What started as a dream when they were undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, with a label derived from the maiden name of their mother, an artist, now has a more defined reality.

By Eric Wilson
Mar 20, 2019 @ 9:00 am
Amy Harrity/Apostrophe

"A creative life is never normal," says Kate Mulleavy, the older of the two sisters behind the art-house fashion label Rodarte. “I mean, writing movie scripts while you are making fashion is like ...”

“... oh my gosh, it makes you feel crazy!” says Laura Mulleavy, the younger sister by 18 months, continuing Kate’s sentence.

“... because you’re always thinking,” says Kate, completing the thought in a way that only true partners can.

From the moment the Mulleavys burst onto the scene 14 years ago with a collection of homespun dresses and coats they created while still living with their parents, and throughout their remarkable evolution from fashion naïfs to sophisticated designers, they have functioned as a unit. There’s no point in asking who came up with which idea at Rodarte — the fierce lace-up boots from spring 2015, the van Gogh sunflower dresses from spring 2012, the Star Wars gowns from fall 2014 — as they can never remember. “Something about our creative relationship is very intertwined,” Kate says. “By the end, who knows?” And because the sisters have always followed their own rules, maintaining their operations in Los Angeles and spending much of their time on other projects, including writing and directing films (their first, Woodshock, starring Kirsten Dunst, was released in 2017), they are often perceived as outsiders. But in a positive way, it should be noted.

That’s been a blessing for much of their careers, as their independence has enabled them to build Rodarte slowly and quirkily, without the burden of answering to investors. But while they’ve matured, as evidenced by their two most recent collections — each a knockout show demonstrating sophisticated dressmaking techniques and dazzling designs — the Mulleavys, in one important respect, have been missing out. Despite the fashion elite’s embrace, they’ve never been seriously considered for any of the plum jobs that have cropped up at the big design houses in Paris and New York. The Mulleavys confirmed this in an interview about a week after showing their fall 2019 collection in San Marino on the grounds of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, a wonderfully idyllic place near their home in Pasadena, Calif., that inspired in part their love of nature while growing up.

Amy Harrity/Apostrophe

With a newfound confidence, the Mulleavys, once a bit shy and sometimes chided for their inarticulateness in fashion-speak, now come across as assertive and clearheaded when talking about their vision for Rodarte. And they are calling out the industry’s longstanding gender imbalance in design rooms, which, curiously, have been dominated by men since at least the 1950s.

“There are very few houses led by women, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Laura says. “The few women I see in those positions worked really long and hard to get there, and I don’t see that with our male counterparts. Someone does one cool collection as a young male designer and they are in a house. We can all leave it to our imaginations as to why that is.”

Last November the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., organized its first fashion exhibition on Rodarte, featuring more than 90 looks from their collections as well as costumes they designed for Natalie Portman for the 2010 film Black Swan. (Portman won a best actress Oscar for her performance and accepted her award wearing a Rodarte dress.) “That’s when it hit me,” Kate says of the exhibition. “We’ve done this on our own. We’ve created everything that you see from start to finish. And we still haven’t gotten those calls.”

Suffice it to say, the Mulleavys are available and willing should a vacancy arise. Certainly, their recent collections have proved their ability. Their spring 2019 show, held in a historic cemetery in the East Village during New York Fashion Week, was one of the highlights of the season. Tiered and ruffled lace dresses and crystal-embellished capes in vibrant teal, pink, purple, and red evoked characters from dark fairy tales. The mood was only enhanced when it started to rain, drenching the models and guests. Then the fall 2019 show, on a sunnier day in the San Marino gardens, continued this spirit, adding a twist of Old Hollywood references from classic musicals that underlined the Mulleavys’ love of cinema. In particular, the vivid cobalt, pink, and yellow gowns that closed the show hinted at higher ambitions. Covered with elaborate bows that exaggerated their proportions, the dresses had a couture quality.

Amy Harrity/Apostrophe

The sisters also have impeccable references, with a fan base that includes Dunst, Portman, and the Fanning sisters, among many others. “My sister and I have always been able to relate to Kate and Laura in a special way because the four of us understand the power of a sisterly bond,” says Dakota Fanning, who attended the 2013 punk-themed Met Gala wearing a Rodarte dress with wings on the back. (Her sister Elle’s dress, also by Rodarte, featured a tie-dyed skirt.) “I’ve always been fascinated by the inspirations for Kate and Laura’s collections,” Fanning says. “No matter how niche or specific they may be, they are always uniquely present in each piece.”

“I’m not sure I’ve met any two more authentic women in the fashion industry,” says Shailene Woodley.

Melanie Liburd, of This Is Us and Dark Matter fame, is a more recent enthusiast of the Mulleavys’ aesthetic. “I adore how seamlessly Rodarte threads empowering femininity and delicacy into dreamy dresses,” Liburd says.

What started as a dream when they were undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, with a label derived from the maiden name of their mother, an artist, now has a more defined reality. “It’s romantic and feminine, and there’s an underlying edge to it, something that’s off,” Laura says. “We’re always looking at the ideas of traditional beauty and nontraditional beauty and how they can be seen together.” Clarity comes with time. Kate turned 40 in February, and Laura will be 39 in August. They moved out of their parents’ home long ago, but the sisters still live together and share a car.

“Maybe that’s the thing that makes us eccentric,” Kate says, “but is it really that bad if one of us is dating? Can’t the other person still live in the house?”

“We say we’ll just figure it out as the opportunities arise,” Laura adds. “We can be flexible.”

Amy Harrity/Apostrophe

When you consider the Mulleavys’ body of work, which has included hard-edged leathers and tattered sweaters inspired by road trips and horror films, their last two collections seem unusually light, even happy, by comparison. Has something changed? Kate says the mood is more organic, that she “felt compelled to make beautiful clothes.” But Laura answers immediately, citing the experience of having made a movie, with an enormous crew (as opposed to their full-time staff of six at Rodarte) and a première at the Venice Film Festival, as having changed her perception.

“I walked away from that feeling emotions I never knew I had,” she says. “I just felt like a new person. We shot the film, then we did a show, then we edited the film, then did a show, then did a score and sound design. With each stage I felt more and more different.”

“When you’re directing, no matter what the outcome, you have to trust yourself,” Kate adds. “I think, in a way, that translated to the design process.”

Amy Harrity/Apostrophe

So how about it, Paris and New York: Aren’t the Mulleavys deserving of a bigger stage by now? They sure think so.

“The one thing I’m confident about is that if we were doing something like that,” Kate says, “I think we’d be amazing.”

For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 22. 

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