Zandra Rhodes On London Fashion Week And Sustainable Fashion: 'Soon We Won't Have People Or A Planet'

[Picture: Zandra Rhodes]

Can sustainability become fashionable? That's the question clothing brands ponder when deciding whether to overhaul their production techniques. In other words, will demand for ethically produced clothing grow?

Zandra Rhodes is unequivocal in her answer.

"Definitely," the designer, who is known for her iconic prints and vibrant pink hair, tells HuffPost UK Style. "Never put anything past the determination of people to affect change.

"I mean, take dog mess. If you’d said to people 15 years ago that they had to clear up after their dog, they would have laughed. I remember in the great winter of New York about 20 years ago, there were the piles of snow which were covered with dog mess. But thankfully times have moved on and now cleaning up after your dog is something that’s accepted and not even queried.

"The same will become true of sustainable practices in fashion."

In making this prediction Rhodes - who is also a blogger for The Huffington Post - draws on knowledge of the fashion industry gleaned from a career spanning 50 years. She's also opening London Fashion Week on 18 September.

Rhodes graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1964 and opened the Fulham Road Clothes Shop in Chelsea, London, with fellow designer Sylvia Ayton in 1967.

She says her early textile designs were considered too outrageous by the traditional British manufacturers, so she decided to make dresses from her own fabrics and has maintained full artistic control over her prints.

She issued her first collection in 1969, which featured many elements that have become her signatures: romantic clothes in flowing, tiered forms made from tactile fabrics such as felt and chiffon.

Since then Rhodes has designed pieces for clients as diverse as Freddie Mercury, Isabella Blow, Kylie Minogue and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Over this time, Rhodes has learnt that change is at the heart of the fashion industry, with designers constantly looking for something new, and she believes it is this very nature of the industry that will drive a continuing movement towards sustainable fashion.

"I don't have the answer as to what needs to change in the industry for sustainable fashion to become the norm, but I do know that the only constant in fashion is change," she says.

"Change is what’s going to happen and it sometimes gallops ahead far quicker than any of us can manage. You just have to hope that the change is for the best. I don’t think it always is, but you have to hope."

One way in which the fashion industry's changeable nature and hunger for the new has worked against sustainability is through the growth in demand for "fast fashion", with new garments being produced for an ever increasing number of seasons.

However, Rhodes' designs serve as proof that fashion doesn't have to be "throw away". Longevity is just as desirable.

Vintage pieces from Rhodes' past collections have long been collected by Tom Ford and Anna Sui and have been worn by Naomi Campbell, Kelly Osborne, Ashley Olsen and Kate Moss, to name but a few.

Most of Rhodes' garments are produced in her two studios above the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London, and in San Diego, California.

"I suppose you could say all my collections are sustainable since it’s mainly quite a small cottage industry," she muses.

"I’m really proud of the fact that we print all of our fabric in my museum. We know the dyes aren’t harmful because we’ve had them all tested and when we print on fabric, we’re in good conditions. But these aren’t bulk printed designs, it becomes more complicated when you're producing on a larger scale."

Rhodes says she was first introduced to the idea of sustainable fashion on a global scale through her collaboration with People Tree in 2012, which came about after Rhodes' agent introduced her to People Tree founder Safia Minney.

[Picture: Zandra Rhodes and Safia Minney]

Rhodes says she was impressed with the way Minney concentrates "very hard" not just on the quality of her garments, but also on keeping craft alive and working with the craftsmen and women to ensue they are paid fairly and profits from the industry gets put back into the local community, so as Rhodes puts it: "it's not just factories collapsing on people".

Rhodes was already working with People Tree at the time of the Rana Plaza disaster on 24 April 2013, when a structural failure caused an eight-storey building to collapse killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring many hundreds more in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.

Factories inside the building manufactured garments for many of the world’s biggest clothing retailers including Mango, Matalan, Primark and Inditex, the owners of Zara.

Rhodes says the disaster hardened her belief that collaborations between designers and ethical clothing producers such as People Tree were important.

Minney arranged for Rhodes to visit some of the craftspeople who would be working for People Tree in India, Japan and Bangladesh.

"I feel very honoured to have been on the trail with People Tree," Rhodes says.

"One of the ladies we interviewed in depth had moved from the village where she was born to Dhaka after her husband left her, because she thought she'd be able to earn more money for her children there.

