Sister act: Rodarte is New York's hottest label

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Fans include Anna Wintour and Natalie Portman – yet high art, not the red carpet, inspires their collections. Alex Fury meets Kate and Laura Mulleavy, creators of New York's hottest fashion label, Rodarte

You can't help but wonder what Kate and Laura Mulleavy – the siblings behind the New York label Rodarte – were like in high school. In-crowd or outsiders? Fêted or shunned? The one thing they could never have been is average.

The same is true of their Rodarte catwalk shows, a polarising force in the midst of New York fashion week, where they've shown since 2005. Buyers either see their work as exquisite sartorial investments, or shock-frocks destined to clutter sales racks. Reviews oscillate from hyperbole to hostility, some press applauding Rodarte as a blast of fresh creative fire, others condemning them as a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. Their latest collection, shown in June as part of Pitti Immagine in Florence, was a prime example: a clutch of jewel-coloured silk dresses and hammered-gold jewellery presented in a blasted-out, mid-century shopfront. For every reviewer who rhapsodised about beauty amid brutality, there was another who saw nothing more than Technicolor kitsch dressed up with art-school pretensions. High art, or high camp?

Speaking with the Rodarte sisters, however, puts your mind to rest. Maybe the lines are drawn between those who have and haven't met the sisters themselves. 'Art-school Goth' is a label attached not only to the clothes (all inside-out seaming and clever ways with handicraft embroidery) but the designers, too. Both sisters fall into the pale and interesting camp – they look so alike they're often mistaken for twins. In person, they're less intense than their clothes initially suggest. What puzzles me most is how two girls can stay quite so pale under the sun of Pasadena, California. Perhaps that's just stereotyping – the California of Rodarte isn't bleached-blonde, bikini-ed or perma-tanned. "We see a different side of California," says Kate Mulleavy, aged 32. She's the one with poker-straight hair; Laura, aged 30, looks a little like Winona Ryder in Heathers.

That movie reference feels entirely appropriate for the pair, not only because they both dress, and count among their friends, the kind of Hollywood A-listers that other fashion designers would open veins for – Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman, whose costumes they helped created for Black Swan – but because cinema is part of their cultural language. A few years ago, I asked the Mulleavys how they would describe modern fashion. They said "cinematic" – something they still feel today. "For me, fashion is a way of telling stories that are visual, in the same way as cinema," states Laura, before Kate throws in: "Film has become a modern way to communicate. If I tell someone I come from where they filmed The Lost Boys, they get it". That's probably a way into the Rodarte world, too, where their California girls wear gladiator skirts, melting-wax shoes and Ming vase-print organza dresses. "We love beauty in a strange way," is the Mulleavys' simple explanation.

California is key to understanding the Rodarte story. The Mulleavys still live in Pasadena with their parents, the Rodarte studio a short downtown drive away. That wasn't always the case: the first Rodarte collection in 2004 was put together in the family living room, assembled on domestic machines and funded with a meagre $20,000 start-up capital, garnered by Laura slogging her guts out waitressing and Kate flogging a prized, vintage record collection. It won them a place on the New York fashion week schedule and an audience with Anna Wintour. That's the kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fairytale beloved by both fashion and Hollywood.

Their collections, oddly enough, all have a link with their hometown – they've recently published a high-brow, high-art monograph in collaboration with photographers Catherine Opie and Alec Soth that seems to explore the synergy between the Sunshine State and Rodarte's decidedly dark designs. "You explore the things that you know," said Kate, Laura interrupting with, "We lived in Alabama for two years – and that does creep in every now again!".

The Mulleavys' distance from New York – where they show their collections – is not only literal but also ideological. New York fashion is lean and mean, streamlined. It's Calvin Clean, Oscar Pay-My-Rent-a. Rodarte collections aren't about reinventing notions of evening dressing or the 'transpersonal' trouser. They are inspired by bordertown sleep-walkers, by Japanese horror films, by myths of women exploding in fire and rising phoenix-like from the ashes. They show collections patterned with Seventies woodgrain. They hand-knit mohair on broomstick handles. If they gold-leaf their models' chignons, it's not about a 'total look' or 'modern luxury' – it's about making the girls look like C-3PO from Star Wars. It's no wonder the American press who saw their early collections pronounced the label's name 'Rod-art'. Art was the only term they could think of for it.

