She pioneered British fashion in the 1970s, has dressed some of the world’s most famous women, was made a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of her contribution to fashion and textiles, and is now blazing a colorful trail of innovative costume and set designs for the opera world.
Her highly recognizable name is Zandra Rhodes, and I was fortunate to be invited into her design studio in Solana Beach to chat with her about her life, her work, and her glittering designs for San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Aida.
Entering her studio I felt like Alice discovering a fashion Wonderland: Fabrics in a dazzling array of vibrant colors, mannequins dressed in costumes of vivid hues splashed with shimmering gold, all surrounded me.
Exuding energy, she welcomed me warmly with a brilliant smile, her radiant face crowned with a halo of her signature pink hair. As she showed me drawings from stacks of sketchbooks, she gestured at the panoply of fabrics and designs, and the activity bustling around us.
ZR: All this goes on regardless of whether I’m down at the theatre. We have to sort of get it all together there.
EM: I’d like to start with a bit of your background. I’ve read about your spending time with your mother’s sewing books as a child.
ZR: My mother was always sewing at home. She taught part time in those days, and she’d be sewing in the evenings. She was always, always working. In fact she was never not working.
EM: And you got interested in fashion because of that?
ZR: It was in our background. My sister and I would sew at school, or we’d make dolls’ dresses and the like. Then as I got older my mother would sew and make things up so we always had clothes. It was quite amazing. I think that’s what helped me know what to do, when I trained as a textile designer. I’d always imagined how textiles would go together to make things.
EM: My mother was a seamstress but I have absolutely no talent for that.
ZR: Oh, playing the violin, that’s something. At the Met. Wonderful.
EM: For twenty-one years. I saw at all. But I came of age at a time when you were coming into prominence; you were the icon. We were all so fascinated with you and with London fashion. It’s a great honor for me to be here with you.
ZR: Oh, wonderful. Thank you (laughs).
EM: What must it have been like back then in the 70s when you got started and all of a sudden you were in New York?
ZR: I know, it’s very funny, I mean I don’t want to sound like I was taking things for granted, but they happen. And that’s it. Do you know what I mean?
EM: Yes, it was your work, and part of your journey. And just, ‘Oh wow, I’m going to New York.’
ZR: Yes. I went there because something in me made me think I should go to America. I don’t know what it was, whether it was these mad American models, who said you’ll make your fortune there. But it made me go to New York and go on from there.
EM: I think in fashion as in music you end up in New York sooner or later.
ZR: Exactly. I think that’s what you do, and it’s very fascinating that my own home country hasn’t really welcomed me as much. There’s a lot of PR and that sort of thing, but what I do is really here.
EM: And you’re six months of the year in San Diego?
ZR: My partner’s a lot older and he decided to retire here. What I usually do is three weeks here and then maybe ten days there.
EM: You’ve had a special relationship with San Diego Opera.
ZR: In fact I like being in somewhere small like San Diego. If I’d been in New York, I’d be less likely to deal with someone who’s in the opera. So it was a question of, ‘Would you be interested in designing an opera?’ That’s really how it came about, totally by accident. Magic Flute was the very first. Ian (Campbell, SDO general director) approached me to do that in 1999. And it went on in, I think, 2001. I just did the costumes. After that Ian said would I be interested in doing The Pearl Fishers. And we did, and then the head of Pacific Opera came and saw it and commissioned me to do Aida, in conjunction with Houston. That’s how it all started.
EM: I’ve read that to get inspiration you traveled to Egypt and Sri Lanka.
ZR: Sri Lanka was for Pearl Fishers, to get background. I’d already been to India because the Indian government invited me to go in 1981. I’d done an Indian collection and had been associated with things to do with India. Then because of that when I’d been invited to do (Pearl Fishers) and told it’s in Ceylon, a little island off of India, I assumed it would be similar. I said I needed to go with a friend who can also sketch with me. And we went and looked at Ceylon so I could get my basis and check, oh yes, I could relate to that, and we’d go from there.
EM: So, Aida…
ZR: I’d already been to Egypt. So I’d got some of the background, and that inspired me. And I’d done an Egypt collection with prints. So all of the Priests – let’s see if we’ve got a Priest here… (Looks through photo sheets) the Priests have got leopard skins on them. Those are a print that I did for the Egyptian collection. And to make those we got the screens out and printed them on pony skins. These have got orange, and the other priests have got turquoise. My partners originally were Egyptian but we’d never been to Egypt together, so I thought of the pyramid and the magical eye and the palm trees, all the things you think of; and these colors you see in the pyramids all the time (shows pictures).
EM: So this blue is a reflection of the Nile?
ZR: The golds, the blues and all these intense colors, you see in the pyramids on the inside, painted on the walls.
EM: How did you get inspiration for Magic Flute, which is not a specific country but a fantasy?
