My Interview with Zandra Rhodes

During the Fall I had the fabulous experience of interviewing famed designer Zandra Rhodes who had come to Minneapolis to work with the Minnesota Opera on costumes for a production and do some related speaking engagements. While in town she came to the apparel courses at University of Minnesota to do a master class with studio students and discuss her design experiences.

Since the late 60s, Rhodes has been known for her ability to merge the runway and the street, and in the 70s and 80s was part of an effort to introduce edgy styles into high fashion. She and Vivienne Westwood are two of the best known designers of that time working with what would come to be known as a punk aesthetic, and they had completely different approaches.

During Rhodes’ visit she graciously took time out to meet with me individually in my dink little textile science office, to chat about Punk Style (my research topic for my dissertation and book), her work, and contemporary and historic fashions. She was a total sweetheart, and looked seriously fabulous!

Below are some highlights from our discussion. I want to thank WT’s intern Kat for helping me edit this interview.

MS: [There was no first question, per se, but I introduced the concept of discussing punk style and fashion in the 1970s in the UK]

ZR: I think it definitely started in the UK. I see it as a parallel movement. I see it as something between myself and Westwood in the sense that we were both dealing with it in a different way. Now she poo-poos my way of looking at it. It was definitely something that happened really from the streets by kids that could do their own couture without having to be able to afford it. I saw it with my clothes as taking another leap forward, where a hole could be as beautiful as a printed textile. You could pin clothes together and you could do various things with them.

MS: Did you want someone to wear something underneath or have exposed skin?

ZR: Hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t think about that. I wore them with exposed skin but would have worn a bra. I see now that this was an early precursor of punk. In ’71 but could possibly been also this Elizabethan aspect of when they had the clothes that were slashed.

MS: Did you call yourself punk? Did you feel that punk was a part of your life?

ZR: I called it ‘conceptual chic’. But I mean it was obviously a link, I do now sometimes call it ‘the punk collection’. But I’m saying it was going along parallel. It was just something, a different concept.

MS: Although, precursor almost. Ahead of the curve.

ZR: But I didn’t think of it like that.

MS: Why in England versus in America was everyone on the same wavelength about wanting to destroy and distress the clothes?

ZR: I still think America is much more conventional. They’re conventional in looks. In my lecture (the the UMN students) I explained how I came into the airport and you can see that they all think I’m looking different, whereas I don’t think people necessarily think I look different in England. It’s just someone exists – whereas [in the U.S.] when people go out their way and shave their head and look like something, they’re really having to make a really dramatic anti- statement. For some reason once it gets to America, it [hardens]. But that doesn’t always mean that it’s either more imaginative or more creative. It means that it’s just taken to give it a different edge that people perhaps even might find fractionally frightening, whereas I don’t think the original punk was frightening.

MS: You think it was a statement though? There were definitely statements there.

ZR: They were definitely making a statement, yes.

MS: In New York or Detroit or some of these real gritty places the statement was that they’d wear just t-shirts and jeans to be punk. But then it went to England [to be more visually creative or extreme] to make this same statement. And you think that’s just more reflection of what’s acceptable in England?

ZR: Yes, I think it’s more acceptable in England. Because rather like you’re saying, here if you really want the top job, you can’t go in with your hair colored. You might get a job at a till in Target or something.

MS: What do you think that when you go to the mall and see clothes that hearken back to original punk attire?

ZR: I think a lot of it’s a commodity.

MS: Did you think it always was?

ZR: No. But I don’t think you’re making a statement if you’re wearing Doc Martens. You’re wearing sensible shoes, that’s gonna wear well for you. And you know, nearly always everything has to go one extreme before it comes back to the other extreme.

MS: Do you think punk style would have gotten as popular if fashion designers hadn’t gotten involved? If it had just remained a street fashion, do you think it would have fizzled out?

ZR: I think you’re crediting the designers with a lot of power whereas I think some of that power comes from the street. Some of that power now, which is more interesting, is the fact that I don’t think designers are as powerful as pop stars. If I design a dress, if it’s seen on Angelina Jolie, then it’s alright. So if a top film star in Hollywood happens to have a tattoo on her shoulder, then that is what is going to influence.

