It’s hard to imagine the American fashion world existing without the enigmatic, and hugely influential, Rodarte; an LA-based fashion label that, since launching in 2005, has single-handedly invested the commercially-driven New York Fashion Week with an inspiring, and very necessary, measure of the artistic and conceptual. In a cosy hotel restaurant in Pasadena LA, near their California cottage home, the inspired designers talked road-trips and dream-states, otherworldly landscapes, and horror film obsessions with Indigo Clarke.
The label’s designers and founders, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, share a shamelessly romantic sensibility tempered with a taste for gothic films, destroyed, aged attire and raw, experimental music – often the soundtrack to their dramatic, avant-garde shows. The duality of their aesthetic, at once the stuff of dreams and nightmares, comes from the Mulleavy’s love of apparent opposites; the arts and sciences, architecture and nature, throw-away trash and high art – an inclusive interest in all things of cultural value from popular to cult that infuses their complex designs with layer upon layer of context and meaning. Characterised by clouds of dip and tie-dyed chiffon, delicate lines and intricate ruffles, Rodarte’s whimsical gowns appear as though transported from another place and time – much like the twin-like sisters, born just 18 months apart. The self-described “fashion fans”, beloved by a typically hard-knock industry, had a memorable entrance to the New York fashion world resulting in style icons Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Louboutin and Karen Elson (among many others) championing their unique take on fashion, and with starlets including Keira Knightley, Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman recurrently donning Rodarte designs on the red-carpet, their star is continuing to rise.
In a word, Los Angeles is iconic. You can’t drive a mile without coming across a strip that brings to life a scene from a movie you watched growing up. Venice Beach and it's White Men Can’t Jump, Rodeo Drive is Pretty Woman, Beverley Hills is Clueless all over – and the Hollywood sign looming overhead pretty much sums up every Hollywood film in existence. Architecturally, the city appears to date from the 50s, and no earlier – graphic vintage neon signs advertising donuts, shakes and burgers are ubiquitous alongside shiny, ultra-modern buildings on streets devoid of pedestrians, but rife with cars. There’s a sense of solitude surrounding a city seen principally as a blur through the window of a moving vehicle – L.A is often associated with artificiality perhaps for no other reason than it is glanced over and passed by, rather than experienced. Funnily enough, when you ask where to go and what to see, L.A natives talk passionately about the beaches, mountains and nature-parks surrounding the city. Unlike New York, where the built environment is beloved by locals (think of Woody Allen’s endless love affair with the city), for many in LA, it seems the natural landscape is what they connect with most.
It came as little surprise then, to hear the effortlessly charming Kate and Laura Mulleavy – the sibling design duo behind arguably America’s most influential emerging label, Rodarte – talk at length about their affinity with the diverse landscape surrounding their home in Pasadena, California.
Choosing to live and work on the West Coast, Rodarte is a label that from the outset has set itself apart from the industry norm – it boggles the minds of many in the fashion world that such a significant high-end label can exist outside of the established sartorial centres of New York or Europe. The Mulleavy’s decision to remain based in California, despite the general perception that it is entirley removed from ’serious’ fashion, proves how global we have become. While the designers may exist outside of a typical industry centre, the ability to connect via the internet to anywhere in the world at anytime means the notion of a true ’centre’ is somewhat outmoded. Kenzo’s creative director, the visionary Antonio Marras, lives and works in his home town of Sardinia, Italy, and like the Mulleavy’s finds his proximity to family and nature a motivating force. Describing California as a “landscape of mythology,” the sisters chose the out-of-the-way cottage-like hotel, The Raymond, to have dinner and chat, explaining that it epitomises what they love about their city. The unassuming place that, excepting ourselves, appeared to have no guests under the age of 50, is the girls’ local low-key hang-out. It’s their go-to for lazy Sunday brunches with friends, including photographer, Autumn de Wilde (who the girls, now aged 29 and 31, befriended after babysitting for her in their teens). The friendly wait staff, who were all familiar with the sisters, were discussing music mixes with them – the Mulleavy’s were impressed that Neil Young and Elliot Smith songs were being played, apparently quite a shake-up from The Raymond’s usual ’Sleepy Time’ soundtrack.
