Oh, I’m not enjoying myself, I really am not,’ is the opening line from Dame Zandra Rhodes, who is not having a nice time in lockdown.
‘I’ve got a lovely penthouse with a roof garden, camellias in full bloom and my lilies are coming out, but it’s like a weird, rubbish holiday. Do you know what I mean?’
Lockdown might hit harder for iconic fashion designer Zandra because The Real Marigold Hotel has just landed on our screens and she’s being reminded of her glorious trip to India.
She was lucky enough to take the journey of a lifetime along with fellow celebrities such as Bond Girl Britt Ekland, Duncan Bannatyne and Paul Chuckle.
‘It was a fabulous experience,’ she beams. ‘Britt is an old friend anyway and legendary cricket commentator Henry Blofeld is known as the man with the golden voice if you’re my age!’ she giggles.
‘It was a lovely experience being plonked together with people I didn’t know that well and having an adventure. And of course I adore India, so the culture shock didn’t bother me. I’m not sure they all liked it though,’ she says, clearly remembering a few difficult moments from the trip.
Despite some guests on the show (Zandra’s tight-lipped about who) not enjoying the experience, there were a few factors that made it tricky even for seasoned travellers.
‘Blimey we had to organise a night’s sleep for ourselves when we got there!’ Zandra exclaims. ‘I’ve been lucky that every time I’ve visited before I’ve been looked after very well, but there we all were, getting our own tickets for trains and getting lost and all sorts!’ she laughs.
‘I did sneak off and have a cup of tea with the woman who had done all the beading for me for years on my dresses, so that was wonderful,’ she smiles. ‘I had to leave the show early though as my partner had fallen ill. But I still had a lovely time.’
The fashion icon sadly lost her long-term partner, Salah, in June of last year, and has moved back to her hometown of London for the time being while selling their San Diego house. It’s obvious she is feeling the loss even more in the current climate.
‘I’ve got a lot of tasks I’ve had to put on hold,’ she tells us. ‘My partner and I lived in San Diego, so when he died I packed up the home as I didn’t need a huge house, but I ended up putting a load of stuff in storage thinking I could go back to it,’ she sighs.
‘Well, funny how life turns out, eh! But I’m finding it all extra hard as I like working and being around people. I can ignore them, don’t get me wrong,’ she laughs, ‘I like just having people in my consciousness. A lot can be said for a nod or a smile,’ she says sadly.
‘My sister lives round the corner from my London flat and she rings me every morning and evening to check I’m OK,’ she tells us. ‘But the life we had together in America was quite wonderful. He worked, I worked. He was perfect for me.’
A self-proclaimed workaholic, Zandra graduated from design college in 1963 and had made a name for herself in the fashion industry by the early 70s. Despite becoming one of the UK’s most prolific fashion designers with loyal customers such as Princess Diana and rock stars and models, she’s very modest about her achievements.
‘When I started out no one would buy my designs, so I set up a shop with Sylvia Ayton (another iconic designer who turned high street shop Wallis into a hit) and it became rather trendy,’ she tells us. ‘When it closed I thought, “I ain’t giving up now!”‘ she laughs.
‘I got someone to show me how to make patterns, opened a studio in Bayswater, London, and put together some dresses. Next I took them to America and was met by the editor of American Vogue who raved about them, photographed them on Natalie Wood and then I started to sell my dresses to top shops in New York. Voilà!’
The way Zandra reflects on her career in such a nonchalant way makes us think she doesn’t like to boast about her success.
In fact, when we ask her about her friendship with Princess Diana, she goes all coy.
‘She was a very shy woman,’ she says quietly. ‘I did notice she bit her nails though!’
She also downplays her pieces she created with rock legend Freddie Mercury. ‘He and Brian May came over one evening and I made him the pleated top you always saw him in,’ she smiles.
During our chat Zandra’s phone rings constantly, (‘Oh I am good at ignoring it! Don’t worry!’), and it’s clear she loves a natter, in fact she regularly reminds us we can chat about anything we like. But she has a pretty good reason as to why looking back at her career isn’t her favourite topic.
