Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Zandra Rhodes, fashion designer

'I was an ideal girl to teach'
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The Independent Online

Teachers always got cross with me when they were reading the register at the beginning of the year. I would say, "It's Zandra with a Z," and they would have to cross out "Sandra" and write my name again, as there was no Tipp-Ex then.

I loved school. My first was Byron Road Primary in Gillingham, Kent. I think the boys must have been in separate classrooms on the other side of the building. Thank goodness! It took me a long time to get used to working with boys at art school.

I failed the 11-plus but I never regarded it as a failure; I had a very, very bright mother who was encouraging - and I had another chance. I passed the "13-plus" to Chatham Technical School for Girls and from then I worked to make sure I was at the top of the class.

I was quite academic. I enjoyed all aspects of school, except maths and also a subject called hygiene, which was a bit like human biology. The hygiene teacher hated me and I was so frightened of her that I couldn't take in what she said. I wasn't good at spelling; she would read all my mis-spellings out to the class, who would laugh. I would have to laugh too; then the teacher said, "Go to the headmistress and tell her what's so funny." She lived with the headmistress, who was absolutely lovely to me. My mother said in a very matter-of-fact way, "They're lesbians," but this didn't mean anything to me.

I passed the six O-levels that I took. I did very well in biology: I could write an essay on photosynthesis and do cutaway drawings of plants. I loved art - the teacher would use my stuff as an example - and I did it at A-level in a year, as well as history. I went to Medway College of Art, where my mother taught, and they said I was good enough to miss the first year of the four-year course. On the first day, the teacher asked, "What are the different types of Greek columns?" I said, "Doric, Ionic and Corinthian", and the boys at the back laughed: I wanted putting in my place.

I was probably quite an ideal girl to teach. Barbara Brown was a dynamic, amazing teacher and I ended up doing printed textiles with her. She set us homework every weekend and if we didn't do it, she wouldn't speak to us. When my boyfriend and I got our National Diplomas of Design, she said, "The place to go to is the Royal College of Art." The RCA had an extensive exam and you would go there every day for four days. There were nine places - and at least 20 people for each place.

My printed textiles diploma at the RCA was incredible; I owe everything to it. The teachers were wonderful and I still keep in touch. I lived in South Kensington and would walk to college. I would get there no later than 8am and was popular because I would sign everyone else in, using different handwriting! I would usually stay until we were turned out at 10pm. I got a First.

You were trained as a textile designer, not a fashion designer. From about 14 I'd look all dressed-up - not at school, of course - with a "boat-necked" dress and a very pretty straw bonnet. At Medway I ended up looking like a Charlotte Brontë hippie, in a dyed robe with torn lace at the bottom. At the RCA I had black eye-liner and black hair in a dramatic Vidal Sassoon cut; I didn't change the colour of my hair until I left college.

My boyfriend and I split up in the first term. Later he became head of an art college in Australia and ran off with a pupil.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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