“We live right up the street, and we come here all the time,” says Laura, sitting comfortably in the back booth of the ‘Fire Room’. “Sometimes we come here at night with friends to relax, or we come here on a Sunday when we feel lazy and just hang out for six hours. The Raymond is a cute little old heritage hotel with leaded windows, and has the best brunch and best Bloody Mary in LA. We love it here – it exemplifies what we love about living in Pasadena, it’s such a unique little world. Our own house is a Californian cottage, a little like this… The funny thing is, when our grandfather moved from Mexico to Pasadena, he was in a Mexican singing troupe – and they used to perform here at the hotel. Our house was actually built by our grandfather after he arrived from Mexico in a stage-coach. He loved roses and planted them all around the house, and my grandma put in tropical flowers, so there’s a combination of the two surrounding our house today.”
Very much existing in their own world, filled with art, history, botany and horror flicks, the biggest question surrounding the Mulleavy’s is how two ridiculously well-read, attached-at-the-hip sisters based in Pasadena, and living with their parents, managed to win over the hard-to-please fashion community worldwide. Clearly, the girl’s isolation from the American fashion centre of New York, and separation from industry conventions, has motivated their poetic and ethereal aesthetic and approach – their elaborate clothing appears to be spun out of air, crafted with the delicacy and magic of a spiders web or silk thread. Rodarte’s signature cobweb knits are hand-made and one of a kind, as are their seemingly weightless, sumptuously dip and tie-dyed tulle and silk georgette dresses that have been seen on celebrities including Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.
Each season, the duo take their intense and spellbinding aesthetic to new extremes. Rodarte’s sublime catwalk presentations take the audience into what seems a heightened reality – delicate confections set against alien landscapes, that draw on the Californian natural environment for inspiration. For Spring/Summer 2010, an earthy and tribal, though thoroughly otherworldly, theme took hold. The show opened, black grit underfoot and poisonous yellow lights overhead, with dry ice pouring onto the catwalk enveloping the Manhattan warehouse space. Bedraggled models with severe make-up and clumped hair emerged from the ether to a dark, distorted soundtrack, wearing garments constructed through complex looping, draping, knotting and plaiting. As though stepping onto the catwalk from some ancient Scottish moor, the models appeared at once menacing and awe-inspiring, draped in earth-toned ensembles featuring shots of fluorescent yellow. For Autumn/Winter 2010/11, the sisters explored their Mexican roots – taking a road trip through Marfa Texas the previous winter for inspiration, driving along the Mexican border and through California. The show began as overhead lights were dramatically cut off, and a towering wax sculpture was set alight. The majority of garments featured patch-work detailing – an ode to North American arts and crafts. Mesmerising, anarchic and unlike any other Fashion Week presentations, Rodarte’s are vital in reigniting our love of fashion each season.
“The road trip we took inspired us to create a collection based on border towns and sleepwalking. We have a friend that lives in Marfa, Texas, so we decided to do a roadtrip out there – it really is a town on the edge of nothing,” explain the designers in near unison of the Texas town that has been the subject of several fashion-related projects. In 2005, a pair of Scandinavian artists, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, unveiled a sculpture masquerading as a Prada mini-boutique, called Prada Marfa, located on an isolated stretch of Highway 90, The tiny stucco building was partially funded by the Prada Foundation, with the assistance of American architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, and was seald shut to the dismay of potential shoppers. In 2008, Jack and Lazaro of Proenza Schouler described ‘Land art’ as one of their defining influences, particularly the wide, arid expanses of Marfa, Texas and the many large-scale environmental sculptures, silos and concrete structures throughout the town, created by Donald Judd in the 70’s.“We wanted to really experience living in the town, and so basically just hung out with our friend on her porch the whole time.” While the sister’s were familiar with Marfa because of minimalist artist Donald Judd, renowned for having (unwittingly perhaps) preserved the town through purchasing numerous buildings to house his large-scale works, they were so taken with the location that viewing his art completely skipped their mind. “We never even made it out to Judd’s warehouses, which we had really wanted to see, because we were just so happy being part of the town. It felt like we were on the edge of the universe, because it’s so incredibly flat,” notes Kate. “Also, it had snowed in Marfa for the first time in years the day before we arrived, so it looked really bizarre and magical.”
