The Designer Had Green Hair

Her own makeup seems to come less from Revlon than Ringling Brothers—her hair, previously dyed emerald green, is lately orange, and there was a time when she dabbed pink dots on her plucked eyebrows. Her design workshop is in the wrong part of London, three rickety flights up in a nameless building beside a railway embankment. But Evangeline Bruce, the elegant chatelaine of the American mission in China, outfits herself there between tours in Peking. Princess Anne ordered one of the designer’s gowns for her official wedding portraits, and the rest of her clientele ranges from Bianca Jagger to Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand to Lee Radziwill.

Zandra Rhodes has, at 32, become Britain’s kickiest, trendiest and yet most established international couturier—for women who can handle the $500-and-up off-the-rack prices and the off-the-wall look. “She is the only fantasy left,” says fashion illustrator Joe Eula. “She’s a mad extravaganza, a theatrical event,” says Harper’s Bazaar editor Carrie Donovan. “She’s always ahead of her time.” Rhodes herself declares, with bemused bravado, that some of her silk-screen print patterns, like the one with hands all over it, were seven years ahead of Paris.

Rhodes’s sources reach from pre-Raphaelite paintings to the turn-of-the-century designs of Paul Poiret (who first tried to liberate women from girdles) to Flash Gordon sci-fi. Her fabrics are a wildly eclectic grabbag of Isadora Duncan chiffons, Florentine velvets, organzas, tulles and scraps from Chelsea flea markets. The hemlines, unintimidated by French arbiters or Women’s Wear Daily, are all lengths—fluted, ruffled, saw-toothed and tattered, as if meant to catch in Jaguar doors, just as her raveled sleeves seem designed to trail into the vichysoisse. The appeal of the Rhodes line above all is its delightful eccentricity.

Born in the south of England to a truck driver and a sewing teacher, Zandra studied textile design at London’s Royal College of Art and opened a boutique for affluent hippies. Her backers included actress Vanessa Redgrave. But not until the designer put together a collection to take to the States in 1968 was the Rhodes name recognized. She won over Vogue’s Diana Vreeland, and “everything started from that.” Henri Bendel’s and other stores (including Fortnum & Mason back home) succumbed to the Rhodes whimsy, and her caftans, harem pants and tango dresses became the word in the right trend-setting households. “My clothes work better in America than anywhere else,” says Zandra. “American women have such style and character that they wear my clothes well.”

Zandra wears her success lightly. Unlike that other 1960s British phenomenon Mary Quant, who has since become a miniconglomerate, Rhodes prefers to remain a one-woman cottage industry. She still shows up daily at her workshop at 7:30 a.m. and resides unfashionably in a five-story Victorian terrace house around the corner from it. She used to live with her textile partner Alexander MacIntyre. Now, if she goes out, it is with her hairdresser, or Tony Curtis, Ryan O’Neal or the Jaggers. “Basically,” she says, “I like being shut away, no one coming to see me. I like to sit and draw.” If that palls, she can always change the color of her hair again, “look in the mirror and rethink myself.”

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