Zandra Rhodes Seeing Only Blue Skies With Happy Socks

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Rosemary Feitelberg
·9 min read
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Splashed in sunlight and surrounded by greenery, Zandra Rhodes’ hot pink bob seemed to accentuate her enthusiasm when discussing her collaboration with Happy Socks.

During a recent Zoom call from the penthouse of her Fashion and Textile Museum in London, Rhodes explained she was “in the shadow of The Shard, but there is no shadow.” Her mood was overwhelmingly sunny, and for good reason. “The sunshine is beaming onto my table with my fabulous tea [and delicate floral china] and my flowers. They’re not wilting yet. They’re doing all right even though the sun’s streaming in,” the designer said.

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Eager for the pandemic to subside so that travel restrictions will allow her to fly again, Rhodes hasn’t let quarantining or a serious health situation dial back her productivity or dimmed her spirits in the least. Today’s debut of the Happy Socks limited edition collaboration features three favorite motifs — the button flower that was reminiscent of floral buttons seen at J&J Stern decades ago and the work of Henri Matisse, the wiggle design, and the snake that she introduced in 1968 as a temporary tattoo for Harrods.

Designing the socks was only the start of the project, according to Rhodes, who had to work out how they should be worn and appear in a video wearing what she described as “a splendid crown.” Gesturing toward three pairs of socks, she noted the button flower socks’ glittery turquoise toes and orange heels, how the wiggly ones are meant to signify “wiggle forever” and the snake tattoo’s Harrods’ heritage in the 1960s. “Now I am going to have to design all these outfits with different lengths so that you can see and show [off] your socks. It’s going to be so much fun,” she said.

Available individually or as a three-pack gift box, Rhodes said the box is similar to a folded-up paper fortune. Nicknamed the “Princess of Punk,” the designer said she was drawn to the project since socks are such an important part of our daywear and Happy Socks’ capability of weaving patterns into socks. “It means that you have lovely hard wearing socks that serve not only a practical function, but also it’s almost like being the Pied Piper. You can dance around. Nowadays after being trapped in our environments, [it is a matter of] how can we show our socks off? How can we have a little more excitement than we would have — shortening our outfit to make them show. Or if you’re young and gorgeous, you can wear a short skirt with your socks. That wouldn’t be me,” she added, laughing.

As for whether the the pandemic-induced appreciation for vibrant colors, whimsical styles and socks will last, Rhodes said, “All of our lives are going to have to be reevaluated. We’re going to have to work out how we’re either spending our money or wearing our money. Something like socks are a wonderful gift. Just the term Happy Socks is quite fabulous. We’re going to need things like that to bring us back to life after everything that we’ve gone through.”

A socks collaboration is new terrain for Rhodes, who had done a range of stockings and socks when she had her own shop years ago. “The socks were by those terms fairly plain.…When I go out for my morning walk to liven myself up, [I want] other people to feel alive seeing them.”

After being diagnosed with cancer last year, Rhodes went public about her health. The situation also made her “really pull everything together for the Zandra Rhodes Foundation to make sure that all of the garments that I have saved over the years have been fully categorized and are fully in order. Then they said I’d made a magical recovery so I can now go out to enjoy dancing around in my socks,” she said. “It’s been quite a revelation in a way. My doctor asked if I would be prepared to talk about it, as I was a visible person. I think sometimes in life you’ve got to talk about things openly. Then no one can get at you. It’s just been wonderful making sure that my life’s in order, the Zandra Rhodes Foundation goes ahead and that I keep doing my lovely projects. What more can I ask?”

Having saved at least 10,000 garments, those are now being sorted out with a key collection earmarked for the Fashion and Textile Museum, which she started in 2003. Donations are also planned for the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her white wedding dress was given to The Met when former Costume Institute curator-in-charge Harold Koda retired, because it was “the one thing that he wanted more than anything else,” Rhodes said she will make sure that The Met will have key pieces of her work as well.

The scope of her collection tells the story of her career. “I’ve enjoyed all of it — the people I’ve met, the adventures I’ve had, the wonderful times in Paris or in New York. There’s still more to come,” she said.

What’s at the top of the list? “Just to go to an exhibition at this moment in time. We’re all trapped. Have we been to a cinema? All these things [to see and do]. It’s going to be so exciting. I would like to see Machu Picchu.”

Building up her museum’s collection and knowing that people will be able to go see it, as soon as COVID-19 restrictions end and reopening is allowed has been very exciting, she said. Reconnecting with friends in America after an 18-month separation will have to wait a bit longer. “But we’re lucky. I have much more design projects up my sleeve that we’re happy to finish,” she said.

As for whether the cancer diagnosis made her look at creativity differently, Rhodes said, “No, it made me feel very grateful that I had such fabulous projects to work on.”

In the pipeline are homeware products for Ikea, including a great, big pink laundry bag — “What more can you expect?” — gold cushions and some dressing up things that will bow this fall. The 26-piece Karismatisk line will debut in Ikea stores in September. The undertaking isn’t that far off from designing garments, said Rhodes, adding that the laundry bag would look perfect with the pink socks that she was wearing. Along with Ikea and Happy Socks, Rhodes works with Savoir Beds and “feel extremely lucky going into this whole new era,” she said.

Accustomed to living a good part of the year in California, where she did a lot of opera and shows in San Diego, the shutdown has left her “trapped in London but able to flourish with all these projects. It’s been wonderful. Who would believe that they have Zoom so that people can speak to me as if I was really there, instead of having to get on a plane to get there? It’s been quite amazing,” she said.

Squared away with both vaccine shots, Rhodes said she does not expect to travel again until at least September, since that is not being encouraged at all. Looking ahead to how the pandemic will affect fashion on a larger scale, she said, “A lot of the amazing larger companies, or all of us, have learned to do presentations so that people can see them on the computer and realize that you don’t always have to be spending all that time traveling. I don’t think that’s going to replace everything.”

Personally she has brushed up her computer skills, mastered Zoom, and has figured out how to do selfies, when needed. “Probably my gardening has gotten a lot better. My camellias are gorgeous. And I’ve been planning all the different flowers that I can have in the garden,” she said.

Having worked with Princess Diana, Rhodes has long had a bird’s eye view of the monarchy. In response to all of the recent worldwide discussion about the institution, the designer was asked for her prediction of its future. “I think that the monarchy will hunker in, let themselves ride over it and probably, if we’re lucky, we’ll be at the same square one, and we’ll all be pottering along. And we’ll just see what will happen and what else gets written into ‘The Crown.’”

The years of designing for Princess Diana were a fabulous time, said Rhodes, who singled out the pink dress that she wore to reveal her pregnancy in Japan as a favorite. “It was a magical time but we just have to see how the new generation comes along,” Rhodes said.

After months of self quarantining, many consumers have come around to the idea that color can be therapeutic. Rhodes wholeheartedly agreed, “I think color is therapeutic. It does make you feel happy. I am convinced that pink makes me feel happy. Black with twirly serpents on it can also make you feel happy,” she said. “Years ago I was given a challenge by The [Daily] Mail to wear black for a week, and I didn’t like it. I was always trying to see what I could wear with it. I suppose it was a test of what jewelry I had. Sometimes if you spill something on black, it shows more than it would if you had spilled it on pink or green.”

Once restrictions are lightened up, Rhodes will be eager to have a dinner party for all of her friends. “Here, we’ve been very, very good. I’m lucky that I’m in a fabulous lockdown with just one other person, who adores cooking and has a blog. So I’m learning to think of what food we can do and make things different the whole time — different tablecloths and napkins. We’ll have them all around for dinner. They can [socially] distance. They can have cocktails on the terrace.”

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