Rodarte’s AW10/11 collection was based on transient spaces in terms of culture, and semi-consciousness, or somnambulism. As the girls travelled through sleepy Texas locales, they were swept into a fantasy world of ghost towns and sleepwalking. “Marfa is like outlaw territory – it isn’t really regulated by the American or Mexican governments, anything goes – it really is the Wild West. We were driving listening to 50s music, like The Fleetwood’s, and with that soundtrack, Texas really felt at times like an old horror movie set,” remembers Laura. “AW10/11 very much belonged to this quasi-imaginary world, and most likely developed in part because of our connection to the history of California and its cultural diversity. We explored the idea of sleepwalking and in-between states of consciousness and place – we became interested in Juarez, a border town that exists in constant transition at the Mexican-American crossing. This area has a haunted, hazy melancholy, like a 50s song eminating from a broken-down steel blue truck. The Mexican maquilladora workers, walking to the Juarez factories in the middle of the night, half asleep, had a profoud impact on us. The idea of dreaming and sleepwalking guided the development of the collection – one point of direction was imagining a girl dressing herself haphazardly in the dark of night.”
While refreshingly unique, there is a distinct nostalgia to the Mulleavy’s complex designs, something the pair put down to their fascination with history. Not taking the usual fashion route, the Mulleavy’s undertook history, and art history and theory, degrees, rather than courses in fashion, at Berkely University. This is an unsurprising move given their overtly romantic sensibilities – the pair are reminiscent of the famed Bronte or Austen sisters, it doesn’t take much to imagine them wandering British moors picking wildflowers. Intrigued by the past, the girls value objects and clothing with character and history – it is for this reason their multifaceted designs, made up of endlessly layered references and inspirations, evoke a false sense of antiquity. The precision with which their garments are constructed allows them an inherent preciousness – something that clothing, in our current throw-away culture, is often lacking.
“Whenever I go to a place, I always wonder what happened there before…” Muses Laura. “Maybe that’s where my obsession with things looking ruined and old comes from, we want to create clothing that tells a story. When we first began designing, we just did what came completely naturally – and that is what we have continued to do. You have to trust your instincts when you create. We grew up in a very specific, very natural world. Before moving with our parents to Pasadena as teenagers, we lived in a small town named Aptos in Northern California, close to a beach, eucalyptus trees, mustard fields, apple orchards and redwoods. We couldn’t help but be hyper-aware of nature growing up around all of that. Our father is also a botanist and his entire community consisted of people who studied, and obsessed over, mushrooms. We were immediately put into a world where people were looking at things at a microscopic level.” Kate continues, “Everything we design is an exercise in trying to make sense of the things that interest us – trying to negotiate, and make sense of, various stimulus. On some level, this is what everyone tries to do in their lives – whether you’re a nurse or an engineer, we are all trying to make sense of our world and our place in it. Through our clothing, we try to piece together the things that are profound to us – it's a self-exploration that can’t be completed through just one collection, but will be an ongoing process. A designer’s job is to be really aware of visuals, as we do our research our thoughts come tumbling out like a stream of consciousness, somehow the minute details become a whole when we create the collection.”
Rather than take direction from the usual fashion cues, it is the girls’ wonderment with the natural world, and vast knowledge of art and history, that informs designs that from the outset caught the attention, and subsequently championed by, paragons of fashion Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Louboutin and Karen Elson among many others. “We live in Pasadena, but we work in our studio in downtown LA,” explains Kate. An historic suburb just a short drive from downtown LA, Pasadena is distinctly verdant and tropical, and while close to LA proper, feels out of the way and isolated. “It feels totally natural to be based here in California, it doesn’t detract at all from what we do. We are very sensitive to our environment, and it’s important for us to be a part of an inspiring natural world. We can drive to the mountains, or visit Antelope fields and see the poppies or sit by the ocean. There is also the Norton Simon Museum, which we love. It has the largest collection of Degas in the world, and was the first museum in the US to show retrospectives of Duchamp and Warhol – pretty progressive for a little Pasadena museum.”
“It’s just such a constantly changing landscape,” says Laura, picking up where Kate left off. The sister’s endearingly symbiotic relationship sees them finishing one another’s sentences in a way that only the closest friends and family can. Born just a year and a half apart, the easy-going, and really very witty, sisters come across as complete equals. Kate, a little more talkative and confident, is the elder at 31, while Laura, 30, is slightly more reticent, but just as warm. Knowledgable about seemingly everything, these girls live in a culturally-rich, enviable world of their own creation. With such intriguing conversation and so much laughter, it’s easy to understand why the pair choose to live and work together. “We work as one mind. We design together, and argue together, and then agree,” says Laura. ”We always agree in the end. It is strange. There is not much that the other one does not know. It seems that we have had a strong dialogue since we were young, and were more troublemakers than anything else. We loved to invent, and to create. Kate used to do amazing sketches when we were little and I used to steal them and put my name on them! Our collections are very personal. In the end, we suppose our pieces are more of a reflection of our imagination than anything else. Because the pieces are thought about and developed with such a slight of hand, and with a light approach, we want to capture a feeling of airlessness when they are brought to life. In order to do this, we have to use complicated techniques that make our clothes as light as they can be. The fragility and delicate nature of our pieces comes naturally from our design process.” Growing up in California, and with a botanist father, the Mulleavy’s say they were perennially visiting greenhouses and surrounded by nature. From a young age, they were inspired to look at things in detail, at a microscopic level. This interest in fine details manifestly translated into their incredibly intricate clothing. ”We are driven to create each season because it allows us to further challenge our fundamental design beliefs and aesthetics,” says Laura. ”Each season is an experiment.”