MS: It seems that there’s so many other [subculture] segments where it was birthed from the street and stayed in the street, and then it’s almost a different thing when it makes it to the runway and let’s say the mall.

ZR: And it’s subtle, and it often chicing it up a bit. The runway chics up the street a bit. It doesn’t put it out quite as tough. The street is probably even more avant-garde. The runway might be something like, I don’t know, Jean Paul Gautier doing those transparent t-shirts that were like tattoos.

MS: I think it’s kind of fascinating because it’s giving a completely different message. They’re running kind of parallel but they’re not necessarily achieving the same end goal.

ZR: That’s it. They might not be the same end goal.

MS: So what is the end goal?

ZR: I don’t think anyone knows what their end goal is. As a designer, you’re designing products. As a designer, I am designing products that I use the capabilities that I have as a designer. Sometimes it might be that I love the looks of what [a tattoo] might say. Although I can go around looking like I do, if I tattoo myself all over, I might frighten my customers.

MS: So there’s a boundary in every industry?

I think there is, yes.

MS: It validates it though, the creativity of your clothing, that you exemplify creativity in your personal attire.

ZR: It does but as a total accident, because I like to try things out. I like to wear what I like. But I still would…you still wouldn’t want people frightened of what you might do for them.

MS: I wonder, going back to what you were saying about geography. It must be contextual too. I mean what would frighten someone in England is different than what would frighten someone in Minnesota or New York?

ZR: Yes, yes. I mean when I see all those tattoos up the arm, would they be frightening in New Zealand? They [the Maori] tattooed themselves all over. Now, does it then put you back to how do they feel about them now sort of thing, and how would that person fit in there? I get students coming to me in California where I look at them and I think what possessed them to do that?…[Describes some her students’ tattoos]…They weren’t particularly well drawn. And I wondered what they look like when someone gets older.

MS: Do you think punk style still exists some? Or do you think it came and went and now we just maybe incorporate some of those things into our clothes?

ZR: I think it came and went and came again. And you’re going to see different depictions of where people want to make a statement at the moment. I think it still makes a strong enough statement as far as if people want to be heavyweight, rather like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. That was a statement for that period. But probably now, if it was a rough biker gang, they still might have that statement, depending on where they are.

MS: [I discussed with Zandra some of the interviews I’ve done with punks from the 1970’s for my upcoming book on Punk Style. She asked if they looked “ordinary” and she added some comments.]

ZR: The sad thing is though, some of the people end up looking like conservative ordinaries. Like, for example Jordan. Jordan was that girl that did all…you know, she just looks ordinary. Lives at home with her mother. To me, that I find sad. When they were statement people and then they’re nothing people….I mean you don’t want to look like you’re in a time warp. You have to be careful. Have you ever seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? You know where she goes out and she goes up to the bank desk and she looks like a time warp. I don’t want to look like a time warp.[Note from MS-I have not interviewed Jordan but would like to]

MS: There are so many subcultures – many of them are reacting to the same elements of society. In Punk-why the rips, why the exposed seams, why the safety pins, why the black leather?

ZR: Why? Because fashion always has to change. So if one minute you’re looking like a beautiful butterfly in something, the only thing you can rely on in fashion is it’s gonna change. So if you look like maybe a wonderful ethereal, red Indian or a peasant, the next week you might want to look dead chic and another week you might want to look like something else.

MS: So punk, mod, hip hop or some of these other subcultures, were changing from what came before them. Did the rips, the seams and the black leather change?

ZR: Yes, just the same as my generation changed from the ones in the ’50s who looked like their parents.

MS: So it’s not as much that the leather and all that was ‘punk’, it was a reaction.

ZR: If you’ve been using satin and cotton, then you go to leather. And that’s the progression. But the cycle is that nothing is all totally new so the idea is pulled out from something else and really turned into a new bit, and up again and reinterpreted to a new thing. The only thing is, with the case of tattoos, you can’t get rid of them. So if you had a bluebird on your breast, it would turn into a pterodactyl when you’re 90.

Thanx again Zandra for a fun discussion that helped me with my research!

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.