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August 22 2014

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Pretty in Punk with Zandra Rhodes

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The Fall 2013 shows come to a close in Paris today, and a quick survey of the collections will tell you that punk is back in a big way: nails, vinyl, and tartan at Versace, Mohawks at Fendi, spiky shoes at Anthony Vaccarello, chain boots and leather waders at Chanel, the list goes on. British designer Zandra Rhodes, for one, is thrilled. “A pair of safety pins is just as beautiful as embroidery,” she said of punk’s place on the runway. And she should know—with her 1977 Conceptual Chic collection, Rhodes became one of the first (if not the first) designers to translate the gritty, antiestablishment subculture into high-fashion wares. “I had always done things covered in print, and I had a very elegant shop [on Bond Street], but I suddenly wanted to try out something different,” said Rhodes when asked why she made the 1977 collection, which earned her the title Princess of Punk.

Featuring shredded pink, red, and black dresses, tops, and skirts held together by bejeweled safety pins and chains, Conceptual Chic was a sharp departure from the vivid printed party frocks and caftans for which Rhodes was known. But that’s not to say the designer, who has, for the past few decades, flawlessly multicolored hair and geometric makeup, was a stranger to the punk spirit. “I don’t think a self-respecting street punk would have described me as [a punk], but I had a very wild appearance that was totally my own. And it was influenced by [punk culture],” said Rhodes. “There was this whole street movement going on, and I was really trying to look at it from another angle; I wanted to see the beauty that could come from it,” she added, noting that Vivienne Westwood’s die-hard punk designs were not a direct influence. “We worked totally independently. Westwood was on one side of the scale, working on her things, and I was on the other side, working on mine. Neither of us have had any contact.”

With its girlish hues, raw-meets-glam embellishments, and deliberate tears, there was a subversive, tongue-in-cheek prettiness to Rhodes’ 1977 collection (a look from which will be featured in the Met’s upcoming Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition). “It’s quite complicated to make a tear actually look like a tear,” laughed Rhodes (footnote: Giambattista Valli did a pretty convincing job of it on the holey black sweaters he showed in Paris on Monday). The designer’s cut-up white punk wedding gown, which she punctuated with a giant bow, was particularly sweet. But Conceptual Chic was not a hit with Rhodes’ Bond Street clientele. “We did several wonderful photo sessions, but it definitely didn’t help my business at that particular time,” she said. “We made a really big statement, and believe it or not, people were scared. We quickly had to change back to doing the printed chiffons that they all expected or else we wouldn’t have been able to exist,” conceded Rhodes, who continues to make playful, patterned clothes and has, of late, been designing costumes for opera.

Of course, we’re a little more open to the idea now, as punk designers continue to appropriate the punk aesthetic. “But punk is punk,” said Rhodes when asked about the key to making the look work on the runway. “It’s never going to be anything else. It goes with strong makeup, strong hair, and wit.” As for her take on the reasons for this season’s revival, Rhodes sighed. “The only constant in fashion is change,” she said. “And I think maybe, we’re just in the mood for it.”

Photos: The Observer Magazine, 1977 by Eric Bowman (portrait of Zandra Rhodes); Clive Arrowsmith, 1977 (Conceptual Chic dresses)

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Dept. of Culture