Dreamlike expanses in LA, like Joshua Tree and Death Valley, have been hugely influential on the designers. Death Valley, situated on the border of California and Nevada, is the hottest place in the world and appears like a strange alien surface. As though in another atmosphere, the environment changes dramatically. There are the Devil’s Golf Course salt fields filled with craggy holes, the ephemeral lake Badwater, undulating sand dunes (where Star Wars was filmed), giant gorges, as well as the Artists Palette, which are mountains appearing as layers of pastel hues – aqua, pale pink, blue, green and white. “When I think about the fact Death Valley even exists in California, it’s really incredible. It’s only three hours from here, and is probably the most shockingly insane natural environment you’ll ever see,” says Kate.
Living among locales named Death Valley and Badwater, it’s little wonder the Mulleavy sisters’ are obsessed with horror films – something they readily admit to. Interestingly, Michaelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director behind revolutionary 60s film Blow Up, shot a horror film on location at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley – an intriguing piece of cinema the girls describe as a, “Weird psychadelic, murder, sex film,” amid laughter, “so of course we’ve watched it.” And one of their all-time favourite films, it turns out, is the legendary 80s movie, Lost Boys – which was shot in Santa Cruz, Northern California, where the girls’ grew up.
“That film really captures what it was like growing up in Santa Cruz in the 80s,” says Kate. “There were punks everywhere, and it was the beginning of surf and skate culture, it was really an exciting place to be. The director of Lost Boys said he chose Santa Cruz as the location because if ‘Teen Vampires would hang out anywhere, they’d hang out in 1980’s Santa Cruz.’ We’ve watched Lost Boys literally dozens of times, it perfectly encapsulates the place we grew up… It’s funny how some places you remember from childhood look dwarfed or dulled when you see them as an adult, but when we visit Santa Cruz it always looks just as we remembered it.”
Antelope Valley, where the girls chose to be photographed by Autumn de Wilde this issue, exists an hour and a half outside of LA. It’s a “magical place,” say the Mulleavy’s, that is an example of what all of Los Angeles once was – poppy and mustard fields. It is a natural wildlife reserve, and is in full bloom through Spring. “What’s so weird about the valley is that it is so close to LA, but it’s like going back in time. If you ever get the chance to see these Californian poppies, it is the most insane orange you’ll ever experience. It’s as though you’re amongst the surreal poppies in Wizard of Oz.” Another location that has proved endlessly inspiring are the La Brea tar-pits – a place well and truly stuck in time. In a city that appears so new, exists a relic from the Ice Age, offering an instant sense of history – a mood the sisters are always trying to invest their designs with. “The tarpits are fascinating – they are scientific, precise, and yet so enigmatic and bizarre,” considers Laura. “They really articulate in every sense what we love about Los Angeles and California. The first time I ever thought about science on a larger scale was because of the tar pits and the mysterious fossilised beings, like the sabre tooth tiger and mammoth, hidden inside... It is fascinating that a whole other world is preserved underneath the highways, pavements and museums. The fossils in La Brea were meant to be discovered – not forgotten. That is what is so incredible about Los Angeles, everything that is interesting here has to be discovered. Whether one is looking for gold, fame, fortune, or the perfect tamale, one has to seek it out. Everything we do as designers comes from a desire to learn and discover, to look at the world at a microscopic level in all its detail – to discover the fantastical in the natural.”
