Somewhere between art and commerce, couture and pop culture, Paris romps and their Pasadena home, exist Kate and Laura Mulleavy, designers of Rodarte. The nascent L.A.-based, New York-showing label is many things: sculptural yet weightless, conceptual yet laid-back, pricey (they sold one dress for $40,000) yet derived from shapes found in nature. Despite, or because of, the curious contradictions, the sisters have shot from suburban California to the forefront of America's newest new wave after only five seasons, now enjoying establishment cred with a CFDA/Vogue Fund nomination earlier this year. We caught up with the enigmatic duo, who discussed everything from body armor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What exactly is the Rodarte aesthetic?
KM: Well, Laura and I have a real obsession with couture. We love the unconventional techniques and we try to bring the same sensibility to what we do. Beautiful, but also smart and thought-provoking. And we like clouds.
KM: Like when a lot of fabric ends up weighing nothing. We did this one dress that had thirty meters of silk tulle, but it was practically weightless. Sometimes we'll use twenty fabrics in a single dress.
LM: We also did a coat for fall with a breastplate of brocade, but the whole thing weighs about the same as a piece of paper.
KM: We're also about the interior of the garment. A lot of time people just see big volumes and a lot of pleating, but they don't see the interior control or structure. It's like having a second dress fitted on the inside.
Would you call them costumes?
They're definitely not everyday dresses, though.
LM: For some people they are.
Nan Kempner and Bjork?
LM: (Laughs.) Kind of. I've always felt like our dresses are for elegant old ladies and the avant-garde—people who would buy couture and just wear it to lunch. We have one client in San Francisco who wanted to buy a dress just so she could look at it in her closet.
I love how closets are personal museums. Who else have you dressed?
LM: Kirsten Dunst and Cate Blanchett, who wore a dress to an awards show in Australia. We also love working with musicians like Chan Marshall [of Cat Power] and Jenny Lewis.
KM: Dita Von Teese.
KM: Ooh, we should talk to her about that. She's great because she knows how to move in it.
LM: Basically, our vision is to inspire passion in people. We want people to have a strong reaction to what we do, to not be afraid. I love jeans and a sweater, but not everything needs to be that. It gets stale.
KM: Our stuff is not the easiest to wear. Some dresses are for standing only, not for sitting down. A client has to want to stand out and really go with us to the Rodarte place. It's not an impulse buy. The pieces aren't sexy in that way. Sexy to me is subversive.
Where does this subversiveness come from?
KM: I don't know. Our dad is a botanist and our mom is an artist, so we're influenced by anything from the way a piece of bark looks to literature and art. We don't look at other people's clothes or reference other designers.
Did you always want to be designers?
LM: No. When we were younger, we wanted to be beach bums.
Did you do the fashion school thing? You don't seem like the types.
KM: No, we both went to Berkeley. Laura was an English major with an emphasis in modern Irish literature and I majored in 19th- and 20th-century art with an emphasis in 19th-century French photography. We actually loved being in school, only I didn't like the mathy stuff. I was telling Laura recently how annoying it is that we have to use math at all now.
Where does the name Rodarte come from?
KM: Our mom's side of the family is Mexican-Italian. Rodarte is her maiden name.
That's perfect for the kind of wearable art you make. Thanks, Mom. Did she also endow you with your fashion bug?
LM: Not in the sense that she'd walk around the house in couture. Although, every time I see a Prada collection, I think of her. That's kind of how she dressed. She's from Rome. Ultimately, though, we come from a weird hippy scientist family.
Do you fall along the same lines as your parents? Which of you is the scientist and which is the artist?
KM: Here's a really good story about us. When we were little, our mom gave us each a little sketchbook. When she looked through them the next day, she saw that I had drawn a lot of peacock dresses, but Laura had drawn maps of our house, like a map of our kitchen and even the boxes of sugar in the cupboard. Some people are more Freudian and some people are more C.S. Lewis.
The Chronicles of Rodarte?
KM: Totally. So the end result is that people can look at our work and think it's really exciting or they can say it's unacceptable and absurd.
Has that ever happened? (cont'd)