Dame Zandra Rhodes tells Etan Smallman how she shelved her personal pain to make Scandi-chic colourful
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Designer Dame Zandra Rhodes wasn’t supposed to be here to launch her exotic collection for Ikea. She was diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct in March 2020, at the start of lockdown, after her stomach felt full – despite not having eaten anything – while doing some yoga in her “rainbow penthouse” in London. According to her doctor’s initial prognosis, the situation was so serious, the 80-year-old should have been dead by the following September.
“I was told that I had six months,” says Rhodes nonchalantly over Zoom from Stockholm, where she has just had breakfast with the British ambassador after launching her homeware range – complete with models walking her creations down a runway as her disembodied Kent-inflected voice could be heard shouting: “Fabulous!” “Work it!” “Fierce!”
“But then I said: ‘Look, what am I going to do? I’ve got Ikea and it’s got to be delivered!’ I’d already done the products,” she explains, before adding with a flourish: “So they would have just been floating – and someone else could have worn a pink wig.”
There was no time for tears, it seems. Rhodes has only admitted to “moaning” to her sister Beverley, 77, and the suggestion that her time was running out appears to have been motivating rather than inhibiting.
Her thoughts turned to her legacy. “I tried to get all my garments homes to go to, at different museums across the world, and seeing that everything gets sorted out – in case it’s a bit short. At the moment, I don’t know whether it’s short or not,” she says.
Not only has she spent a large chunk of the past year shuttling back and forth to chemotherapy and immunotherapy appointments, but Rhodes was also adjusting to life as a widow.
In June 2019, nine months before her diagnosis, her partner of more than 25 years, Egyptian-born Salah Hassanein, former president of Warner Bros. International Theatres, passed away at their home in San Diego.
At 98, his death was perhaps not unexpected, but US visa rules kept Rhodes – who had never married Hassanein – from collecting her possessions in person. That task was left to a loyal secretary.
If Rhodes’s sangfroid – or perhaps plain grit – seems extraordinary, it’s entirely in character for a woman who was born during an air raid in 1940 and is a self-professed workaholic.
Indeed, she kept her cancer a secret for as long as she could, including from her Ikea collaborators. “They didn’t know,” she says with a giggle. “That only came as a fait accompli!”
The Ikea designs are equally upbeat. The 26-piece Karismatisk collection (“charismatic” in Swedish) includes bold floral rugs, pre-cut fabrics, gold-pleated fairy lights and a pink frilly rework of the ubiquitous Frakta carrier bag. It is hard to imagine catching Rhodes perusing the labyrinthine aisles of the flatpack giant, but she is, she points out, a loyal customer who painted her Billy bookcases bright yellow and can’t wait to see the range when she does an event at her local Greenwich store on Tuesday.
She is helping to usher in – along with the return of TV’s Changing Rooms – a bombastic return to maximalism after so many of us decided during lockdown that life was too short to live with walls of greige.
Rhodes could name drop for England. But with a client list boasting Freddie Mercury, Jackie Onassis, Princess Anne, Princess Diana, Barbra Streisand and Paris Hilton, who could blame her? Fascinatingly, though, she started out selling furnishing fabrics in the 1960s – after the fashion world turned its nose up at her outrageous dress designs.
Six decades on, she says: “I’m in the lucky position that people consider me a revolutionary. But now that I’ve been lucky enough to work with Ikea, I think that my things will go down historically in a different way as well.”
She even predicts the Ikea collaboration will be a central part of her legacy, cementing her among the textile heavyweights, “whether you’re talking about Josef Frank or Marimekko. People will remember my work as well, which is great.”
That desire for immortal status is understandable. Even once Rhodes had hit the big time, not everyone understood her art. She loves the 1977 story of one of her customers sending her Zandra Rhodes garment to the dry cleaner, who had diligently “sewn up the holes and pinned the safety pins separately on one side”.
Given her newfound flair for affordable furnishings, one wonders if Boris and Carrie Johnson could have saved a lot of heartache, not to mention cash, by recruiting her to refurbish the Downing Street flat, rather than rack up headlines thanks to costly Lulu Lyttle upholstery and gold wallpaper.
“I just thought that I could have done a good job for them,” she says, “but they didn’t get in touch with me.” When I mention the bill, rumoured to be up to £200,000, she adds: “I hope it looked grand enough.” What would she have done? “I could have given them a touch of the rainbow.”
It turns out that Rhodes and Boris have something in common. While his artfully ruffled blond locks are thought to be a foil to distract from his laserlike ambition, Rhodes’s coiffure fulfils a similar purpose – diverting from the fact that she is a geek at heart.
“Yes, it’s a bit boring, isn’t it? The only reason you don’t think I’m boring is because you can look at pink hair. Well, the pink hair’s very useful and I can’t imagine myself being grey, so it stays the way it is.”
Halfway through our chat, the PR intervenes to get the conversation back on to “the collection”. But Rhodes is unfazed, telling me: “I’m OK with whatever you throw me.”
So I ask about her arrest for growing cannabis plants on her London windowsill. “Oh don’t! I mean, I have to have clearance to go to America because of being caught growing marijuana 30 years ago. It will stay with you forever, it will not leave you!”
Does she take pride in still being branded a rebel in her 80s? “I don’t know about pride. I think it’s something one has to try to forget. I supposed to the youngsters, it must make me look a bit less conservative.”
This is said with not a hint of irony, despite the fact that the “Princess of Punk” is dressed in an anything-but-staid ensemble of black-and-red lipstick-print jumpsuit, large brooch by her friend Andrew Logan, “a very nice jewelled handbag… and of course all my make-up”. The look is finished off with Zandra Rhodes snake-printed Happy Socks and gold Adidas trainers.
Rhodes hopes to fill her sketch book with drawings from her Swedish trip before flying back, having spent her career deriving inspiration from everything from Aztec temples to Native American costumes.
Is she concerned about the modern discourse around cultural appropriation, condemning anyone in the West who benefits commercially from other cultures? She says she thinks she “Zandrifies” everything enough that she can sidestep the debate, but adds: “I think the world’s becoming more of a landmine and we just hope that all people that are coming along now can design and feel free to design.”
We come back to the question of her cancer. But, she makes clear there is no time to ponder mortality. Instead, she is busy cataloguing her work and “following up on my wild dreams, and you’re going to see a few other fabulous things coming up. It’s a wonderfully wiggly path – I don’t know where I’m going to. But I’m still on it.”