There were once two little girls who lived in Santa Cruz, California. Their father was a botanist, their mother a tapestry weaver, and their days were spent in the redwood forest their home backed onto studying fungi and fauna. Punks, hippies, surfers and skaters populated their Northern Californian town, an ongoing countercultural fix for this inseparable pair whose dreams and experiences would combust to crack alive new meta-realities in their wake.
As grown women, Kate and Laura Mulleavy have channelled this creative synergy into one of independent fashion’s most bewitching forces – Rodarte. “To me, memory is one of the more powerful and elusive experiences – and the most magical,” says Kate, speaking from Rodarte’s studio in Los Angeles. “It’s not about what something is but what my memory of it is. Which changes it into an interpretation. And from there, we build a collection.” Since launching their line in 2005, the duo have put out consistently romantic, beautiful and feminine clothes that breathe a type of poetry like nothing else in fashion’s landscape. Could it be the space they give themselves, living and working outside the chaos of fashion’s global capitals? “The landscape of California has been hugely influential over the things we create. We have a very nuanced understanding of it,” says Kate.
The impact runs deep. Take Spring Summer 2015: inspired by the multi-textured tidal pools of the Northern Californian fishing town of Monterey, the show’s final looks comprised reams of tulle hand painted and filled with sand – a theatrical end to an output widely dubbed their strongest yet. And the inspirations go on: in quick succession, they’ve delved into horror films and ballet (FW08), 1970s California Interiors (SS11), Cali condors and Death Valley (SS10), medieval and fantasy role playing games (SS13), Santa Cruz à la The Lost Boys (FW13) and childhood nostalgia and Star Wars (FW14).
A Rodarte dress is designed to be wearable as much as it is a work of artistry. Rodarte is a world within a world, constructed from the singular perceptions of two women who work as one via a completely creative process. More than clothes, they’re a feeling. Stop time. Create something. Put it out there and those who like it will burn it with their own stamp until it hums with a new kind of magic.
Kate and Laura are both Berkeley graduates (following in the path of their father, a mycologist/ fungi expert), specialising in Art History and English Literature respectively. Neither have ever received any formal training in fashion. It was their mother, Victoria Mulleavy (who designs Rodarte’s jewellery collection), who taught them to sew, part of a childhood grounded in a visceral, DIY approach to everything. “We grew up surrounded by nature,” says Kate. “All my father’s friends were also botanists, so everything was about looking at things and studying things. It was the centre of our existence.”
Their first lookbook was comprised of ten paper dolls, clad in their intricate creations, which they brought to New York in the Spring of 2005 and which caught the eye of every fashion editor from Third Avenue to Midtown. The following week, the hand-finished collection appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily under the name ‘Rodarte’.
The name itself traces back to Kate and Laura’s grandfather, a Zacatonan coal miner who migrated to America during the Mexican Revolution. It was by chance that they should come across his surname’s original spelling at the same time as they were grappling with what to call their line. “My dad had gone to a thrift shop near where we lived and found an old directory from the 30s,” explains Kate. “He brought it home and told us we had to check it out, because my mum’s entire family were listed with their full names – including my mother’s maiden name, Rodarte. We took it as a sign.”
Kate talks as a speedy stream of consciousness, sentences spiked with images and anecdotes she reels off with relish. “When we were kids, my mum used to take us to this great old cinema in Capitola – I think it’s been torn down now – but I remember the first time Laura and I saw a mohawk, when this kid with one was sitting in front of us in the theatre. We didn’t care one bit about the movie... we were obsessed with that hair!” Work through the Mulleavys’ collections – often sharpened with punk and goth affectations – and this memory slides into sharp focus. There rests their fascination with clothing: the way it can transform the wearer into something or someone entirely different. There, your world view can shift too.
Of course, it’s not as simple as upcycling the dressing-up box. Far from it, this is art as fashion in the truest sense. The designers labour over every detail, known for their meticulous nature and for working on dresses into the early hours of the morning at home in Pasadena. Fall Winter 2008 saw layers of white tulle painstakingly brushed with tones of violent red as if the girls had been sliced, it was an an ode to early Japanese horror films, Kabuki theatre and modern day slashers. Less than two years later, Rodarte became the first fashion house to be awarded the National Art Award for Americans In The Arts. Their gowns are part of the permanent collection at FIT, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the designers have dipped into costume design with numerous collaborations with choreographer Benjamin Millepied on pieces for the New York City Ballet and the Het Nationale Ballet. Not to mention their work on costumes for Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psycho thriller Black Swan.
So where do Kate and Laura sit as individuals amidst all this activity? Though Kate repeatedly highlights their united approach, there’s the subtle sense that it’s their differences that really make the dynamic work. “When we were really little, Mom gave us a journal each with blank pages to do with whatever we liked. After a couple of months, mine was filled with drawings of very ornate costume dresses, over and over again. Whereas Laura’s pages were covered with very precise blueprints of the house – she’d go into our kitchen and map out where everything was kept – ‘Here’s where the sugar goes...’ – to which mom was like, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting... and strange!’” she laughs. “It’s so ‘us’, even now.”
Living in Pasadena, they work in Los Angeles and make the trek to New York twice a year for fashion week. Kate and Laura are notoriously under the radar – and it works for them. “We put so much of ourselves into it but at the end of the day we lead very quiet lives. We know it’s unusual. But it’s very connected to who we are.” There’s no need to push it further. What snags curiosity most is the sense of identity; the emphasised appreciation for a strong sense of self (“I’m not here to be everything”) – that Kate puts out. “There are certainly times when you admire what makes somebody or something else really good. But it only should serve as a positive indicator of the things that are unique to your own perspective.”
As our conversation draws to a close, it becomes apparent that the question of who the Rodarte woman ‘is’ may be totally futile. Kate and Laura don’t think about that, just as they don’t fit any sort of mould themselves. They point blank refuse to design clothes for cookie-cutter existence. And if stores continue to buy their collections? Well, great. “It’s not about making a box for somebody to fit in. The people who like or wear our clothes are all unique – and that’s what’s so amazing about women.”
Photography DARIO CATELLANI
Fashion STELLA GREENSPAN. All clothes RODARTE
Published in HEROINE MAGAZINE, SPRING/SUMMER 15