'I'd love to dress Kate but after Di the royals had to tone down'
Lunch with Zandra Rhodes
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
The punk fashionista talks about dressing the 'People's Princess' and growing old disgracefully.
With her shock of pink hair and permanently slept-in make-up, Zandra Rhodes imagines that people who don't recognise her probably just think she's some crazy bag lady.
"Have you seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," asks the fashion designer of the 1962 cult film starring Bette Davis as a decaying former child star who terrorises her wheelchair-bound sister, played by Joan Crawford.
"I can imagine that I go up to a bank and they go: 'Oh God!'
"You have a certain image and you can't change too much from it, so I suppose it just about lasts you a lifetime."
As we slide into the banquette seating of Clodagh's Kitchen at Arnotts for lunch, today it's a little girl - not a bank manager - who's understandably gawping at the fuchsia-haired grandma at the next table.
And the 74-year-old enfant terrible of British fashion - who's dressed everyone from Freddie Mercury to Princess Diana - says she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Little girls like pink, and they always like my hair, which is very nice," tells Zandra, who finally earned the prefix 'Dame' for her lifelong contribution to British design earlier this year. "I can't imagine dying my hair brown or going grey.
"I don't mean I pretend to look any younger - you only have to look closely at the bits. I want to feel exciting and I want to feel excited by my work.
"The older you get, you do get …," she pauses, "I don't mean stuck in a rut… but you dress for the age group that you are.
"I hope that I'm brave enough to try things and not look stupid."
Midday shoppers at the Henry Street department store, where her latest collection has just gone on sale, certainly still seem enamoured with Rhodes' signature offbeat style.
By the time our super-healthy mains arrive, two of the vibrant kaftans she designed for Colebrooke by Windsor - one of which she's rocking for our interview - have been snapped up, according to the glamorous lady who nips in to keep the Dame updated. "Last night at Trocadero [Dublin restaurant], there were some lovely older ladies that looked very stylish," says Zandra, whose most recent collaboration goes up to size 24, itself an anomaly in the size zero-obsessed world of fashion. "Whatever you do I think you should feel comfortable.
"There's no point if you've always got to feel pulled in, or thinking 'Is this all right?'. You'd be better wearing something that covers up things.
"You can always make someone slim and gorgeous," continues the couturier, who also designs costumes and sets for the stage. "To me, the biggest joy is if you can succeed in making someone larger feel great.
"That's why I love dressing opera stars. I love making this wonderful lady who's meant to be a princess feel a bit more princess-like."
Such practicality might seem a little contradictory coming from the woman once nicknamed 'The Princess of Punk'.
Long before Versace and Galliano, Rhodes indeed rattled the fashion establishment with her jewelled safety pins and outrageous prints.
But the Royal College of Art alumna hasn't forgotten her roots as the eldest daughter of a dressmaker and lorry driver from Kent either.
"Before she was married, my mother worked in Paris as a fitter," tells Zandra, who originally studied textile design before opening her first shop on Fulham Road in 1966. "Then the war broke out and she came back and got married, and taught dressmaking in the college that I went to. I never learnt fashion because of that - I went more into painting and drawing."
Despite being considered one of the world's most iconic - and iconoclastic - fashion and textile designers, Rhodes confesses she couldn't even flog her creations at first: "When I left Royal College, I couldn't sell my textiles.
"I always imagined how these textiles would look on, so I got a friend [designer Sylvia Ayton] who trained in fashion.
"The exciting thing about life is people that sometimes end up in a career didn't start off in that career," she adds. "Armani was a doctor, Issey Miyake was an engineer.
"It doesn't matter whether you went into the business from that direction or not - if it doesn't sell you're out of a job."
Almost five decades after first gracing the pages of American Vogue, the Olivier Award-winning designer's fearless but feminine frocks have been worn by Jackie Kennedy in Life magazine, Helen Mirren scooping a BAFTA and Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, to name but a few.
Although she describes shutting her flagship Bond Street store as her "greatest regret" in life, Rhodes is far from retired, and divides her time between London, where she founded the Fashion and Textile Museum, and San Diego, where she lives with her partner of thirty years, 94-year-old Salah Hassanein, a former president of Warner Brothers International Theatres.
'Because my partner's a lot older I try not to leave him for very long," she explains, "so I can't expand and go round shops and deal with things like that.
"My company is in London and I speak to them every single day on Skype. If people want to come to my salon above the museum, then I'm ready for showing. But I sell mainly from doing dress shows in private homes in America."
Every six weeks, Dame Zandra reveals she sleeps with "a very glamorous plastic bag" on her head to maintain her statement neon pink 'do.
In the morning, she simply traces over her theatrical make-up, including blue kohl eyeliner and a 24-hour lipstick she's recently discovered.
"If I was really late, I could get ready in five minutes," boasts the jet-setting stylista. "If I have to go out in the evening I generally just touch up the make-up again."
Fashion's most famous rule breaker was nonetheless happy to stick with convention by donning a hat when she was named a 'Dame of the British Empire' at Buckingham Palace earlier this year.
"I was made a Dame on Friday 13, in February," says the keen Royalist and Downton Abbey fan, "so quite recently. It is a great honour. Although it's just 'Zandra' when I come to Ireland," she jokes, before wondering: "Did everyone like the fact that the Queen came over and spoke in Gaelic?"
Having dressed the late Princess Diana, needless to say Dame Zandra would now love to get her hands on her daughter-in-law, but concedes that the Duchess is unlikely to step out in one of her daring off the shoulder designs like Di: "I enjoyed dressing Princess Diana.
"If you're a British subject, you go in there with a certain amount of awe. I would love to dress Kate. She's got a lovely figure and I think could do something that would be lovely.
"But I think the whole episode with Princess Diana made it very difficult for all of those that followed. They had to tone down."
Dressing Oscar-nominated actress Salma Hayek is also on her bucket list.
Even the doyenne of 60s design admits it can be difficult to get her dresses, handbags and shoes on all the right people though: "Often with something like the Oscars, they're so surrounded by ad companies, you can't get to them.
"I did a fabulous dress for a little girl that got an Oscar last year. In the end, they put her in an ordinary long dress and the girl looked terrible."
Perseverance, she reckons, is the key to the success that's seen her eponymous retrospective, 'Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles', pop up everywhere from Massachusetts to Mexico City, with Dublin next on her wish list.
"I think probably hard work and not giving up," asserts Dame Zandra - who lists John Rocha and Lorcan Mullany among her favourite Irish designers - is the secret to her staying power.
"So often in any career you could come up with something and it can go wrong. I think you just persevere.
"You have to be able to say, 'I'm lucky that I have a job', and it's great that my job has taken me all over the world."
With that, it's time for the unstoppable septuagenarian to perform a quick wardrobe change before hopping on another plane back to London.
"When I was younger, I could have worn six-inch heels," she laughs. "Now I couldn't work in six-inch heels.If I'm at work in London, I wear a pink tracksuit that I have printed over, lots of belts, lots of jewellery and pink Crocs. I hope I still look exotic!"
The Zandra Rhodes for Colebrook by Windsmoor collection is available at Arnotts, see www.arnotts.ie
A life in brief
FROM: Kent, United Kingdom.
FAMILY: Long-term partner, retired Warner Brothers president Salah Hassanein and five stepchildren.
BEST KNOWN AS: Fuchsia-haired fashion designer to the stars.
LIKES: Cooking and gardening.
DISLIKES: Laziness and going grey.