Raise that idea with the sisters and you get a mixed response. "You can't deny the way that you work. I think that our tendencies are more artistic than anything," says Laura. "If you're an artist and you make a dress, the idea behind it makes it art. It's not necessarily just the medium." That was Kate; she studied Art History at UC Berkeley, hence the analytical slant. Laura's focus was literature and the Modern novel: "I like telling stories," is Laura's response to questions about why she designs.

This lack of a traditional fashion education is part of what makes their approach to design so interesting. "We were never taught how to put a collection together. We didn't even know seasons, really. We didn't know we had to do coats for winter!" says Kate. That sense of art-school impracticality has informed Rodarte's designs from day one – sometimes to dazzling effect, sometimes hampering the translation of those concepts onto the body of a woman. "I don't really know what wearable means, honestly," says Kate. "When we discuss our ideas about a collection – if we didn't tell someone it was a fashion collection, they could think we were telling a story or making a movie or something. There's an interesting dialogue."

Rodarte may shy away from calling what they do art, but they're not afraid of an art-school reference. The Pitti Immagine collection drew on Fra Angelico and Bernini, which are pretty hefty, Renaissance guns to pull out for a dozen evening dresses. But as with so many of their catwalk shows, there was something magical about the experience – fresco-bright colours glittering with embroidery against crumbling plaster walls, the dresses looked like Blessed Virgins ensconced in provincial hillside shrines.

There's a dose of the High Renaissance of Italian fashion to these clothes, too. It's easy to imagine them doing quick business at the Oscar roster – Natalie Portman famously eschewed Christian Dior for Rodarte at this year's Academy Awards. But the Pitti Immagine dresses are destined for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – "It ended up going to LACMA and not Neiman Marcus [the department store]. That's great – I think you can do both," says Laura.

You certainly can, but in a time when designers are under increasing pressure to churn out ever-faster fashion – witness the proliferation of commercially-motivated, trend-focused 'resort' collections, barely-masticated before being spat out into the consumers' wardrobes en masse lest a label be seen to be missing a trick – the Mulleavys' painstakingly-wrought one-off pieces seem to buck the general trend. It's tempting to think of it as an 'anti-resort' collection, but the Mulleavys have a handle on the realities of the fashion business. "I feel you have to be aware of commercial restraints. You can't run your own business and succeed if you're not dealing with the business aspect," Laura says.

The Rodarte label approaches couture not only in quality, but in price: a handful of exclusive stores across the world stock a handful of exclusive pieces, such as hand-knitted cobweb sweaters, artfully tattered chiffon dresses and hand-painted and embroidered Ming-vase dresses, all retailing in high four-figures. However, in 2009 the label linked up with the American chain store Target for a mass-market line, and it now designs a more 'accessible' (read: cheaper) capsule collection for the New York boutique, Opening Ceremony.

How much of a concern, then, is wearability for these designers lauded as New York's answer to haute couture? "There's things stores need, there's things clients want to see, and there's things you want to make," say Laura carefully.

"In the best scenario they're all overlapping." "I think you're there to challenge people," counters Kate. "I don't care how wearable it is, it could be the most wearable thing in the world, but people will be more interested if it just challenges them a little bit."

Sometimes, it's a little dizzying being tag-teamed by the Rodartes: they finish each other's sentences, elaborate on statements, talk over one another – but in the best possible way. Rather than guarded, press-ganged conversation, it's an impassioned dialogue at breakneck speed.

Seven years and several awards after their first homemade collection hit the coveted front page of Women's Wear Daily and catapulted them to instant fashion fame, the Rodarte sisters have an undiminished passion for what they create. "The truth about clothes is that they transform you. There's no boundaries in terms of what's interesting," says Kate. Laura, of course, interjects: "It's about making you look amazing. That's why people buy our clothes."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little