The 72-year-old British designer Zandra Rhodes has been called “the princess of punk,” and her signature fuchsia locks and aqua-rimmed eyes make clear the title still fits.
“I’ve always used myself as a platform to experiment with,” said Rhodes. “I’ve never understood designers that don’t wear their own clothes or anything. That’s what it’s all about.”
The legendary designer has gathered dozens of her favorite looks, spanning several decades, for the new retrospective “Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles” at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. The exhibition also includes a collection of Rhodes’s sketches, inspirational photos and objects, and even fabrics that influenced her career. MassArt’s Bakalar Gallery space has been divided into seven sections, representing Rhodes’s most influential style contributions.
The designer got her start outside the realm of fashion. Rhodes began a career as a textile designer in the early 1960s, after studying at The Royal College of Art in London. But it didn’t take Rhodes long to realize that her real passion was elsewhere.
“Those days, people just did furnishing fabrics and carpet, but I started to be interested in dress fabrics,” Rhodes said in a phone interview this week. “That was considered a bit way out for the time.”
Soon she began experimenting with dressmaking, pushing the limits with her innovative designs. She was drawn to the unconventional — from materials to the cuts of garments.
“I started to do designs with light bulbs and lipsticks, and linking up to the Warhol of everyday things,” Rhodes recalled. “I started thinking that fabrics could be much more exciting, they could be dynamic.”
By the end of the decade, Rhodes’s creativity had developed even further, and she was taken by a design concept that she now calls revolutionary.
“It was my 1969 collection where the print influenced the shape of the garment,” said Rhodes, referring to her first solo collection. With that, Rhodes initiated a movement that focused on the intricacies of textile design, allowing the flow of the textile to help determine a piece’s final look.
Standing by an extravagant gold lamé gown in the gallery, Lisa Tung, director of curatorial programs and professional galleries at MassArt, said she’s taken by Rhodes’s ingenuity.
“There’s not a particular style — it’s a combination, a myriad of textures and psychedelic colors. She’s a master of mixing, [which results in a] beautiful mosaic of different patterns and textures and cuts and sheens, and it all works. . . . Zandra is a textile pioneer.”
Rhodes said she finds inspiration everywhere. “I draw in my sketchbook, I go to museums, I’ve been influenced by opera. Travel takes you away from yourself.”
Her global excursions throughout the 1970s and ’80s gave rise to some of her most memorable pieces, reminiscent of Egyptian mummy wrappings and peacock feathers from India.
“When you’re traveling, you absorb things, you try things out,” said Rhodes. “But the punk is always an influence.”
Rhodes dreamed up the punk aesthetic by introducing deconstructed designs, exposed seams, and strategic rips and tears.
“I put the glamour into punk and the concept that a sleeve could be pinned in, that a safety pin could be as valued as a bead,” Rhodes said. “It’s nice when people don’t forget, and acknowledge that I was the founder of that look.”
Still, such elements are not the sole characteristic of her style. Other pieces on display range from bohemian-retro to sculptural to ethereal and understated. Favored by the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Mirren, and Freddie Mercury, Rhodes’s creations — some more than 40 years old — still appeal to today’s fashion-forward crowd.
“You get students looking at the show and they can’t believe that some of these dresses are from 1969, the age of their grandmother,” Rhodes said. “When you do an exhibition like this, what is quite wonderful is that you realize [the collections are still] valid.”
“Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles” runs through Dec. 1 at MassArt. For more details, visit www.massart.edu.