"She had worked on the third floor of the Rana Plaza building and she said the workers had kept commenting that they could see cracks and the building was shaking, but they were told to just go on working.

"When the building collapsed, the fire escape broke and she had to take shelter under a table for seven or eight hours before she was rescued.

"The weather there is so hot and humid to the point where by the end of the day you felt punch drunk - now imagine being under a table for seven or eight hours in that heat. Horrendous. Speaking to people who have been through that, you can't avoid the terrible price these clothes have come at."

[Picture: Zandra Rhodes in Bangladesh]

Rhodes has shaken up her production process for her latest collection, which she'll be opening London Fashion Week with on 18 September. For the first time, her eponymous range will be made outside of her own studios.

"I'm currently working on a new line that's being handmade in Malaysia, which is hand-painted batik fabrics," she reveals.

"I’ve actually had the privilege to visit some of the places where they’re painting and dying the fabric. Most of it is outside because the weather is so hot, so they’re working in shaded areas and are well looked after.

"The prices will be more competitive and the batiks are gorgeous. They’re all Zandra Rhodes images drawn out on lovely silk with a little wax tool by a team of both ladies and men. Then they let the wax dry before painting up to the edges of it. It’s going to be very lovely."

Rhodes admits there's still a lot of work to be done for her LFW show. She hasn't yet secured her models.

"We have to keep working on Skype as we're in California, which makes things more difficult," she says. "We’re working on a whole lot of things, because apart from London Fashion Week we're also preparing to launch some wall art for a company called Christopher Guy in October.

"So we’re running all these things parallel. I look at my London Fashion Week collection every morning at like five o’clock, then I'm catching up at emails before beginning a day of work.It’s just one thing after another."

Rhodes' schedule is full on by anyone's standards and at the age of 74 she still has no desire to slow down, yet when we speak she seems remarkably calm despite the looming LFW show. So how does she manage to keep her cool in such a highly stressed environment?

"With great difficulty," she admits. "I just keep my grey hair pink.

"I’ve also got wonderful friends who support me and I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of really fabulous trips, such as the ones with People Tree. I like to travel when I get the chance, - which isn't often enough, - as that's when I find inspiration."

"The difficulty is my partner's a lot older than me, he can't travel anymore and he gets very very upset when I’m not around. So because I’m not a dishonest person I can’t then go on a trip and think I can ignore what happens, because he says to me things like ‘I might be dead when you get back’. He makes you feel so guilty you can’t really leave him."

However, Rhodes quickly adds that she and her long term partner film producer, Salah Hassanein don't struggle to make time for each other.

"I have enough time to spend with him," she says. "Luckily he’s a workaholic like me, so even though he's now retired after working his way up from nothing to become president of United Artists and of Warner Brothers, he still works away all day and won't notice if I'm not there. It's only if I'm in a different country that he gets upset."

Rhodes' passion for sustainability also extends into her home life.

"I believe you should try to think about sustainability in all areas of life," she says.

"For example here in California we've got a water shortage so I keep a bucket in the shower to collect water for the flowers in the garden. I really and truly think houses should now be built with a grey water system, so if it rains the water is saved. In my house I save my rain water in a water butt, which means my garden always has a good supply."

Rhodes believes that for sustainability to become the norm in fashion there needs to be an awareness raising drive among consumers.

"You’ve got a problem in that the whole world has changed and now we’ve got these really clever operators all along the high street who produce really trendy clothes that everyone wants, they’re affordable and people are quite amazed at them," she says.

"But the cost - the hidden cost - isn’t made clear to us and maybe we’re all living above our means. I'm as guilty of that as anyone else.

"I think if where clothes came from was made more obvious - maybe through a label that says this has been produced with the workers in good conditions - it would allow more people to make informed decisions before buying something.

"It's like with smoking, those people who continue to hammer away and say that it's not good for us, even to the point that people might say oh god she’s on her high horse again, but the message gets through, it has to, and I think the only way it is going to get through is if people continue to speak out about the importance of sustainability.

"Worldwide we’ve got to take these things on more broadly, in the sense that if we don’t bother about our planet and we don’t bother about the people who live in it, we’re going to find that in the end we won’t have a planet and we won’t have people working in it."

London Fashion Week Street Style