While LA is not often viewed as a cultural centre, there has of late been a surge in West Coast experimental music and design – and it was just a few decades ago that subversive bands like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane were influencing an entire generation from their Californian perch. “Now more than ever, there is an incredible artistic community emerging in LA,” notes Kate. “There’s such a documented history of fine art in New York, but one of the things that has been overlooked about Los Angeles is that some of the most influential people in the art world were based in LA. In the 60s, LA was the birthplace of some of the most revolutionary art – Claes Oldenberg and Ed Ruscha were here, and John Baldessari was in San Diego. These artists were making use of mediums that were specific to industries in Southern California, like aeronautical engineering and concepts derived from NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL).” While Basquiat and Warhol exemplified 60s Art in NY, Ruscha and Baldessari were iconically LA, and were renowned innovators before the emphasis shifted to NY. The Mulleavy’s note that this history of innovation is still an undercurrent in LA today, with many artists creating work derived from the practical arts – like graphic design, typesetting and film. Observing a new creative wave taking hold in LA, and being perhaps the only high-end fashion designers living and working in LA, the Mulleavy’s could be considered at the helm of LA’s return to artistic form. Concept stores like Australian expat David Kramer’s ’Family Bookstore’, designer Brett Westfall’s (known for his collaborations with Comme des Garcons) Case Study: Unholy Matrimony and Jeannie Lee’s high-end boutique Satine, have been instrumental in showcasing West Coast creative talent with instore launches and presentations. Satine is renowned for having soiree’s hosted by actresses and musicians including Zoe Deschanel and Michelle Williams, while Kramer recently launched ’30 Days’ in New York, which was an exciting platform for writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers curated by Spike Jonze and featuring famous names like Sonic Youth and Robert Maysles (director behind the legendary Grey Gardens documentary) – it proved California has its fingers on the pulse. “Things are so global now, we feel we are part of a movement here for sure, but also part of something bigger,” explains Kate. “One thing about the spirit of California that inspired us, is the notion that you go West to strike it big, or create something new. That is the tradition – whether it was finding gold, or become a movie star, the mentality has always been that you come to California to make a name for itself. The West Coast has always been wild. There’s a reason an artist like Edward Weston photographed The West obsessively – it’s because it is a landscape of mythology. California is less about humans, and more about the landscape. The landscape is rebellious. No-one walks on the street, they drive.”
It’s the inherent ‘weirdness’ of California that captivates the designers, and offers them endless quirky conversation material. Kate tells a story about an area called Echo Park, where houses have been preserved to look exactly as they would have in the 1920s, and a woman who had kept intact a bomb-shelter in her garden. “The space was like a time capsule, everything inside the shelter was perfectly intact – from the crackers and canned food to the furniture,” describes Kate. “The weirdest thing about this story, though, was the fact the woman didn’t think anything about this preserved bomb shelter in her backyard, she just left it for years without consideration… If it was in my backyard I’d be freaking out! To me, this story is an analogy for the city – there are the craziest things in our collective backyard that we take for granted and don’t think about. That’s why Antelope Valley is so special, it’s like a hidden place that is preserved in time, and exists as it did centuries ago.”
Thanks to their botanist father, the girls have grown up with an interest in science – and just so happen to live right near the famed Mount Wilson Observatory, “where they discovered the universe was infinite,” recalls Laura. “It’s where Einstein gave his speeches and Edwin Hubble determined there were galaxies outside of the Milky Way. Pasadena is also where Jack parsons invented rocket fuel… I always make the joke that we went to Parsons – but not the Parsons School of Design in NY, the Jack Parsons building in CA. The crazy story about Parsons is that he died in his own insane explosions – and was very much into the occult. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard too before he created Scientology, this area really has the craziest history.”
A response to the city’s layered, fragmented and bizarre history, Rodarte’s aesthetic recurrently plays on the notion of ruin and decay as a central theme. “I can remember a huge earthquake happening one summer…” says Kate. “I was standing in our kitchen and within a few seconds every porcelain plate, bowl and glass cup had literally flown off the shelves and shattered on the floor around me. I remember being mesmerized by the shards. A broken plate will always be more interesting to Laura and I than a perfect, untouched object. The value is in the stain, the shadow, smudge, tear… We are attracted to imperfection and to the beauty of chaos. That was the moment I fell in love with fashion…”
“We always knew that we wanted to be designers,” recalls Laura. ”I can’t remember a moment when I didn’t want to do it – it was an unconscious thing. In the beginning we wanted to recreate trees that surrounded us as children. We wanted to create texture with delicate and very simple textiles. I remember growing up, being surrounded by redwoods. I think you end up looking at light and shadow differently when you are surrounded by such large organisms. Everything seems small and minute, and you become hyper aware of detail because knowing that such a primordial world can exist around you in a modern world is incomprehensible.”