't so much a sense of competition as today?
Zandra Rhodes: It was a very communal feeling, yes, though we were all working very hard. Going forward and talking about our work. I felt I was in a competitive atmosphere but you didn't think it was cutthroat. It still wasn't like that. There were quite fabulous people there. I liked working between the different departments and, in my last year, I did some collaborative work with Ossie Clark. I did one for his final show, which was based on flags and it was bright yellow silk. He made shorts and a top, I think. I think it was shown on Grace Coddington. She used to model for the shows and look amazing.

In those days, I wasn't colourful but I wore false eyelashes. I wore lots of eyeliner and black eyelashes and had a Vidal Sassoon [haircut]. I was always covered in paint and dye. Have you heard of Richard Chopping? He was a great friend of Francis Bacon and he was fabulous and very inspirational. He loved my Clark drawings.

DD: What did you do for fun?
Zandra Rhodes: When I was there, people didn't have the same sort of scenes they do now. You'd have your once a month dances, the college ball or whatever you call. You'd go to those and want them to play Beatles-style music. The rest of the time I worked six days and Sunday would do research, often until 10:30 at night.

DD: Tell me something that you haven't told anyone about that time?
Zandra Rhodes: When I was at college, you had to sign a book when you came in. I'd be the most popular person at 9, 9:30 when people called up and asked me to sign the late book for them. I used to do all these different signatures!

DD: So you were always on time?
Zandra Rhodes: I'd be there before it opened – the cleaners would let me in!

Photography Gareth McConnell

The Perfect Place to Grow – 175 Years of the Royal College of Art runs until 3rd January 2013 at the RCA Kensington

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