interview / model LIZ GOLDWYN
polaroids by TODD COLE
Out West in Pasadena, these sisters are doing it by themselves. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, creators of RODARTE, glean inspiration from across the ages, whether from a Velazquez painting or a Navaho weaving. They don’t follow trends, they just listen to each other.
Kate and Laura Mulleavy are sisters who design under the Rodarte label. But they didn’t go to fashion school. Kate majored in Art History and Laura in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating, the girls returned home to Pasadena, California and founded Rodarte. They live in a cottage with their mushroom-specialist father, their artist mother, who often makes jewelry for their collections, and their grandmother.
Their work is artistic, architectural, and has a refined aesthetic sense not generally seen in American ready-to-wear. It’s amazing to slip into their delicate, sophisticated creations and find them so eminently wearable. In the vanguard of talented young American designers, the sisters are producing work that is neither East Coast nor West Coast, but rather exists in a dreamworld, like roses growing out of desert sand.
I recently spoke with Rodarte about their inspirations, their influences, and about living and working in Pasadena, instead of in an established fashion center like New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo. Due to our schedules — planes passing in the night — and a shared obsession with our BlackBerrys, we also exchanged question-and-answer emails with Kate and Laura at times speaking in one voice.
LIZ GOLDWYN — How does living and working in Los Angeles — specifically Pasadena — inform your aesthetic, and your approach to the fashion business?
RODARTE — Los Angeles is a city of misfits. It’s definitely allowed us the space to create freely.
LIZ GOLDWYN — Is there a community of new designers and artists in Los Angeles that you feel connected to?
KATE MULLEAVY — Laura and I feel very connected to Johnson Hartig of Libertine; we’re all committed to very specific and independent visions. He’s been very supportive, and generous with advice and guidance. Rick Owens is another person who brings a lot to our community. Although he now works in Paris, Rick helped redefine Los Angeles in terms of fashion design, and we’re lucky to be able to follow in his wake. Los Angeles fashion design is often looked down upon, but look at its rich history: from Adrian to Rudi Gernreich to Rick Owens, some of America’s most innovative and important designers have lived and worked here.
LIZ GOLDWYN — As a present for Johnson Hartig you made a Proust dollhouse. I love that!
RODARTE — Johnson is definitely a kindred spirit. He loves Proust as much as we do. He even has Proust tattooed on his arm! It was Christmas time, and we tried to imagine a present that would capture both his and our personalities. While tinkering about one day, we found a small mousetrap and immediately thought about Proust’s fear of mice. Our minds can wander in the silliest ways, so we envisioned a shrine to Proust for Johnson, like the one to Balzac in 400 Blows. We made a small theater, filled with curiosities and wonders. A Victorian teacup that read, Forget me not. Smaller vintage hardback books and post cards of the seaside, like those in Proust’s novel. Glass perfume bottles, madelines, and small lace linens. We lined the theater in cork and made a beautiful blue chiffon curtain, held open by Victorian hands and flowers.
LIZ GOLDWYN — You’re always making things, whether it’s clothing, drawings or gingerbread houses. It seems your hands are never idle. Does the craft tradition run in your family? I know your mother often collaborates with you on jewelry.
RODARTE — We grew up in Aptos, in northern California, completely surrounded by redwoods, tide pools, mustard fields, and apple orchards. Our visual registry was created for us by our landscape, and the film, art, and science our parents exposed us to. The relationship we have to our work today is due to them. They taught us to observe. We always looked at our surroundings with a microscopic eye, trying to find the smallest possible details, which we stored for future reference. We collected strange creatures in tide pools, studied butterflies, and read books. We once asked our mother why she wanted to make Navajo weavings. She said as a child, she spent her summers in Zacatecas, Mexico, and was mesmerized by the old men who would sit outside and weave belts. She promised herself that she would learn to weave, and later on in life she taught herself how to use a loom. Our father built her a loom, and she would dye all her yarns with natural elements like onion skins, walnut hulls, and moss. I think this sensibility influences the manner in which we approach design, as well as the way we lead our lives.
LIZ GOLDWYN — You told me that you want to make the clothing you dream about.
KATE MULLEAVY — We work in our studio, and dream up ideas in an abstract way. We’ll sketch for days, and end up with hundreds of drawings. But we can be inspired, or become overwhelmed by feelings, and in an instant know what the collection will be. It’s a simple process. We don’t use storyboards or research past clothing. We dream of art and music. Our upcoming collection was inspired by the theme song to The Double Life of Veronique. We heard it and knew that that was the feeling we wanted to capture.
LIZ GOLDWYN — Do you both sketch?
LAURA MULLEAVY — Yes, but Kate does the final renderings. My sketches are like crude cartoon shapes. Kate refines them. She understands everything that I scribble. When we were young my mother was always startled by the way our minds wandered. She gave us sketchpads when we were four and five, and she let us do as we liked. Kate ended up drawing elaborate period costumes, and I drew detailed maps of the kitchen cupboards, with every single can and box they contained. Even then, our sketches definitely represented our personalities.