ZR: You always work with the director, who tells you a bit about it. I look at what other people have done and see what I can do to make it my own kind of magical. So you have a dragon and such things. But the director always likes it his own way – if he’d like an ostrich to run right across, or have a crocodile on a skateboard roll across the stage.
EM: In creating for the opera stage, does the music inspire you?
ZR: It’s wonderful to get into the music but in reality it’s more finding out what the director wants. You do the drawings and the director says, ‘Oh, I don’t see him like that.’ Then you have to change how you’re doing because it’s the director you’re working for. He’s in control. With Andrew Sinclair, who’s now directing Aida, most of the costumes are the same as the Houston production, but he might have a different way of doing things.
EM: So you had to create some new designs?
ZR: Something new is always interesting. He wants dancers. The other director didn’t use many. So I designed new dancing costumes. And you’ve always got different people. Two hundred-eighty costumes to fit, and you’ve got to make sure they all look similar. If you get one very tall chorus man you’ve got to let his skirt down; you don’t want one with a short skirt and one with a long one. They’ve all got to look pretty even. You must always make sure their ears aren’t covered, even if they wear a helmet.
EM: Do you find all that limiting or challenging?
ZR: I think it’s rather like you, when you have to write so many words. It’s good. Challenges are rather fabulous because it means you’ve got to work to them. If you’ve only got ten people in a scene and it’s got to look like twenty, you have to do it.
EM: So you have your studio, and it’s all about you, then suddenly it’s a huge collaborative effort. Is theatrical different from fashion design?
ZR: Well, no, if I’m producing, say, a caftan, it’s still got to come out economically. You’ve got a certain amount of fabric and you have to use it properly. Rather like you have to sit in a certain position to play your violin and if you didn’t want to, the conductor’s not going to say, well, you can do what you like. (To the assistant: ‘Do you know where you’re cutting those big pieces? All right.’)
EM: Still, designers and directors have freedom to move people around and dress them. That must be the best.
ZR: It is, but there’s freedom and… freedom. Working with other people, you have to make sure they feel good in their costume. That’s very important. They have to see the conductor, they have to feel right.
EM: Are there any other operas that pique your interest?
ZR: I think Turandot is a wonderful opera. When I was doing Aida in Houston the director said to me, ‘Oh, you’d do a great Turandot.’ I said, ‘But Hockney’s done a wonderful one.’ He said, ‘But they’ve done that a lot of times now.’
EM: I was hoping you’d say Turandot. I was thinking it would be perfect for you. The potential for color is splendid and the music is wonderful.
ZR: Oh, the music. Gorgeous.
EM: I also read that you design clothes for clients who want something to wear to the opera.
ZR: I do, but it could be all sorts of occasions, whether they wear it to the opera or to something else.
EM: Do you ever think in terms of coordinating that particular clothing design with whatever the opera happens to be?
ZR: That’s too far a stretch, although I did do a fabulous dress for someone for Daughter of the Regiment in reds and pinks, almost like you’d think of wearing to a regiment. But I think that’s chance – she looked good in that color (laughs). I’m very much influenced by what the client might wear.
EM: So for that, it’s the client and for the opera it’s the director.
ZR: For the opera, yes. I have to come out and stand on a limb and he might say, no, that won’t work, they can’t wear that.
EM: When it goes from fitting room to stage are you also at stage rehearsals in case something comes up? Like if someone’s costume is too long and they’re afraid they’ll trip?
ZR: For every opera there are three dress rehearsals, so at that time we check out what doesn’t look right. We should have it all sorted out beforehand, like I give the priests crinoline skirts so they’ll know how they have to move before the actual scene. And they wear sword belts, so they don’t have to pretend. But we have to be prepared for eventualities.
EM: Can you think of instances when something unexpected happened?
ZR: Well, the singer might be twelve inches bigger than the dress; you’ve got to see details of how you can make it fit longer and wider and work for her. For Dolora Zajic (mezzo) at Houston we designed the costume so it looked fitted, and the cloak didn’t fall away. There’s all sorts of things you can do. The challenges are different every time.
EM: Once it’s all rehearsed, do you sit down and watch or do you have to be back stage?
ZR: Sometimes I’m just back stage and seeing what’s happening. That’s always interesting. But they’re an incredible team. They have a fantastic girl behind the scenes, Missy West, who runs the costume shop. She’s amazing, she organizes everything for us.
EM: What’s next for you after Aida?
ZR: I try to have a few ideas down, so if someone suddenly says, ‘Oh, I see you doing Turandot,’ I can say, ‘Well, I’ve got this, this, and this.’
EM: I can certainly see you doing Turandot. And as they say, ‘Toi, toi’ for opening night. I feel honored to have been invited here. Thank you so much for chatting with me.
ZR: Thank you for coming. It’s been a pleasure.