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Queen of prints

Designer Zandra Rhodes opens a museum as colorful as herself.

September 26, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

London — It takes a few minutes to fully take in the spectacle that is Zandra Rhodes. The petite, 63-year-old British fashion designer wears her hair in two hot-pink pinwheels. Thick black, rhinestone-encrusted glasses with lenses the size of fried eggs perch on her nose. Then there's her outfit -- a silk chiffon tunic in a mess of colorful squiggles, paisley leggings and several cracked-mirror brooches made by her friend, the artist Andrew Logan.

A lifelong eccentric, Rhodes became famous in the 1960s for her original textiles with stars, lipsticks, cacti, feathers and other motifs. Instead of cutting up her prints, she allowed them to dictate the shape of her clothing designs; a dress would have an uneven handkerchief-point hem or only one sleeve if a textile design seemed to dictate it. She also was at the forefront of the slashed- and safety-pinned punk movement, and has dressed everyone from Freddie Mercury of Queen to the Queen of England.

Although she fell into near obscurity in the 1990s, her older designs have recently become sought after. Tween stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen wore vintage Rhodes at a recent film premiere, and Sarah Jessica Parker wore a print tunic top in an episode of "Sex and the City" earlier this month.

But Rhodes knows that few other designers have achieved the same name recognition. So now, after eight years in the works, she has opened the Fashion and Textile Museum, a pink-and-orange box of a building that -- not unlike its founder -- sticks out in its gray South Bank neighborhood.

The museum celebrates not just fashion designers, but the often-overlooked textile designers who influence them.

"I feel a banner should be carried for the unknowns who provide textiles to Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, and others," she said, though she didn't mention any by name. "A lot of people don't think about it. They think a dress is fabulous because it's got a wonderful pattern, but that [fabric] designer is anonymous."

Still, Rhodes knew if she had any hope of staying in business past Christmas, it would be risky to open the museum with a textile show. (The mere mention of textiles can elicit yawns from even the most fashion-obsessed.)

So she organized the much sexier "My Favorite Dress" exhibition. For the show, which runs through November, 70 American and European designers chose their favorite dresses and explained why.

Hanging on plexiglass mannequins suspended from the ceiling, the dresses twist in the air like sartorial specters. Zac Posen's "Circe dress," constructed from strips of black fabric covered in hundreds of snaps, "allows a woman to self-tailor and use her imagination to morph into anything she wants to become," he wrote.

"Isn't he cute?" gushed Rhodes, who splits her time between London and Del Mar, where she has found a second career designing costumes for the San Diego Opera. "He even came over to London to give it a drape."

Then there's the burgundy taffeta and floral-embroidered gown Halle Berry wore last year to accept her best actress Oscar. "It really was one of the most perfect moments of my career," wrote Lebanese-born designer Elie Saab. A 1993 yellow and green striped chiffon gown is L.A. designer James Galanos' "vision of modernity." "Grand Canyon," which depicts the natural landmark in a colorful knit, is part of Betsey Johnson's 1972 series of "Save the Planet" dresses. And Catherine Malandrino chose her American flag print shirt dress because so many women wore it as a patriotic statement after Sept. 11.

Rhodes' favorite, the green, one-sleeved "Ayers Rock" dress from 1974 is based on a sketch she made in the Australian outback. "It's not my favorite color, but it is a classic. Jackie Kennedy had one," she said. "I chose it not because it is the latest thing, but because it survived the ages and I still like it."

Rhodes got the idea for a museum after her own archives were nearly destroyed 10 years ago. More than 3,000 pieces were packed in 60 trunks in a storage space in London, until it was flooded in 1993. The designer spent months soliciting letters from vintage shops and museums to prove, for insurance purposes, the value of her dresses, which have fetched up to $8,000.

Once she started thinking about the project, she decided that the work of other designers needed preserving as well. The $7-million project was funded mostly by private donors from the San Diego-based American Friends of the Zandra Rhodes Museum. Larry Hagman was a major donor. "He gave me a tea dance fund-raiser. I have known him forever, since he was shot," Rhodes said, joking about Hagman's famous fate on the TV series "Dallas."

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