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Styled by Design: Gray M.C.A meets Zandra Rhodes

This month, fashion illustration and textile design specialist Gray M.C.A presents Styled by Design: a niche exhibition that gathers some of the rarest and most valuable fine art textiles of the 20th century. Luxury London chats to co-founder of Gray M.C.A, Ashley Gray, and designer Dame Zandra Rhodes, whose Ayers Rock print will play a pivotal role in the show’s line-up

Gray M.C.A was founded by husband-and-wife team Ashley and Connie Gray, and is most commonly associated with the annual fashion illustration exhibition Drawing on Style, which is held during London and New York Fashion Weeks. As collectors, curators and dealers they uncover rare fashion illustrations and textiles, celebrating them in international art fairs and standalone exhibitions in London, New York and Palm Beach. Styled by Design, another of their annual exhibitions, will be held this month at Gallery 8 in St James’s, showcasing the lesser known textile designs by post-war and contemporary artists, including Pablo Picasso and Barbara Hepworth. Also among them is designer Dame Zandra Rhodes.

Rhodes is instantly recognisable. Like icons such as David Bowie or Prince, she has an intrinsically theatrical, sparkly and rebellious aura that is commonly associated with the revolutionary era of the 1960s and 1970s. Her influence on British fashion and culture is well-known and respected: she has dressed icons from the likes of Donna Summer to Princess Diana, as well as creating sets and costumes for operas.

Her roots lie in textile design, ever since her time at the Royal College of Art, and one of her most lauded creations is the Ayers Rock collection of A/W 1974. Rhodes became fascinated by this natural monument when she visited Australia and saw it on numerous postcards. She returned two years later, travelled to the site and spent several days sketching, taking photographs and immersing herself in the surroundings. When she returned home, she made her sketches into screen-printed textiles, which were then transformed into cloaks and dresses.

Her flat, photographed often, is literally painted like a rainbow and is full to the brim of curiosities.

In 2003, Rhodes founded the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, where she also has an apartment and a screen printing workshop. The bright orange and pink building, designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, completely embodies her personality. Her flat, photographed often, is literally painted like a rainbow and is full to the brim of curiosities.

I meet Rhodes and Ashley Gray there to talk about the coming exhibition, as well as the past, present and future of textile design. On this particular day, Gray brings an original fabric that Rhodes designed for Heal’s in the 1960s – a decade before the Ayers Rock collection – that he has recently acquired. Top Brass is a wonderful, bright arrangement of shapes that resemble medals.

Luxury London: How did you come across Top Brass?

Ashley: I found it in Manchester at the textile fair not long ago – for me, going there is like going to Hamleys as a child. Every now and then we find something really special, and the timing of this was perfect for our meeting today.

Zandra: I made it when I was at the Royal College of Art in my last year: about 1963 or 1964. It started off being influenced by Hockney with his medals and generals in a row.

LL: Can you tell us more about the Ayers Rock textile that you will be exhibiting?

A: When we first met Zandra, Connie was looking at some of her wonderful drawings, but I was in the other room and my eyes fell on this absolutely beautiful, delicate and extraordinary Ayers Rock textile. It was one of those lovely moments that puts the hair up on the back of your neck. It stayed with me for the past two or three years, which is why I wanted to include it in the exhibition, and then Zandra found the original print in LA.

Z: It’s really quite fabulous finding all these different things from the past.

A: I love the story Zandra tells in her book, The Art of Zandra Rhodes, about her first visit to Australia and seeing the images of Ayers Rock on postcards.

Z: When I saw the postcards I said, “what is it?” and they said, “Ayers Rock, you don’t want to go there though, you want to go to Fiji!”

LL: In the book, the way you describe the trip sounds quite spiritual: “The desert was wonderful – the colour incredible – an endless vista of red earth fading into a misty blue horizon, punctuated all the way by these amazing stretches of spinifex grass, sprouting like big pin-cushions.” Would you say that the 1974 Ayers Rock was your definitive collection?

Z: Absolutely. There are several museums in Australia that want a record of it.

A: You also describe your Ayers Rock drawings as some of the most laborious.

Z: Yes, I stood there in the freezing cold, but they were wonderful to draw: from the rock and the sunrise over the rock, to the spinifex grass. We were covered in red dust because we were in an open four-wheel drive, but it was fabulous fun to do. Then I came back and created the collection of dresses and cloaks, which was my idea of a modern recreation of a toile de Jouy.

LL: In your book you explain: “I translated them into fine line drawings on translucent paper and afterwards made several dyeline reproductions. These I cut up, moving the pieces around in different combinations… until I thought it looked authentic and at the same time exciting to my eye.”

Z: Yes, and we did it in four screens because it was a deep repeat. Each colour is a screen and we usually only do three.

LL: Where else do you find inspiration?

Z: I used to go on a two-week holiday somewhere and in that time I would draw things that I saw. I’ve got a funny drawing I did in India when I was in a very dark hotel foyer and they had a stuffed crocodile, instead of something you’d expect, and there was an elephant foot for a table.

LL: What’s your secret to being consistently successful and relevant?

Z: Part of me would say luck. But I also consider myself as an artist. My sketch books have become a resource to return to and go through and think ‘what can I get from this?’. I have maybe about 50. They’re made of Japanese rice paper. I bought them in Japan in 1971 and that’s what I drew the Ayers Rock sketches on.

LL: In what ways do fashion and interiors overlap each other?

Z: I think all the arts overlap. I can have a dress that’s influenced by a painting or by things I’ve drawn. With some of the designs I’m in the middle of, I’m working out how to convert them into interiors. But it’s quite wonderful seeing them being treasured, like Ashley treasures them, and realising there’s now a market in the things that I do before I even make the product.

LL: How important are textiles in today’s market?

A: Connie says that I deal in carpets and curtains but these very textiles are hugely important – both historically and culturally. You only have to look at one and it takes you to a moment in time. These are the new collectibles.

Z: I think ‘new collectibles’ is a lovely idea. Realising that people are seeing all these things that I’ve done as collectible is quite wonderful.

A: The phrase I use is ‘what’s modern has never been more contemporary’ because you see the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s echoed in design now. This phrase came to me when I walked into the Fashion and Textile Museum for the first time. No one had actually focused on this idea before – it was like coming to a cathedral. It was physically doing what William Morris attempted to do: blurring the line between decorative and fine art.

Z: There’s a resurgence of how people look at fashion and textiles, and see them as not just something that’s whooshing by, but as collectible things. They’re going to become more important, too, because they aren’t digital.

LL: Would you make the fashion industry less digital if you could?

Z: I don’t think it will become less digital because so many silk screen set-ups have been closed, so it makes my clothes and fabrics more valuable in a way. Everything is done by hand. We can get stuff done digitally from outside, but for us it doesn’t have much charm. It’s funny because when the Fashion and Textile Museum was built, Ricardo Legorreta wanted us to have little windows so people could look through and see the printing – but I said no.

A: These textiles also tie into fashion illustration, because they were done for commercial reasons anyway. Who were we to know that as the decades went by, they would actually become so important.

Styled by Design, 3-7 October, Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, St James’s, SW1Y, 8dukestreet.co.uk