LIZ GOLDWYN — People see the incredible detail of your clothes, and the volume you produce, and assume you must have a whole team of artisans working with you, when in fact it’s much more homespun. What is your process of realizing a garment?
RODARTE — Once we have a final sketch, we start working with our small team. Usually for a show, we’re so excited by the prospect of having a piece made that we don’t work from muslin but start directly on the original. All the work is done with our internal team. We do our own bead work, embroidery, cutting, grading, and pattern making, so we have a direct connection with the pieces we build, from inception to completion.
LIZ GOLDWYN — What’s the most time you’ve spent making a single dress?
RODARTE — A beaded dress we did for the Fall 2006 collection took 150 hours of work. But a piece we did this season required two days of pinning. The total time for the piece, with the cutting and the interior structure, would probably be 200 hours.
LIZ GOLDWYN — What are the differences between European and American fashion?
RODARTE — American fashion is more driven by a sense of relaxed comfort and glamour. It’s rooted in the idea of sportswear. There is a tremendous history of couture and costume making in America, which has been negated, but it exists nevertheless. Europe is where dreamers create. Of course, this is bound to change as the world changes.
LIZ GOLDWYN — For the Fall/Winter 2007 collection you showed complete looks — hats, gloves, jewelry and sexy sick spike-ridden shoes. Did you envision a polished ensemble when you were designing the collection? Who did you collaborate with for these pieces?
RODARTE — We started this collection with the idea of a hat. We were influenced by Titian and Velazquez portraits, and had a vision of a Czech woman from the sixties — inspiration very rich in color. We tend to design fully thought-out pieces, and don’t rely on styling and layering. We focus on a garment, and create it so intricately that it develops in a complete 360 degree profile. We’ve had the amazing opportunity of working with a glove maker in France, and have used beautiful pieces of jewelry from Van Cleef and Arpels. We’ve also collaborated with Christian Louboutin on our shoes. We are over the moon about Christian. He’s a genius, and totally charming.
LIZ GOLDWYN — There is a fusion of elegance and subversion in your clothing. It’s dreamlike and über-refined, mixed with something hard-edged. It’s in your personal style as well. The dark eye makeup that Laura wears, or Kate’s cardigan with the Chanel buttons: a fusion of high and low, of rough and polished. Is your personal aesthetic translated into your designs, or is it something more calculated to offset the prettiness?
KATE MULLEAVY — Laura and I are interested in thought-provoking clothing. If something is merely pretty it can become boring. Of course, there is a huge difference between pretty and beautiful. Beauty is interesting because it can be ugly and raw. Pretty is too one-note.
LIZ GOLDWYN — You showed knitwear for the first time with the Fall/Winter collection. Are you thinking of expanding Rodarte to include different lines and price points?
RODARTE — The knits developed naturally. To tell the story we wanted to, we had to have hand-knit pieces. We envisioned a gray sweater while working with bronzed brocades. We wanted to add a textural quality to our work, without relying on the manipulation of textiles. Instead of pleating and pinking, we used courser fibers against delicate silks. As for the development of future collections, we definitely do not want to produce a secondary line. We love bringing more of our vision to life, and every season we’re learning enough, and building our business enough, to be able to do so. We want people to understand our work, and believe in our artisanship. We have an exact vision of what our brand means, and each time we create, we’re able to express it more clearly. Of course, the more we grow, the more variation we can create within a collection.
LIZ GOLDWYN — It’s amazing what you’ve already accomplished. With only five collections under your belt, you’ve won an Ecco Domani award, been nominated three times for CFDA/Vogue awards, and designed limited edition pieces for GAP. Has all of this had an effect on your ambition, and on your understanding of the business of fashion?
RODARTE — We truly do love fashion, its history and tradition. For us, fashion is about beauty. We only want to create the most beautiful garments. It’s extremely personal. We build each piece with an infusion of ourselves. We feel so lucky to have the amazing support we have, and the freedom to create what we believe in. The more we’re exposed to, the more we learn, and with the knowledge we gain we can achieve our dreams.
LIZ GOLDWYN — How do you manage your time between the business and creative sides of your company?
RODARTE — We’re constantly working on the business and developing ideas. A balance of the two is important. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in day-to-day paperwork and calls. We’re aware of everything in our business, so we understand our finances just as much as we understand the eight shades of pale pink we want in a new gown.
LIZ GOLDWYN — You’re constantly touring to show your clothes to customers in person. Do you enjoy it?
RODARTE — We love interacting with confident, intelligent women who are passionate about the way they dress and the art of fashion, and about art, film, literature, and music.
LIZ GOLDWYN — Do you fight?
RODARTE — All of the time. But, we make up within moments, and then forget that anything ever happened.
LIZ GOLDWYN — Where do you see yourselves in five years?
RODARTE — We’d have to see a fortune-teller to answer that.
Jake Michaels, photographer’s assitant – Chrisitian Marc @ THE REX AGENCY, hair – Kate Lee @ MAGNET, make-up – Kadu Lennox, prop stylist – Liz Goldwyn, model.
All clothes exclusively at Colette by special order.
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