i work for ...; Zandra Rhodes

Zoe Penn is PA to the fashion designer.
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The Independent Culture
I come from Chatham in Kent, where Zandra was born, and I went to the same grammar school as her. I became interested in her work during my A-levels. It inspired me to see how far she'd got without a privileged background, and I was astonished to discover that she is the daughter of a lorry driver.

I met her when I went to her studio in Hammersmith to interview her for a project I was writing on her work. I was terrified of meeting her, expecting her to be wearing full make-up and be dressed to the nines. Instead I found her alone in her office under a pile of paperwork, with no make- up on and dressed in a practical yellow jump suit with a waistband containing scissors and designers' tools. She was very down-to-earth and calmed me down immediately.

I'm only 23, so I was still in nappies during the punk scene, but when I saw the pictures from the period I was amazed at how innovative it all was, particularly the clothes Zandra was designing. She struck me as being as much of an artist as a designer; her watercolours feed directly into her prints, and she has never been afraid to let her prints govern the shape and size of the dress. I don't think that designing has ever been done in this way before.

While I was doing a fashion course I wrote to her to ask her if she'd take me on for work experience and she agreed. I felt confident with her; we worked together in a small team in a family atmosphere, with Zandra cooking for us when we needed feeding. To her workers she's always been known as "Mummy". I also did a fashion show with her at Dickens and Jones, working backstage as a dresser. It was a fast and exciting experience, particularly when Honor Blackman came to see us backstage.

I also lived with Zandra for three months. It was hard going getting up at 6.30am and coming back from work at 9.30, but we became close and I realised how hard she has worked to get where she is.

She is only able to spend half her time in the UK - this means that when she's here she has to fit 100 per cent of her work into half the time it would usually take. The rest of her time she spends in her studio in California. She has helpers who work through the night with her, and she rarely goes to bed before 3am. She's usually up all night faxing California, because she needs to keep in constant touch with her other studio. She lives on three hours sleep a night, which amazes everyone who works for her. The remarkable thing is that she doesn't seem to get tired. She can get ratty at times, but you just have to let it go above your head. I'm the kind of person who avoids arguments anyway; having a row doesn't achieve anything, and if she blows her top it's just for a few minutes. There have been occasions when we've told her to lie down, almost strapping her to the bed. But as long as she's busy she seems to pull herself through. She says that she likes being surrounded by young people because she finds them inspiring. Although she's often out in the evening she doesn't really like leaving us and will come back at midnight and start working again. She also lives for her friends, who include the sculptor Andrew Logan and the painter Duggie Fields.

My job changes from day to day, but it includes driving Zandra to the airport, lending out garments to magazines who need them for retrospective features on, say, the Seventies, and giving the students their tasks when Zandra's away. She usually has three to four students living in her flat above the offices, which helps to make the studio a friendly environment in which to work.

We recently moved the studio to Bermondsey, where Zandra intends to house the Museum of Fashion and Textiles. We had to dismantle all the equipment and storage units, which was hard going - loading everything from print tables to screens into Zandra's small van. Since I became involved in the setting up of the museum I have been responsible for co-ordinating the board meetings, keeping the trustees up-to-date on progress, writing up the minutes from meetings, cataloguing the clothes and liaising with designers like Mary Quant and the Jean Muir studio over the images for the catalogue. It's fascinating to watch the project evolve, particularly since it will be the first museum of its kind in the UK. When we were refused Lottery funding for the museum it was a real disappointment, but it didn't put Zandra off, it just made her all the more determined to get funding from private investors.

I've changed as a person since I've worked for Zandra. I've become more confident. I no longer get flustered if someone like Joanna Lumley calls up or Lulu answers her mobile from the dentist's chair. I feel I can now accept celebrities as ordinary people, a skill which came in useful when I was recently asked to organise Zandra's party to celebrate her receiving a CBE.

Zandra isn't really an eccentric person herself, and when you are working for her you don't have to pretend to be something you're not. I'm not a trained secretary and I would be bored sitting at a computer all day. I very much like the creative side of my work and I'm willing to do anything. I've encountered so much variety within this job that I feel that in the future I could branch out in many different ways; I certainly don't feel that I've been steered in one direction. But it's nice to go back to Kent to the home I share with my parents at the end of the day and relax away from it all.

I've been proud to be part of Zandra's work and I wouldn't want to leave her until I saw the museum open, which is scheduled for the year 2000. Whenever I work at one of Zandra's shows now I join the audience in time to see everyone applaud her arrival on stage. It always gives me a huge sense of admiration for her.

Interview by Katie Sampson