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Designer Zandra Rhodes, photographed in 1985 in makeup by Yvonne Gold. Robyn Beeche/Handout

Even if you don’t know the name Zandra Rhodes, you know her work. Her glamorous dresses were worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, and championed by fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who gave the British-born designer her big break by putting one of Rhodes’s ethereal kaftans on actress Natalie Woods for a 1970 issue of Vogue.

More recently, you’ve seen Rhodes’s work in the blockbuster film Bohemian Rhapsody; the flowing pleated white top worn by actor Remi Malek as iconic crooner Freddie Mercury was ordered up by the film’s costume designer, Julian Day. Rhodes had crafted the original garment – actually a bridal piece that the singer tried on during a fitting in her old attic studio – worn by Mercury during Queen’s meteoric rise. “He put it on and moved around and made wonderful bat-wing movements,” she says about the fateful atelier visit.

Just as Mercury’s enigmatic spirit continues to inspire the fashion world, so, too, do Rhodes’s fantastical silhouettes and print-work; her brand celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and understandably, its namesake is tickled pink.

Rhodes's spring 2019 collection includes delicate frocks sporting her signature shade of bright pink.Handout

While the 78-year-old designer, who was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1997, has the humblest of perspectives on her impressive career – “I’m still managing to stay on the tightrope,” she quips – it’s arguably one of the most influential in fashion. Her spring 2019 collection, replete with delicate frocks featuring some of Rhodes’s archival prints, was on display during London Fashion Week last September, with the models sporting hits of the bright pink hue Rhodes has adopted as her signature shade. Later this year, she’ll launch a career-spanning museum show and book dedicated to her eclectic vision.

Located in the once-industrial, slowly gentrifying Bermondsey neighbourhood in South London, Rhodes’s penthouse home and studio is situated above another testament to her prolificity, the city’s Fashion and Textile Museum (FTM), which she opened in 2003. The purpose of the Pepto pink building is to showcase craft-championing and print-centric designers, those who are passed over for buzzier names such as Dior and McQueen by institutions including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Past solo exhibitions include the accomplishments of Thea Porter, Anna Sui and Orla Kiely.

FTM’s current show, on through June 2, considers the swinging London look through the lens of Mary Quant and Terence Conran. The museum has also cast a spotlight on the international history of textile-making with retrospectives on knitwear and Liberty of London, and is a vital support, educational and mentoring resource for next-gen textile-philes.

Rhodes's creations have been worn by both Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury.Handout

A decidedly creative individual, Rhodes admits her fashion career was essentially unplanned, despite having a mother who worked as a fitter for a fashion house in prewar Paris. “I studied textile design – I never imagined for one minute that I’d be going into, what shall I say, making dresses.” After launching her own brand in 1969, Rhodes’s star ascended, thanks to the waning interest in mod in favour of kaftan-style dresses, billowy trousers and dreamy capes. She retained her stature amongst Britain’s design elite in the 1980s and beyond thanks to her knack for “moving with the times, but never losing her signature style,” says Sarah Quinton, the curatorial director of the Textile Museum of Canada.

Today, a reworked collection of Rhodes’s 1973 Field of Lilies pieces are currently available on luxury retailer Matches Fashion’s site. Unlike other designers, she hasn’t licensed her name to every product category imaginable, choosing instead to focus on projects such as set and costume design for the San Diego Opera and Houston Grand Opera, a collection with MAC Cosmetics, and a line with rug company Floor Story. “There’s definitely something quintessentially British about a designer who is able to design for both Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury," fashion historian Amber Butchart says about Rhodes’s range.

Lynda Latner, chief executive and founder of the retailer Vintage Couture, recalls how Rhodes’s designs were celebrated in Toronto by glitzy figures such as Catherine Nugent and the late Barbara Frum, noting that Creeds – the Bloor Street boutique that once dominated the city’s Mink Mile – was the first to stock Rhodes’s wares in Canada, and her pieces were a definite hit. “Everyone who was anyone in Toronto had to have a Zandra Rhodes dress,” Latner says. “Their prized possessions were the Zandra dresses. They loved and adored them and wore them for years and years.”

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