Mapping Modern Day Creativity: An Evening with Zandra Rhodes

Two weeks ago I was sitting bleary-eyed alongside my kind, personable morning friend, my mug of tea, as I ploughed through my Twitter notifications; until an excitable tweet from the Fashion and Textile Museum stating “We're getting ready to be In Conversation with @Zandra_Rhodes this Thursday 31st May!! Tickets still available..” shook me from my stupor.
I’ve been aware of Zandra Rhodes for as long as I can remember; a true iconic New Wave fashion designer famed not only for her creative legacy but her shocking pink hair and eclectic appearance. Scrabbling madly for my credit card and diving for my phone, I was soon begging the indifferent receptionist on the other end to reserve me a ticket; who gleefully rejoiced in playing me excerpts of tubular bells whilst she checked the legitimacy of my claim to be a student.
Eventually I managed to pre-book a ticket. Upon perusing Google maps I discovered that rather embarrassingly, the Fashion and Textile museum is literally two streets away from my apartment. So I have no excuses for not having previously visited this little educational haven before, considering I live in the capital city and culture seeps through every thoroughfare. Thoughts of possible outfits to wear when meeting the fabulous fashion maverick had flitted through my mind; but I know well enough by now that although London can nurture your identity and strengthen your style inclinations, there are times when you have to let sense occasionally reign over ones fashion fantasies. Seeing the headline on the Southwark newspaper booming “Could this be the Bermondsey rapist?” only that very morning in Tesco, coupled with the inevitable strained pleas from my mother on speakerphone imploring me not to wear anything “strange” meant I donned my much loved ensemble of white shirt, jeans and blazer, and trotted off in the evening sunlight.
For anyone that's ever visited the Fashion and Textile Museum, you’d know that the building is no shrinking violet. I was beadily scouring the boutiques and restaurants on Bermondsey Street like it was going to be carefully concealed in side alley brickwork like Diagon Alley. Until I saw a bright orange and pink building that stands in rather provocative contrast to the beautifully married muted pastels and red brick buildings surrounding it; almost an asymmetric sister building of the Weasley household.
Once inside I was given a programme for the current exhibition on ‘Designing Women: Post War British Textiles’ and a complimentary glass of wine (which I politely declined after I was obliged to nurse Tom recently after typical overindulgent fresher consumption of Rosé) Incidentally, the exhibition features some incredible modernist textile works from some pivotal female designers of the post-war period, such as Lucienne Day, Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag. I bought a copy of ‘Textile Revolution: Medals, Wiggles and Pop 1961-1971 Zandra Rhodes’ by Samantha Erin Safer and nipped up the glass staircase to get a good seat in the conference room. 

As I sat eagerly with my notepad and camera poised on my lap waiting for everyone to arrive, I occupied myself by gazing at the array of fabric montages and inspirational quotes on the walls; only vaguely aware of colour and movement shifting on my peripherals. Until I looked around me and saw fabulously eccentric individuals (of a more mature age) materialising through the cream doorway almost like it was a magic portal connected to another world. I’m positive they had equally creative personalities to match. The room was a melange of dyed hair, feathers, fascinators, tie-dye and the soft jangle of Indian bangles. There I was sat in the middle of the room, forty years younger and looking about as bright as an eclipse.
And then a hush fell upon the room. Our little colourful congregation turned our heads simultaneously as we heard a  distinctly audible rustle of taffeta skirts, in time to see Zandra Rhodes sashaying up the aisle in a magnificent magenta ballgown, vermilion patent heels, piles of costume jewellery and a wry smile And of course the brilliant pink bob.
Samantha Erin Safer, the author of Zandra Rhodes’ new book was present to interview Zandra on her life’s achievements and lead the discussion. She had also prepared a Powerpoint presentation to accompany the talk which was entitled “Zandra Rhodes and the Swinging 60’s; Textile Revolution at the Royal College of Art and the Rise of British Fashion”.
The talk began with Safer distinguishing Zandra as a British fashion and textile designer, “prolific draughtsman” and all-round revolutionary figure. My Mum had always talked to me about precisely why Zandra was so influential; because of her proficiency, first and foremost as a textiles designer, concerned with producing new and innovative fabrics and constant consideration of how this fabric would sit on the body. Zandra began by stating that “textile designers are the Cinderella’s of the fashion world”; for without textiles, designers would have nothing to forge creative visions from.
The more Zandra fed us anecdotes from her incredible past the more I was reminded of snippets of wisdom I had been nourished on from my mother. She emphasised that she was lucky to be a ‘spark part of the bonfire’ that had ignited in the revolutionary 1960’s. That inspiration originates from the simplest everyday influences. To be your own boss and believe in your own talent (Zandra was never offered a job). To know that if you choose to do something you truly love, you will never have to work a day of your life.
The most intriguing parts of Zandra's talk came spontaneously when she would drift off on a tangent and bestow fragments of personal opinion. She talked about the amazing flux of ideas that is naturally proliferated in youth; and how, often, a design process is one of re-visitation and renovation; taking old ideas, coming back to them later in life and injecting new energy. It reminded me of something one of my English lecturers had noted about a particular piece of poetry; how the words grew out of one another like intertwining briars. Zandra said the same thing happens with fashion collections.
Safer asked Zandra about her signature ‘wiggle’ motifs used in so many of her textile designs. Zandra said that wiggles were something she had been drawing since she was a little girl; something innate and integral to one’s creative identity. It reminded me of how my Mum’s illustrations will always feature tiny dots somewhere in the clouds of billowing watercolour.
What really caught my attention was when Zandra addressed the direction of creativity nowadays; a topic that has recently become quite a strong interest of mine. Zandra was not a natural tailor and never possessed the skills to sew until she learnt from friends. But she was taught to draw; and being able to draw stems from an ability to really look. I suppose this sounds like rather an illogical proposition.
I cannot describe how many times my Mum has reprimanded me for ‘looking without seeing’. In essence, this means cursorily glancing at something without really observing the layers of depth and meaning; whether in art, literature, architecture, or textiles The ability to visually examine, is, in my mind, to imagine oneself as a microscope, able to identify and magnify detail that would ordinarily be invisible to the careless human eye.
Rhodes lamented the modern age which has spawned a generation of hopeful designers who are reliant upon a computer to produce drawings. That the technological age, which undoubtedly has its significant benefits, has also ensured that young people really don’t have as much of a grounding in basic technical drawing or possess many fundamental any technical skills to enter the artistic arena. One ends up living what should be a raw, exhilarating creative process through a machine.
Of course this is all subjective. It is not that one cannot get ahead in creative industries if one does not possess any rudimentary technical skills; but isn’t it preferable? I believe these vital technical skills not only make an individual more artistically proficient but help to build an inquiring, flexible mind. A mind well versed in manual improvisation and the generation of new ideas and solutions as a force of habit, not a forced discipline.
All Zandra's designs revolve around a policy of ‘handmade’. She draws all her own designs, cuts her own patterns, screen prints samples. It is not pure romanticisation to think that we should all revert to such processes; but it is vital to create a subtle balance between technology and hand production.
When one audience member asked Zandra to give some future advice for any young people thinking of going into the fashion industry, she simply replied “everything is challenging”. Every industry has its trials and equally has its special rewards. It is ultimately dependent on the individual to make a success of their career.
My mind was having its own rave by this point given all the cultural stimuli, which was perhaps a fitting moment for Zandra’s PA to close the discussion and announce that Zandra would be signing books if we quickly queued at the front. Naturally I assumed the obligatory role of that that irritating person bobbing around in manner of a hyperactive gnat, snapping away with my camera. But it yielded a personal message from Zandra inside my book and a nice photograph so I walked contentedly out into the warm evening renewed with energy and ideas. 

