Zandra Rhodes (the Z was an inspiration, an exotic gift from a slightly exotic mother: "Almost like she was plotting my career," says the grateful daughter) sits cross-legged in the home of Evangeline Bruce. Her hair is not blue today.

Short-cropped still, the hair of Zandra Rhodes, the English arch-priestess of haute punk, is all dark and straight except where chunks of reddish copper gleam like Krypton on a bad day for Superman. There is a safety pin through one ear, arms weighted down with sparkly bangles. Besides that she is wearing black jersey jodhpurs and a dark turtleneck sheathed in voile with a peacock design - a motif echoed even louder in the violent blue haloing her eyes. She is like her clothes: entirely her own creation.

Zandra Rhodes is short with a Liza Minnelli nose and a British accent miles and miles away from Oxford - but none of this matters. She spoke yesterday at the Smithsonian, and Evangeline Bruce throws a party for her tonight, and the British embassy threw one for her yesterday. Marisa Berenson is her client and Princess Anne bought her wedding gown and Babe Paley and Bianca Jagger and Jackie O and Lauren Becall all have paid homage to her creativity with their money.

And so Zandra Rhodes at 37 knows she's great, knows her fashions will "have a place in history," and always did know it.

That isn't the problem.

"Most of my work is beautiful," says Zandra Rhodes without a hint of bravado. "I don't know why that's so. You wouldn't say Zandra Rhodes is beautiful. I suppose it must come out of a basic inferiority complex. I think without my work, I never feel like anyone.

"I always felt like an ugly gnome. If you put me on a beach in a bikini with all the brown and beautiful people, I'd never be brown and beautiful."

Her tall photographer-boyfriend, Grant Mudford, objects. "I've seen you brown and beautiful."

She shrugs off his gallantry. "Not like a model."

So Zandra Rhodes is, as ever, draped in disguise. Fantasy, both her work and her refuges, has brought her fame, money and her happiest moments. The women who snatch up her garments at prices ranging from $200 to $2,000 have abetted all three. She is, after all, not the only one who needs a disguise.

"Yes," says Zandra Rhodes with an approving smile, "I don't feel at all at ease when I'm not disguised. You know what I mean. It's something to hide behind."

Once there were feathers on her clothes. She has a passion for pleats (they have even invaded her sheets). One year she voyaged through the Western desert: Out came hand-tooled cowboy boots peeping under her floating chiffon dress.There has been handrolling with pearls. Mexico and Australia inspired sombrero and rock prints - respectively, of course. Now there are artful holes, provocative safety pins on her costly items.

"Which I think will go down historically," she says. "Even if I am trying to live it down now. Well, it's associated with a lower-middle-class-cum-working-class social revolution. And it's affected the rest of my market.

"Well a lot of people say, "O-o-h . . . It's that lady with the safety pins and holes. Do you REALLY think she would have suitable dresses?"

Fashion designing being one of the world's most terrifying jobs, there is fear in all of this, of course. What if inspiration doesn't come? What if it does and no one cares?

"All the time I was trying to get through and convince people, that was one thing," says Zandra Rhodes. "But when you're on a pedestal, everyone is throwing eggs at you. What if you haven't got any new ideas?"

She shifts uncomfortably. "When I go on holiday, I try to pretend it doesn't matter - oh it doesn't matter if I go to the desert and don't draw every day. Because if you panic, you can be sure no ideas will come.

"But I adore my work. If I hadn't got my work I'd be nobody. I always feel wonderful when I see people wearing my designs because I knew they have every penny of my blood."

She pauses, a far-away look softening the bold landscape of her face, "But I always wonder - I wonder if it will be there tomorrow."

Her mother, who encouraged her in all this, was once a fitter for Worth in Paris; then she became a dress design teacher. Her father was a truck driver. Zandra Rhodes studied fabric - at first to no avail. She was, or at least her work was, too different, too extreme for instant acceptibility. "Zandra," she told herself, "you're doing the right kind of work and people are going to believe in you in the end."

She thinks that over solemnly. "I wouldn't say I'm big-headed, but I always had my convictions."

About six years ago those convictions came to full fruition. Fashion, for those who take it seriously, has traditionally been considered the mute expression of history: For the past two decades there has been discipline in our dress. The '50s forced young women to dress like older women; the '60s forced the old to look young. And the '70s have at last given us all free reign. The clothes echo our egotism. And then, of course, there's always the possibility that our egotism has been in part provoked by the clothes. Zandra Rhodes like the rest of us, finds it hard going to balance a professional life with an emotional one.

"Because I have such trememdous periods working," she explains. "Working alone, the work takes up one's total life, and tries to annihilate the rest. You think nothing of sacrificing your friends. I never get to the office later than 7:30 in the morning and I never have lunch because I think it takes up too much time, and then I go on through 8:30 in the evening.

"Grant, when he lived in London, would call me up at 7 p.m. and ask, 'What time are you coming home tonight?'

"So you become selfish. You say, 'Okay, there's nothing to plan; so why not work on Sunday?'"

Lingerie. Sheets. Evening wear. Knits. She makes it all. She plans, like every other top designer around, to come out with makeup, but she's looking for just the right kind.

"I think," she says slowly, "I think I can be a rather frightening person. Because I don't look like a conventional person. But I never think of it as an act of revolt."

She is, in other words, more than a creature of her own device, having molded not only herself but also the era she (and by extension, we) would end up living in: The '70s. There is no use understanding the '70s - too many things have happened; you might as well wear them.

"I define designers generally as either inovators or stylists," she says. "Both are necessary, so I'm not being critical. But the early '70s were only a period of renovating style, and I wasn't happy about it. I kept thinking, 'If a bomb fell and they dig up all these people, I wonder what period they'll think we all lived in. The '30s? The '40s?'

"Whereas now . . . " She smiles broadly, the consummate archeologist with the perfect find, "Now, if a bomb falls, and they dig all my people up, they will say THIS - THIS is the '70s.'"