Diva of design

By Susan DeMaggio

Lifestyles Editor

Among the design projects bearing a Zandra Rhodes signature are couture and ready-to-wear collections; cosmetic lines; jewelry sets; bed linens and household textiles; Terrazzo creations; a fanciful group of wellies, tepees and tents; and the costume and set designs for three operas.

The prolific British textile artist, a resident of Del Mar with a studio in the Cedros Design District of Solana Beach, will share the creative process behind her work on the opera “Aida” in a onetime exhibition titled “Verdi’s ‘Aida’ Through the Eyes of Zandra Rhodes” from April 10-May 15 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla.

The exhibit will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at her sketchbooks, costume drawings and eight of the finished outfits. Rhodes said she spent about 2 1/2 years working on more than 150 costumes for “Aida,” commissioned by the Opera Pacific before it closed in 2008. Funding was picked up by the Houston Grand Opera Company.

“I hope visitors will be enchanted enough by the exhibit to want to go see ‘Aida’ when it plays at the San Francisco Opera in September,” Rhodes said.

There will be a free, public reception to open the exhibition from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 9. Athenaeum Director Erika Torri called the show a perfect fit for the library and its mission of presenting events that are art- and music-related.

“Zandra is a longtime friend, and I follow her creations closely,” Torri said. “She has designed the costumes for the ‘Magic Flute’ and the costumes and sets for the ‘Pearl Fishers’ here in San Diego. The Athenaeum exhibited the costumes and sketches from the previous operas, so it was without question that we would offer Zandra an exhibition for the ‘Aida’ work, once it became available.

“It will be a colorful, enjoyable and over-the-top exhibition, and if it is anything like our last ones, I am certain it will be one to remember. “

Rhodes explained that her concepts for the sets and costumes of “Aida” originated from a trip she made to Egypt in 1986. She said she was fascinated with Egypt’s color palette of turquoise, gold, orange and ultramarine; the spectacular jewelry; and the pleated, figure-hugging dresses of the pharaohs. Her travel sketches became the basis for a collection of fabric prints in her 1987 spring/summer show.

She drew more inspiration from trips to the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art and the sketches of Egypt commissioned by Napoleon.

“To work on an opera allows me to have my designs combined with music, and that is something quite special,” she said, adding that she might like to tackle “Tourandot” or “Salome” next.

In connection with the exhibition in the Athenaeum’s Main and Rotunda galleries, Rhodes will give a lecture on her trip to Egypt and her creative process for “Aida” in the Athenaeum’s Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room at 7:30 p.m. April 20. Another program for young professionals is being planned for 7:30 p.m. April 29.

As a friend of the Athenaeum, Rhodes has limited-edition sketches of her designs in the library’s permanent collection, along with her iconic book, “The Art of Zandra Rhodes” (1984). The Athenaeum published a small catalog for her “Pearl Fisher” exhibition in 2004, “Diving for Pearls in San Diego,” which is available for purchase. Both books are also in the circulating book collection.

“We commissioned Zandra in 2001 to create a small edition of her drawings for our patron members, and the Athenaeum owns three of those prints, which are part of our permanent art collection and continuously displayed,” Torri said. “I also just commissioned her to do an additional design for the Athenaeum. This has not been announced, so I can’t say right now what it will be.”

Torri pointed out that the museum never buys the rights to curated exhibitions. “All exhibitions are master-minded, created and executed by the artist and the Athenaeum staff,” she said. “In this case, we do have to pay for shipping of the costumes, of course, because they are on loan from the San Francisco Opera. We also pay the opera a handling fee for packing and restocking, but we do not pay for the creation of the exhibition.”

The Athenaeum presents eight exhibitions annually in the Main Gallery.

If you go ...

  • What: ‘Verdi’s “Aida” Through the Eyes of Zandra Rhodes’
  • Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla
  • When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday) April 10-May 15
  • Perks: Reception, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 9; Rhodes’ lecture, 7:30 p.m. April 20; ‘Dreamz and Seamz’ young professionals event, 7:30 p.m. April 29
  • Tickets: Free
  • Details: (858) 454-5872,

About ‘Aida’

‘Aida’ is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi, based on a scenario written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. The melodrama involves Ethiopian princess Aida, who is torn between love of her homeland, her family and the man who loves her. It premiered at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on Dec. 24, 1871.

A chat with Zandra Rhodes

How can women who live in beach communities stay fashionable when their scene is so casual?

Luckily, in this area, there are many events and places where you can dress up. In between, it’s more relaxed, sure. The women here wear lovely bright suits and great scarves — many of them mine!

What’s next for Zandra Rhodes?

Well, I just did a line of rubber boots and tents for Millets in the U.K. I am designing two windows for Brit Week at the Neiman Marcus on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, at the end of April, where I am doing an in-store appearance with my dresses. I’m putting together my next book (working title) “Zandra Rhodes: Early Work, 1961-1971.” I’d love to do a range for Target. ... As a designer, you don’t want to be on the shelf, you want to continue to design, work on new projects.

Have you any secrets for success?

In this period we’re living in, you must maintain enthusiasm and not let things put you off. In my speech to students as the first chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in the U.K., I said, ‘There is no such thing as a small job, only small people.’ A good designer will take on all kinds of projects to learn and grow better from each experience.”

More on the Web

  • San Francisco Opera:

  • Licenses with Zandra Rhodes designs:




  • Zandra Rhodes Studio: 444 S. Cedros Ave., Suite 160, Solana Beach. (858) 792-1892.