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A Home with a History: life in Technicolor, with Zandra Rhodes

The maverick designer invites Inigo to explore her polychrome penthouse in Bermondsey, where too much is never enough

Grace McCloud
Bridie O'Sullivan
Harry Cave
A Home with a History: life in Technicolor, with Zandra Rhodes

Zandra Rhodes is awaiting delivery of two statues – “they’re being gold leafed as we speak”. They’re to stand sentinel, she says, either side of her bed. The bed, by the way, is gold. So too is a screen that hangs behind it. Oh, and so is the ceiling. Can you ever have too much of a good thing? we ask. “No!” The high priestess of punk, teal-smudged eyes wide, raises her brows in mock horror until they disappear beneath her fringe (the hottest of pinks, naturally). “Never.”

A look around her Bermondsey home confirms as much. The apartment, spread over two floors atop the Fashion and Textile Museum, which she founded in 2003, is a polychrome paean to the positive power of colour, one worthy of worship itself. The building in its entirety, a former warehouse, is similarly buoyant; redesigned as a towering tangerine monolith by Zandra with the help of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta.

Until recently, Zandra only lived here half the time here, spending the rest at her boyfriend, film producer Salah Hassanein’s, home in California. When Salah died in 2019, Zandra moved back full-time. “I’ve had to rework my life,” she says, “emotionally, of course, but physically too. The house needed redesigning so that it made sense with me in it all the time. I only really used to camp here.”

Amid all the work, Zandra has been doing lots of “sorting, clearing, more sorting, more clearing. I’m a bit of hoarder,” she admits. Her studio, which takes up a third of the building’s ground floor, has also been subjected to such marshalling. All the clothes and fabrics that Zandra – the “Iconic Dame Zandra” to her Instagram followers – has been designing since the 1960s have had to be catalogued. The sheer quantity of her work – fabulous, fulgent, florid – is awesome, stored in box upon box in the well-organised studio.

And it’s not over yet, for the designer, just shy of her 82nd birthday, is showing no signs of slowing down. At the time of writing, she’s midway through creating a wallpaper collection for Rebel Walls, based on her archive. It’s cheering (isn’t everything here cheering?) to learn that she’ll be using her own designs in her revamped bedroom.

What with all the sorting, the designing and the decorating, she’s busy, then? “Oh yes,” Zandra replies, her energy palpable, almost fairy-like. “I wouldn’t want to not be busy. No, no, no, no, no! Got to be busy.” And, with that, off she flits in a flash of fuchsia, rainbow wand at the ready.

“People always assume my favourite colour is pink. I understand why, of course, but my hair’s only pink because it’s so very easy to keep – and it’s better than grey. It’s been green before, but green fades terribly. And once upon a time it was brown, but when it started going salt-and-peppery, it had to go. In fact, I don’t have a favourite colour; I just know it’s not black or grey. I do love pink, but I love cobalt and emerald too. It totally depends what mood I’m in.

“This place wasn’t nearly so colourful when I first saw it. It was 1995. My great friend, the artist Andrew Logan, found it for me. He said: ‘Zandra, you’ve always wanted to do a museum, now you’ve got to do it.’ So I did.

“I asked Ricardo Legorreta to help me with the design. I wanted to bring a bit of Mexico, with all its brilliant colour, to London, and I knew he was the one to help us. Plus, it was his first project in Europe, which was exciting. I asked the government for a grant to help me fund the museum, which came to nothing, so then we had to work out a way to finance the project. In the end, we built the museum and studio downstairs, and nine apartments upstairs; we sold eight of them and I moved into the penthouse, as I’d had to sell my house in Notting Hill to help me buy the building.

“Moving here from a stucco-fronted townhouse in west London was quite a change, but I suppose ­– compared to other Notting Hill houses – it wasn’t your average 19th-century villa. When I’d moved in there, the basement was just bare earth. The world was my oyster in terms of developing it. I made a fantastic black-and-gold bathroom down there, with a sunken tub, and a tiny silver kitchen, sleek and shiny like a Boeing 747. It was paradise!

“In that house, I’d had to work hard to make the traditional look fabulous. Here, there was nothing. It was a blank canvas, which was wonderful. I could do want I wanted – so I created a rainbow floor and lots of space for pictures by all my friends.

“I like to think of this house as being a joyful place. That’s what colour does, I think. It brings enjoyment to life – or it does to mine, at least. I have an enormous dining table here, which has been with me in every home I’ve had since I built it, aged 23, when I first left college. We’ve had lots of fun round that table. I love parties and I love cooking for groups – that table is great for dinners. And because it’s circular, you can see everyone; you never get stuck.

“Like many things in this house, that table is part of my life from the past and it’s part of my life from the present. I suppose people might think me sentimental. I surround myself with things like that – lots of photographs of people, particularly of my boyfriend, and artwork by friends. I’m especially fond of the portrait of Gandhi by Andrew, who I met at the Alternative Miss World contest in 1972. I’d been taken by Duggie Fields, whose work I have too. Andrew made the mirrored frame that surrounds the TV as well.

“I also collect ceramics by Kate Malone and Carol McNicoll, whose pieces I’ve been buying since they were students. Carol made my china dinner service, which looks like it’s been quilted in one of my fabrics. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“I rarely throw anything away. I just build more shelves, move things around and pack them in more tightly. But then I have to get my sister round; she’s very good at telling me to chuck stuff away – a necessity when you’re redecorating, which I’ve done a lot of lately.

“I’ve definitely made some decor mistakes in the past. When I moved into my first flat, I decided it would be an interesting experiment to paint my bedroom black. It was awful. Awful! I couldn’t get up in the mornings. It was like all the walls had disappeared. It only stayed like that for a few weeks before I turned the whole thing white. But that’s the fun of decorating, I suppose. As long as you haven’t spent too much money knocking down walls, it’s just a bit of fun. I’m sure you can tell by looking round this place that I’m not averse to trying things. I suppose I’ve done that all my life with my work.

“I’m in the middle of redoing my bedroom at the moment. It came about after I designed a bed for Savoir Beds, using my 1970’s ‘Lilies’ print. It was so comfortable I had to have one, so now I’m redoing the room around it – though admittedly, since I used to only ever lived here part-time, it did need a bit of a lift. I’m going to work out how to use the fabrics I did for Gainsborough too. I don’t understand designers that don’t use their own stuff. I’ve made a career out of creating things that I think people should use. If I then don’t use them myself, that’s a bit disingenuous. I can’t be having that.”

Further reading

The Fashion and Textile Museum

Zandra Rhodes

Zandra on Instagram

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