With her wild makeup, pink bob and multi-hued wardrobe, British fashion designer and textile artist Zandra Rhodes is one colorful character—a fashionista seemingly born from the imagination of Lewis Carroll. Seattle audiences saw her costume-design work in Seattle Opera’s 2011 production of The Magic Flute and again in the company’s 2015 presentation of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, which showcased both set and costume designs by Rhodes.
Rhodes’ innovative work provides potent visual fuel for The Faces of Zandra Rhodes, a documentary by Puget Sound-based filmmaker David Wiesehan, which screens at the Seattle International Film Festival this month. Wiesehan’s feature debut is a visual smorgasbord for fashion fans and opera aficionados, shot, directed and edited with the briskness of a runway show.
The Faces of Zandra Rhodes hits the ground running, dropping viewers into the thick of preparations for a retrospective exhibition of her work in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Rhodes’ design work reigns front and center throughout, with considerable attention devoted to her universe of flowing, eye-popping garments.
The working-class daughter of a dressmaker, young Rhodes chronicled the world around her in sketches that captured the rough-hewn beauty of the English countryside. In Faces, Wiesehan includes a brief montage of the artist’s sketchbooks from that time, providing evocative glimpses of her impressionistic marker and pencil drawing of landscapes and various abstractions.
Rhodes segued into textile design, crafting vivid, pattern-resplendent cloth in various materials and styles that drew from Japanese, East Indian and Native American influences, as well as the kaleidoscopic youth culture and art movement of 1960s London. (She cites David Hockney’s paintings as an early inspiration). After a stint at London’s Royal College of Art, she struck out on her own. She attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell her textiles to mainstream Manchester factories; so instead she began using them in dress designs of her own. She went on to incorporate a punk influence into her garments, adding tears and safety pins to her usual vivid pinks, yellows and blues.
She designed for the runway (and for celebrities such as Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury) for decades before San Diego Opera commission her first opera work in 2001.
Wiesehan covers footage of Rhodes’ fashions with a craftsman’s care, capturing each shift, billow and change of light on the clothing with an admiring eye. Yet the film sometimes feels a bit featherweight, with little substantive exploration of Rhodes’ roots, motivations or complexities. It mentions a presumably difficult time in the 1990s, when Rhodes was forced to reduce operations and staff in her London office, but doesn’t explore it. On-camera interviews with models, fellow designers, friends and collaborators yield the same two observations: Rhodes is creative and easy to work with. And portions of the film that show the influence of Indian, African, Japanese and Native American fabrics and designs on Rhodes’ work raise, but don’t address, concerns about cultural appropriation.
The Faces of Zandra Rhodes may lose its bearings as a character study at certain points, but like the models striding international catwalks in Rhodes’ unique garments, it’s beautiful and intoxicating when the stage lights fire up.
The Many Faces of Zandra Rhodes screens Thursday, May 24 and Saturday, May 26 at SIFF Cinema Uptown Theater.