Frock and awe

Fashion - Hadley Freeman on why Zandra Rhodes might have the last laugh

Who'd have expected it? Zandra Rhodes, the designer with a penchant for eye-wateringly fluorescent clothes, who proudly describes her current hair colour as "pinkissimo", and coats her eyelids an inch thick in turquoise eyeshadow every morning, has pulled off a dazzling feat of co-ordination.

After nine troublesome years, the Fashion and Textile Museum, which for so long seemed simply Rhodes's impossible dream, has become a great pink and orange reality in SE1. Here, form and content are in perfect accord. A big, beautiful bubble of escapism, the museum is as gleefully oblivious of its grey surroundings as fashion itself. Like the British fashion industry, its imagination and ingenuity can just about be perceived through the lack of funding and ramshackle organisation; and, like Zandra Rhodes herself, the result is a heartwarming triumph of survival against the odds.

Rhodes, now 63, glided to prominence in the 1970s on a swirl of reds, pinks and yellows that she swished over her hand-painted clothes and across her face. But while she has happily stuck with her distinctive style over the decades, her rainbow swirled designs - once favoured by Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli and, of all unlikely Seventies fashion divas, Princess Anne - became as dated as dropping acid in the following decades. Come the 21st century, the fashion world, always fond of making the implausible desirable, has re-embraced Rhodes as "retro".

Throughout her turbulent career, Rhodes kept her sights on immortality in the form of establishing a museum dedicated to fashion. Such an idea might be taken for granted in other countries (France and the US, for example), but in Bhs Britain it seemed preposterous. Denied Lottery funding, Rhodes set about raising the £4m herself, even selling her own house (she's been sleeping in the museum ever since).

Orange, pink and bold as brass, the mus- eum is a noisy explosion on Bermondsey Street. The crystal and glass-studded entryway is as alluring as a shop window, but just as you find yourself being seduced, loose threads begin to appear: grammatical mistakes in the blurbs; illegible exhibit descriptions, written in neon letters on the floor; higgledy-piggledy layout; and technical hitches with the rotating displays. The museum's computer system had temporarily packed up and, the press officer informed us, "obviously the lights aren't working". Obviously. As too often happens when "British" and "fashion" come together, the ambition is there, but the funding and business acumen are not.

"My Favourite Dress", the cannily populist subject for this first exhibition, brings together favourite dresses created by more than 70 designers, from veterans like Valentino to potential young stars such as Zac Posen. Among the accompanying explanations for these choices, there is the inevitable dose of pretension ("I sought to make light a slave to feminine softness," chirrups Romeo Gigli) and celebrity puffery ("We found the perfect woman to immortalise it in our advertising campaign, my friend Demi Moore," crows Donna Karan). But through the dross, fashion's strengths emerge. The best designers have submitted decidedly traditional pieces, whereas the weaker have gone for showier displays: McQueen and Galliano eschew their notoriously implausible creations in favour of, respectively, a tantalisingly flattering lace and chiffon dress with corset structuring, and a fuschia satin gown, delicate as a feathered wing. Compared to, say, Catherine Malandrino, with her post-11 September flagprint dress, McQueen and Galliano prove they are more than savvy attention-seekers.

Although the British like to display sniggering scepticism towards the fashion industry, we can't get enough of it. Rare is the morning when at least one national newspaper does not carry some story about what designer frock which starlet is wearing. Three days after its official opening, on a sunny Thursday morning, the Fashion Museum was packed. No one seemed to mind the dodgy lighting, the useless assistants, or the lack of technotronics. Instead, fashion students, OAPs, tourists and inexplicably not-at-work thirtysomethings - in short, the usual crowd you'd expect at any museum on a weekday morning - were too busy scrutinising Versace's patchwork chiffon offering ("So sexy," sighed the femme d'un certain age next to me), Westwood's brown knitted confection ("So original," cooed the Americans) and Michiko Koshino's Michelin Man-style gown made of Puffa jacket material ("Really!" smirked the middle-aged tweedy man) to be put off. This museum threatens to make fashion editors of us all, even the most reluctant Englishman. Rhodes may well have a very deserving last laugh.

"My Favourite Dress" is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 (020 7403 0222) until November

Hadley Freeman is a fashion editor on the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The new censorship