With today’s show at noon, Rodarte will pass a 10-year milestone. Kate Mulleavy and her younger sister, Laura, first carried 16 handmade dresses from their home in Pasadena, California, to New York in 2006, and from there grew into an outlying and exquisite feature on the New York show landscape. To hold up a Rodarte dress is to witness the delicate power of something unique and quite possibly minutely collaged from half a dozen different fabrics and trimmings and yet more sprinklings of beaded embroidery, and still light as air. There’s never any mistaking the “hand.” Something emotional is contained in each Rodarte construct, which critics often find moving and elusive to explain—something that couldn’t have sprung anywhere but from sibling minds so close that Kate unjokingly describes them as “one person split into two.”
So, Kate and Laura: Congratulations! They’ve no plans for a runway celebration today, although the show, they hint, will follow another thread of the family story they weave, this time via a trip to San Francisco (it’s nothing you could guess, but promisingly luscious). Still, Rodarte’s 10th anniversary marks an opportunity for American fashion to pull itself up to a momentary halt and consider the value of the Mulleavys’ labor-intensive and imaginative ways. The girls from California have often been impatiently chivvied by critics to hurry up and expand in the way others have done. Yet against the current backdrop of a fracturing, speed-driven corporate fashion system, Rodarte has emerged soundly in another way: as a subversively self-contained model for slow but long-lasting growth.
After 10 years, they have ready-to-wear, shoes, a Radarte T-shirt line, and a made-to-measure business. They have a following of actress friends whom they’ve grown up with. And because they’re independent, they can go at their own pace. Even more radically, they’ve earned the one thing that is most precious to them and denied, these days, to most designers: the freedom to do what they like. Because they’ve ignored any pressure to do pre-collections, they’ve bought themselves time to immerse themselves in books, installations, an opera with Frank Gehry, and, most significantly, writing and directing a movie. Woodshock, starring their friend Kirsten Dunst, is shot, being edited, and will be released by A24 films. (No minor deal, as A24 is the company behind the successful Ex Machina and the Amy documentary.)
Yet for all that the Mulleavys do—and however seriously they might be listened to in other industries—the siblings have often fallen foul of fashion critics for being “arty.” Says Kate: “I have to live with an idea for a long time in terms of design. I feel often that you have to make a circle for a few seasons to get to a square.” Many are the fashion CEOs who would be driven apoplectic by that kind of remark, but then again, Rodarte does not have a CEO. It has Kate and Laura, striving hard but navigating by their own lights toward what matters to them.
“I think there can’t be one idea to apply to success,” Laura argues. “I look more to designers in history—say, Chanel or Vionnet—who were very different people but had a long-lasting legacy. What’s natural to Kate and me is we want to be independent and grow slowly. We do just two collections, and that pace works for us because we can do other projects in between. We’re creating in this incubating space where you can be free.”
The sisters benchmark their success in a wholly different way from the way emergent American brands are normally judged—either as winners or losers in the race to scale up, take on outside finance, and dominate markets. “At times I’ve been angered by people asking, ‘Why aren’t you girls more commercial?’ ” says Laura. “But our fashion is about garments you make personally.”
In that sense, the Mulleavys’ way of operating seems closer to the way young European designers formulate collections—or even to the old world of haute couture. One of the things that distinguishes Rodarte, says Kate, “is the romantic, conceptual way we approach inspiration and storytelling and how we see the world, landscape, art, movies, poetry, music.” You could hear that sort of talk anywhere in London or Paris.
Yet the nature of their work is completely interwoven with American history and culture. It comes from their hearts and the specific geography of their childhood. “We were brought up in a rural area. When we were little, we did everything together,” says Kate. “We had a huge imagination. We’d go outside and play together and create these secret worlds and a language we shared.” Far away from access to high fashion, they found it in the movies, inspecting everything every character wore. “I remember sitting in front of the TV with my nose practically on the screen,” says Laura. “And then, when we saw a Hitchcock landscape, it was like, ‘Oh, we know where that is!’ because he shot it in Northern California.”
The label, which they started as naive 20-somethings just over a decade ago, has had its critical ups and downs. A breakthrough was the tour de force of their 2008 “Japanese Slasher movie” collection, which displayed both extraordinary cobwebby knitwear and the first of their magical exercises in asymmetrically draped chiffon. A dress from their second collection in golden vertical rivulets of satin-backed crepe was unloved by any magazine or celebrity, but ended up stopping Alexander McQueen, never a man to give praise lightly, in his tracks in an exhibition at the Met. “He said to us, ‘You made that? It’s good!’ ”
Even a show that was panned—their exploration of L.A. chola girl style—was ultimately a good experience because it established their shoe collection. “It turned out to be our most commercial,” Laura laughs. “Those shoe-boots we did!”
Then there are the indelible experiences of collaborating with the young women of Hollywood—Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, the Fanning sisters—who have grown up relating to Rodarte. Looking back over the past decade, during which publicists, stylists, and large deals from fashion companies have locked down the Hollywood fashion system, Kate Mulleavy exclaims, “Well, yes, God, we did dress the best actress at the Academy Awards!” The relationship with Natalie Portman, through their work on her Black Swan costumes, just grew organically. At a guess, the appeal isn’t simply in the romanticism and modernity of the Rodarte product, but in the sense that something deep and personal and generationally relevant has gone into each thing that passes through the Mulleavy sisters’ hands. “There’s a client for luxury,” says Kate. “In a world where there are so many options, we want to make something someone’s going to have for 15, 20 years.” There’s the paradox: In a hurtling, speeding, out-of-control system, maybe it’s the things that make time stand still that people will value the most.
Sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy discuss the necessity of a unique viewpoint:
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