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Zandra Rhodes 1982 poster for Aditi by Robyn Beeche. Wearing Andrew Logan jewellery with make-up by Yvonne Gold. Via Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion

When East came to West - how Zandra Rhodes’ collaboration with the Festival of India lead to a cross-pollination of culture and a revived interest in handcraft.

Behind the fuchsia, tangerine and ultramarine walls of the Fashion and Textile Museum constructed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, all of Rhodes’ garments are “imagined, printed and handmade” from start to finish. “For me, something made by hand has a story”, she tells me. “I hope my garments are lived in and become stories to tell children, and grandchildren and great grandchildren”.


It is Rhodes’ own stories that dictate her iconic and evocative prints. An avid traveller, her collections embody her experience to the extent that she exclaims, “travel and drawing go hand in hand with my designing!” No place, however, has compared to India, a firm favourite to which she most recently returned in 2019 to take part in BBC One’s television show The Real Marigold Hotel, wittily summed up by Alison Rowat in The Herald: “think Love Island with hip replacements”. Humour aside, the country inspired some of Rhodes’ most recognised work to date.


In 1982, Rhodes embarked on a large-scale exhibition with designer Rajeev Sethi for the seminal Festival of India: a selection of lectures and performances brought to Britain to help extend the reach of traditional skills in the West. Sethi recalls in Rhodes’ latest book, Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion, how the “disruptive ideas were flying” between himself and Rhodes when they first met, and they decided she should collaborate on the last section of the exhibition, which was named ‘Aditi’ or 'abundance'. The focus was to give traditional crafts a new context in which they could thrive; not only was it a celebration of India’s rich culture, but it was also selling India as an idea, an India which was “not confined to starving kids with bloated bellies” explains Sethi.


Zandra provokes hidebound traditionalists but does not belittle time-honoured practices

Held at the Barbican, Rhodes displayed an array of clothes: bejewelled saris paired with exaggerated Victorian crinolines to emphasise shape, short sleeved bodices otherwise known as cholis enhanced by infamous ‘80s shoulder pads - and perhaps a subtle nod to her 1977 Conceptual Chic collection - saris with holes cut out of them, this time used to frame the face. She later showed the designs in 1987 in Bombay (now Mumbai), which opened doors for Indian designers to be more experimental with tradition. There was also jewellery and decor all inspired by her very first trip to India in 1981, for which she was accompanied by the sculptor Andrew Logan, and the pieces featured block-prints, zardozi work and sequinned silks. Sethi was overjoyed with the result as “Zandra provokes hidebound traditionalists but does not belittle time-honoured practices”.


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‘Manhattan’ dress from India Revisited AW 1985 show by Robyn Beeche, via Zandra Rhodes: 50 Fabulous Years in Fashion

Three years later in 1985, a sea of embellished chiffon gowns and tunics with handkerchief hems appeared in the Autumn/Winter collection titled India Revisited. The show received both praise and scorn with The Houston Chronicle calling it “an exotic tale of graceful silhouettes” as opposed to the scathing yet brutally honest review from The Philadelphia Inquirer which simply said “never mind. It’s the same signature collection”. That review still rings true, as her zany 'butterflies' no longer fly to the tune of the fast fashion industry we have become so accustomed to (if the hefty price-tags weren’t already a disincentive), but the garments and designs will forever embody the spirit of adventure and collaboration that was achieved through Sethi’s exhibition. Of Rhodes and the people who brought the collections to life, Sethi rejoices, as their skills had been put “to good use in manifesting dreams for people all over the world”.

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AW 1985 India Revisited, original images by Robyn Beeche

Read more on Zandra Rhodes here.