Behind the Screen
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Print guide from 'Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous’ at the Fashion and Textile Museum

What does it take to produce a Zandra Rhodes print design? Emmally Parsons, a screen printer at Zandra Rhodes’ London Studio, explains the process behind the prints.

Words Emmally Parsons

Photographs Beatrice Ross

Zandra’s designs are always inspired by her travels - especially India, she loves it with her whole soul. She regularly goes on sketchbook breaks with Andrew Logan, the jewellery maker and sculptor, anywhere and everywhere to find inspiration. Zandra creates her prints by starting with a landscape or recognisable image which she then turns into something completely abstract - she loved Warhol’s approach of taking something ordinary and totally transforming it. Most of the time you can’t tell where the idea came from, you’d have to be Zandra yourself to understand! Zandra is a rule breaker and has built such an incredible career around that for which I have a lot of respect.


It’s a close knit environment at the studio. As Zandra is literally so close to us (she lives right above) there’s a great dialogue between everyone. Typically we begin with a brief, but Zandra genuinely does value our opinions; I remember having a conversation with her about going to Glastonbury to sell her designs on tents. The environment is full of buzz and it’s extremely encouraging. It’s the polar opposite to the atmosphere of the corporate designers I had worked for previously.


The team consists of six people who are involved in creating the garments, so it’s very small scale. We’re there pretty much all the time, designing, cutting out and bringing the prints to life alongside Zandra. There’s a print design team who touch up the archive prints and create new ones using Zandra’s 'style bibles' as reference points, which are stacks of binders with the details of every print and design by Zandra from 1969 onwards. I’m involved in the screen printing process, which requires us to mix up the colour palettes and research the designs to make sure that they are spot on.


To ask what it's like to see the work come to life on the material is like asking a performer what it is like to get on a stage... you get that hit and the sense of an inflated ego

The process is rather like baking a cake for me - I could do it with my eyes closed! The technique Zandra uses is colour laying. It sometimes takes more than four screens to produce just one print, like the iconic Cactus design from the 1976 Cactus and Cowboys collection along with the Star Wars print from 1977. It’s a meticulous process. Once we’ve mixed up paste and added the pigment, which ranges from block colours to metallics, we place the first screen down and print that particular colour before moving onto the next one. Because we print onto chiffon we have to be so careful as the ink can spread and ruin the entire print. You have to make sure that your squeegee is really even and level on the screen, with a good pressure too otherwise the print won’t come out well. It’s a real team effort - the print table is about ten metres long and three metres wide so we need to have two people to pass the squeegee to each other half way to avoid getting a line of ink slap bang in the centre of the print.


When we’ve used a single screen it gets washed with soap and water and dried before returning to the store room under the Fashion and Textile Museum. Zandra doesn’t throw anything away as it can all be used as a source of inspiration for new designs. Once the ink has has been heat-set the pieces are assembled into the 'butterflies' by one seamstress who makes absolutely all of the garments!


To ask what it’s like to see the work come to life on the material is like asking a performer what it is like to get on a stage and do what they love. It’s almost indescribable; I can really only compare the feeling to the high you might get after taking drugs - which I’m not endorsing - but you get that hit and the sense of an inflated ego. It’s something that drives artists to pursue making and creating, it’s a feeling that is constantly being sought after - quite simply, nothing compares. It’s second to none.

Read more on Zandra Rhodes here.