It was only sitting in bed that night reflecting on the evening that I remembered something that had been bothering me from earlier. I cannot remember seeing one young person at the event. I remember thinking beforehand that I would be have to be shoehorned into a room full of young students and fashion entrepreneurs. It couldn’t have been for want of a lack of publicity; not in the technology dominated world that Zandra Rhodes had lamented. This was one of the occasions I felt like I should have been born in a different era; an era filled with days of fast-paced creativity in attic workshops, not days filled with electronic messaging and educational restrictions. Then again I’m probably just dreaming of a revolution. 


  1. Great the photos....Lauren :)

  2. Very interesting :) This isn't quite the quote I wanted but your bit about looking and seeing reminded me of a bit in All American Girl by Meg Cabot that I read when I was younger...this is almost it but in the book theres a bit more but I couldn't find it online!
    “There is a difference between listening and hearing, just as there is a difference between seeing and knowing.”
    ― Meg Cabot, All-American Girl

  3. The serendipity of you coming across the tweet about this talk has worked brilliantly in your favour Christobel! Zandra is such an inspiration both with her skills and artistic flamboyance and I am quietly jealous of your meeting her! The exhibition sounds wonderful but I'm sure hearing Zandra's view on the current state of the fashion and textile industry that made it for you. It is interesting that she lamented the lack of basic skills as it hadn't really occurred to me how great an emphasis is placed on computer based design. It is sad but chance is necessary and as long as the traditional skills are preserved then it is difficult to give reasons why more aspects of design and culture shouldn't become tech based. Although I abhor Kindles in my present situation, I can see that if I ever get a job that calls for regular travel it will be a godsend to still be able to transport a library's worth of books around which take up relatively little room! I can definitely relate to your shock at being the only young person in an event; I was at the Hay festival just over a week ago and attended Michael Morpurgo's Hay Library Lecture and was expecting crowds of people my age and younger to hear him speak as he is such a prolific children's writer and I'm pretty sure he's been Children's Laureate fairly recently. In the end I was surrounded by a sea of silver hair with the odd middle-aged journalist scribbling in a notebook. In this huge tent which sat maybe 400 I could easily count on two hands the under 18s. I was proud to be representing the younger generation whilst at the same time wishing that more people like me who are passionate about literature and writing could have been inspired by him, as I was.

    Alexandra xx

    P.S. I think your outfit choice was perfect x

  4. Zandra Rhodes - what a legend that woman is. And what a thrilling opportunity to see her talk and hear her musings on an extraordinary career. SO many interesting observations you make in the course of this piece too, especially your mum's reprimand for 'looking without seeing' and Rhodes' comments about a lack of hands-on technical skill. I think that observation extends into many creative areas. As for the age of the audience - I'm surprised too. If I lived in London I'd definitely have gone if I'd known it was being held.
    Just as an aside, when I see photos of ZAndra Rhodes I always think of the amazing sculpture done of her by artist Andrew Logan.

  5. It looks amazing! That red dress is stunning! I love your background too!

  6. Amazing!!!!


  7. These pictures are fantastic! Your prose brought me along and the last bit made me both sad and nostalgic for a more creative time as well, but maybe through a growing awareness of the issue people like you are pointing out we can make our own time :)

    Thanks for the inspiration and the incredibly supportive comment on my blog!

  8. I must admit I don't know Zandra Rhodes but what a wonderful surprise she is. I'm glad you illustrated your post with her pink bob and all. As for being a generation (or two, or three) younger than the rest of the audience, I often find myself in that company as well. I've always wondered why so few young persons people museums, libraries, concert halls, theaters, ... Frankly, older people are also so much more interesting! I love to "interview" them about their life experiences. Anyway, good for you that you got to attend this. -- J xx


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