‘It makes me feel too old!’ she howls. But appearance-wise, Zandra vows to never change her style as she grows older.
‘I’ll never, ever have grey hair,’ she tells us. ‘I have my hair bleached every eight weeks and I even re-pink it myself in between so it doesn’t go too pale. I like it nice and bright!’
Her eccentric style certainly makes her stand out in a crowd and a sense of individuality is something she had from a young age.
‘My mother was encouraging of whatever I wanted to do and I think a lot can be said for that,’ she smiles. ‘But being different has always been an accident. I’m just me.
‘In fact, I had a letter a while back from a lady who said, “I used to travel on the bus to school with you and I’m so sorry me and my friends laughed at you.” I replied, “That’s nice, but I never noticed anyone laughing at me,”‘ she tells us honestly. ‘I’ve always had a thick skin. And that’s lucky, this industry is impossible if you don’t have it.’
Zandra regularly brings up her late partner and loves talking about him proudly. The pair met when she was 53 – she keeps his memory alive by sharing anecdotes and hanging plenty of photographs of their happiest memories.
‘Guests love the downstairs toilet for photographs!’ she exclaims. ‘My partner with Harrison Ford and various movie stars. He was always so driven, an amazing man,’ she tells us.
When the pair met at a dinner party in New York back in 1992, Zandra was impressed by how Egyptian-born Salah was a self-made man.
‘He started as an usher in a cinema in Brooklyn and became the President of Warner Brothers,’ she tells us proudly. ‘Life was glamorous of course, but we were ordinary at home. We’d have 12 people over at the weekends and I’d cook us all a three-course meal from scratch.’
Ordinarily, out of lockdown, Zandra has fashion interns who live with her to learn the tricks of the trade. It’s an opportunity for her to get in the kitchen. ‘I have a lovely room with four bunk beds and I love making lunch for everybody,’ she tells us.
‘A nice leek and potato soup we all eat round the table. Maybe some smoked salmon and salsa. A bread and butter pudding,’ she lists, drifting off into a food daydream. ‘But cooking to be sat here on my own? Forget it! I’m bored of cooking and washing up and eating leftovers… Utterly sick of it!’
Food might not be top of the agenda at the moment, but Zandra got a chance to show off her culinary skills on Celebrity MasterChef last year alongside the likes of Oti Mabuse and Joey Essex. ‘Oti thought the boys had more help than we did. And although I didn’t win, I know for sure I was a better cook than the boys. No doubt about it!’ she cackles.
She celebrated 50 years of fabulous fashion with an exhibit and book last year, is still designing and has the ball rolling to start her own charity, so Zandra has no plans to slow down.
‘I probably should slow down,’ she says coyly. ‘But I think the easiest thing for me is to keep working and drop dead in the middle of it,’ she smiles. ‘Retiring is what I’m meant to do, but will I actually do it? Probably not.’
And with that, Zandra is off to unpack boxes, hang up more photos and tend to the plants. ‘See what I mean?’ she smiles. ‘There’s always work to be done! Oh well, l’ll get there in the end, eh?’ With a work ethic like hers, we’ve no doubt about it.
How Zandra Rhodes spends her Sundays
Lie-in or up early?
I never, ever lie in – 8am is the latest I ever wake up.
Healthy breakfast or fry up?
I have a bowl of cereal and a coffee. I never cook breakfast just for myself.
Chores or relaxing?
Well my normal routine has all gone to smoke! Ordinarily I’d use Sunday to visit an exhibition and cook for friends. Now I do fun chores, the washing up isn’t one of them.
TV or papers?
My TV hasn’t worked for years. I’ve never seen any of the big shows, not even that dancing programme lovely Oti is on. I don’t do papers either, I just stick to Radio 4.
Go for a walk or stay inside?
I haven’t been going for my government-approved walks, I’m very naughty. I have to try and get myself in the habit of it so I keep fit and healthy.