When she breezed into Manhattan last week, Zandra Rhodes had shed some elements of her operatic style. Her fuchsia hair, which she tends to wear upswept in a chopstick-anchored bun, was straight and fastidiously groomed. Her eyebrows, crazy semaphores that she sometimes pencils in like arrows, were conventionally shaped. And her eye shadow, which she applies in a rainbow-colored medley, was confined to two or three tints of blue. "The first thing I said to her," recalled Ed Burstell, an executive at Bergdorf Goodman, where Rhodes had paid a sales call, "was, 'Zandra, you've calmed it down."'
If so, it is just as well. At 66, Rhodes, the doyenne of British haute punk, has surfaced in yet another incarnation - not a tame one for sure, but surprisingly accessible. A style-world rara avis as famous for her personal eccentricity as for the clashing colors and vividly exotic prints she has shown on the runway since the 1970s, she is emerging as a commercial force, with several new projects in the works.
Rhodes is aware of the irony, having once confided, "Whenever I've tried to make myself a bit more mass, it never worked." Now it seems she has reversed herself. She has introduced a flamboyant makeup collection for MAC, furs for Pologeorgis and a jewelry line. In New York last week she fluttered about in a squiggle-patterned jumpsuit with butterfly sleeves, a look from her spring collection for Topshop, the fast-fashion chain based in London. She was here to talk up her latest venture: a line of lambskin handbags patterned with her exuberant prints.
They represent a distillation of Rhodes' design identity, a zany fusion of the ethereal and the raw. Her chiffons have unfinished seams. They are typically embellished with motifs inspired by Native American, Egyptian or Chinese culture. Some are incongruously festooned with chains. Safety pins, a hallmark of her punk collection of the late 1970s, have resurfaced on her bags, a brash emblem of Rhodesian chic.
Rhodes is the first to acknowledge that she is riding the crest of "a Zandra moment." Her vintage designs - origami-folded coats and elaborately layered caftans that fetch US$1,200 to US$6,000 - are catnip to collectors, and have turned up at red-carpet events on personalities as disparate as Helen Mirren and Kate Moss.
In recent seasons, interpretations of Rhodes' prints have surfaced on the runways of Dior, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. This month interpretations of her looks found their way into Fashion Rocks, the fashion and music magazine from the publishers of Vogue.
"Someone congratulated me," she said diffidently, "but those clothes weren't mine."
Seeing her designs routinely knocked off appears not to faze her. "I quite like people talking to me and saying, 'Your look is coming round again,'" she declared, her working-class accent intact. "It's like the Beatles coming round again."
In an era of pallid conformity, her periodic resurrections seem to feed a gnawing hunger. "Her influence returns in cycles, but when it comes back, its essence comes back clearly," said Burstell, who commissioned a collection of zestfully patterned shawls and patchwork designs for Bergdorf. "It's original. It had a clear identity from the start."
Cesar Padilla, an owner of Cherry, an influential vintage clothing boutique, carries a selection of her designs. "In America she is still a bit under the radar," Padilla said. "But in the fashion crowd, even the youngest people know what she's about."