#TBSD: Eccentric British designer Zandra Rhodes punks up the San Diego Opera

Internationally-known designer Zandra Rhodes among her clothes at her studio in Solana Beach on Friday. (Hayne Palmour IV Union-Tribune)
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Her imagination and artistic vision toward the unconventional are what attracts admirers and collaborators to fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. At the beginning of her career, she left Great Britain for New York, where she managed to show her designs to Diana Vreeland, the acclaimed editor of Vogue at the time, who immediately chose to feature them in the popular fashion magazine.

Rhodes, who turns 77 this year, was part of a wave of new British designers in the 1970s who brought a renewed interest to the London fashion scene. She incorporated holes and jeweled safety pins into her pieces, earning her the name “Princess of Punk,” and has since seen her clothes grace everyone from the late Princess Diana to Freddie Mercury of Queen and model Naomi Campbell.

Fast forward to 2000, when the San Diego Opera began looking for a costume designer for its production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The team set its sights on the edgy designs of Rhodes.

“I sensed in her imagination, but also artistic craziness - and I mean that in the nicest way,” Ian Campbell, then the general and artistic director for the opera company, said in a San Diego Union-Tribune interview before the new season opened in January 2001. “She wasn’t going to be bound by tradition... What she created was absolutely stunning.”

And what she created was unquestionably a reflection of both her personal style and artistic sensibility. In person, Rhodes stands out with her signature fuchsia bob (way before the bright hair trend of today) and saturated teal eye shadow, typically matched with equally arresting ensemble choices, like sequined shoes, oversized jewelry or combinations of colors like golds, burgundies and blues.

As the story of The Magic Flute goes, a handsome prince must rescue the daughter of a queen from a high priest, with the help of a local bird catcher, a trio of spirits and a magic flute. Rhodes, who splits her time between homes in Del Mar and London, didn’t know anything about opera before being commissioned for the show, but she did know that she’d need to be able to infuse the costumes with her signature rich, bright colors. The show’s director had other ideas. When she was introduced to director Michael Hampe, he told her that he wanted the show’s priests in black T-shirts.

After the exchange with the director, Rhodes recalled in a 2013 U-T interview, she called Campbell and asked him if she would be required to have simple black T-shirts in an opera that she was designing, then what was the point of paying her? “So he kind of took Michael to one side and worked it out,” Rhodes said.

On opening night of the $1.9 million production, the priests were wearing orange mohawks, temple guards wore platform shoes, and a rhinoceros made of silvery mesh fabric had mirrored toes. The gamble on her fresh perspective and unorthodox designs paid off: Every performance of the show sold out.

Picture This

Throwback moments from the year 2000

Jan. 1

The year 2000 arrives nearly glitch-free, with millennium celebrations around the world drowning out doomsday Y2K predictions.

May 28

More than 1,000 University of San Diego seniors graduate on a high note, courtesy of legendary singer and keynote speaker Gladys Knight.

June 1

The world-premiere of “The Full Monty” opens to sold-out audiences at The Old Globe.

Dec. 19

The first Krispy Kreme shop in San Diego opens at 5:30 a.m. on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.