If you look closely enough—or even if you look casually, without quite apprehending what you’re seeing—a Rodarte dress resembles something you’d find in the forest. The shapes are angled, irregular; the colors might be reflective, or patterned; the effect is like a glimpse of something sprouting or in flight. It’s exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting. A Rodarte design can leave you feeling lost, or fleetingly bewildered; it can provoke feelings of uncertainy and wonder—or even awe.
Such were the emotions elicited by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Los Angeles–based sisters who founded Rodarte in 2005, with their fall 2018 collection, which was revealed via a series of portraits of celebrity friends and muses shot in a bucolic setting by photographer Autumn de Wilde.
Writer-director Miranda July twirled about in a sheer polka-dot blouse with bell sleeves and a ruffle skirt. Kim Gordon, in a wide-legged leopard-print jumpsuit, clutched a bouquet of black roses. Tessa Thompson shimmered in an iridescent black dress with a silk corsage. And Kirsten Dunst confirmed her pregnancy in an ethereal floor-length gown overlaid with floral tulle. It was a swirling menagerie of brilliant women from all creative disciplines, and it explains why the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.—the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women’s artistic achievements—chose Rodarte as the subject of its first-ever exhibition devoted to fashion designers, which opens November 10th.
“There’s a lot going on in the clothes,” Laura says by phone one recent afternoon as she and Kate prepare for the show, which will include 90 looks from various collections, presented as they were seen on the runway. “Sometimes it’s way too complicated for us to tell people what it takes to make a collection. There has to be a reason. There has to be a narrative.” That insistence on fashion as storytelling has led to the pair’s work as costume designers—for Darren Aronofsky’s Academy Award–winning 2010 film, Black Swan, and for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2012 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel—and as filmmakers: Woodshock, their psychological thriller starring Kirsten Dunst, premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Indeed, this sense of narrative—of purpose and interconnection—courses through every Rodarte collection, imbuing what might be merely beautiful or decorative with a sense of history. The dresses, typically made of delicate fabrics like lace, silk, and tulle, are often embellished—with pearls, crystals, and flowers—and transformed, generally dyed, pleated, or singed. Though it’s a small company, launched at the sisters’ parents’ kitchen table (their father remains
their CFO), with no outside backing, their influence is ever blossoming. That was evident last summer, when, for the first time, they held a show during Haute Couture Week in Paris. At the end of their debut, characteristically held in the secluded garden of a 16th-century cloister, the standing ovation they received confirmed one thing: Rodarte’s clothes have created their own world.
It’s a carefully coordinated mise-en-scène that springs directly from the Mulleavys’ childhood. They were raised in an unincorporated community outside Santa Cruz, California, the children of a botanist father and an artist mother, who taught them to sew. (The name Rodarte comes from her maiden name, Rodart—the family dropped the “e” when they emigrated from Mexico.) That bohemian upbringing feeds directly into their work. “The world we were around wasn’t about anything but science and the arts,” Laura says. Their first fashion collection, 10 hand-finished pieces that immediately landed them on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily in 2005, was inspired by the old-growth redwood forests on the edge of their family’s property. With Woodshock, the sisters—whose mother once kept them home from school for a week so they could watch all the essential Alfred Hitchcock movies—set out to make a film directly about those redwoods, and about the indelible effects of their earliest encounters with the forest.
“We feel very attached to that landscape, both symbolically and spiritually,” Laura says. “Nature has always really guided us. We didn’t have much technology in our house growing up.” But the Mulleavys’ work isn’t simply the product of an unreconstructed hippie sensibility. Their influences range from dream-pop bands—My Bloody Valentine, Galaxie 500—to ’80s movies like The Lost Boys and Pretty in Pink, from the uncanny vistas of Andrew Wyeth to the erotically charged still lifes of Robert Mapplethorpe.
As Laura speaks about Robert Altman’s 3 Women, an inspiration behind their spring 2018 collection, it starts to seem almost surprising that they gravitated to fashion. At UC Berkeley, Laura majored in literature, Kate in art history. “You put those two things together,” Laura says, “and you have film.” She notes that while their plunge into fashion—in which neither had any formal training—was a way to feel out and develop their voices, cinema “may be an even stronger love, a deeper love. I think I can put more meaning into it.”
Kate is just as passionate about film, citing directors Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Barbara Loden, and Chantal Akerman as inspirations. “Film is very thrilling,” she says, “but it also takes more risk emotionally, because you have to go further—always further. It’s the constant feeling of standing at the edge of a cliff.”
Of course, as Laura is quick to note, their reason for starting with fashion may have been that film simply seemed a less available medium, given the gendered inequity of Hollywood. “When you look at those lists of 100 greatest directors, you might see one or two women, like Jane Campion,” says Laura. “Sometimes, you just don’t know that a world is accessible to you until you make it through.”
Yet that disparity is nearly as true in fashion: “Only 14 percent of design houses are female-led,” Laura observes. “Women’s art is not talked about in the same way” as men’s art, she says. “I look at a painter like Frida Kahlo, and I don’t understand how the world doesn’t see her. People talk about the bright colors and the clothes, but they don’t talk about, say, the politics of Mexico, and all the other things that feed into her work. She should be intellectually valued just as someone like Picasso is.”
For that to happen, she says, the conversation has to change, and it’s work like the Mulleavys’ that is setting that change in motion. As Laura discusses Woodshock, the story of a woman (Dunst) launched into grief and disorientation after she helps euthanize her mother with a mysterious toxin, she explains their decision to mute or omit the narratives of the film’s male characters—a choice that confounded some viewers. “If we had mapped out the three men in the story and told their stories more,” Laura says, “people may have understood the movie better. People love to understand women through men, but we didn’t want that. That wasn’t the point.”
The point, for the Mulleavys, is to continue to generate their powerful and autonomous art, in whatever shape it takes. The sisters are protective of their creative privacy. When asked about their second movie, which they are deep into the writing of, Laura declines to offer details, but notes that she’s excited—not just about that film but also about the prospect of creating a body of work. “I want there to be a narrative that connects our films,” she says. “A story that will come out of them and grow together.”
Title photo by Ryan Aylsworth.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, Vogue, GQ, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books.