Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the design duo behind Rodarte, made headlines earlier this month, showing Star Wars references in their Fall/Winter 2014 collection during New York Fashion Week. The sisters, who grew up in Northern California and live in Los Angeles, launched their brand in 2005, and have since done ... well, a lot! They've won awards (think: the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for fashion and a National Arts Award, among others). They have had their pieces exhibited in museums, such as the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They've collaborated with everyone from Opening Ceremony to Target, and designed costumes for performance from Het National Ballet in Amsterdam to the Oscar-winning film “Black Swan." Here's what the the designers had to say about how they got started, the business of fashion, being artistic and more ...
You really didn't have any experience in fashion before you launched your brand. How did you get started?
Kate: We moved back home after we finished school.
Laura: I didn't want to be an English professor, and Kate didn't want to work in museums. We wanted to design. So we thought the best way to approach becoming designers was to move home and watch horror films for a year! Our parents thought we were losers. We didn't tell our friends.
Kate: Then, we wrote to Cameron Silver, who has this vintage store called Decades in Los Angeles. He looked at our collection, 10 pieces. He said, "You should go to New York." We'd never been to New York. You would have thought we were in the '30s, going to the big city. We didn't know anyone in fashion, really. We went to a friend's apartment in the West Village. I'd hand-done paper dolls with little clothes, and we sent them out. And Women's Wear Daily called us.
Laura: It was three days before Fashion Week. They called us in and they just put us on the cover. It happened really quickly.
You didn't show during that Fashion Week, right?
Kate: No, we didn't.
Laura: But a few weeks later, Vogue Editor Anna Wintour was coming to LA, and she wanted to see us. She looked at our clothes. I asked her, "Do you have any advice?" She said, "The only advice I'll give you is you guys need to keep what you're doing personal." That has been a guiding force for us.
What is it like working with your sibling?
Laura: It’s such a free relationship where you can get mad at someone and not care. It will be over in two seconds. It’s an experience that you can only share with that person because you’ve lived a whole life together. I feel really lucky. We really balance each other out that way. But in terms of dividing work, we don’t divide anything. We do everything kind of equally.
A lot of the pieces you show are very couture-like. Some critics have said your clothing isn’t wearable, suggesting that you might not care about the business of fashion.
Laura: We are very artistic. We’ll always take the artistic choice over the non-artistic decision. But everyday we’re dealing with the business side — it’s never removed.
People want to believe that people who are creative are oblivious to the commercial aspects, but there is no separation. We run our own business; we're fully aware of every choice we make and what it means. That's how we've had a successful business. Half of the day you aren't designing, you're working on the business.
Kate: We made a conscious decision from the beginning that we weren’t going to take Rodarte in the first four or five years and expand it into all different areas. It takes time to understand who you are in clothing. I don’t pretend to know it overnight.
So, how do you reconcile your very artistic approach to clothing with the very commercial nature of fashion?
Laura: For some designers, fashion is about just making a dress and they’re hugely successful. I admire that. My version is much different. I view fashion as one component of how my brain works. Hence, it never feels done for me on the runway. That’s one of the reasons why we constantly search for other projects.
Kate: Its also why we do other things. Your creativity doesn’t just end at that show. You’re still thinking of ways you want to tell a story. For example, we worked lon “Don Giovanni” with Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor at the LA Philharmonic, and Frank Gehry did the sets. That was dealing with performers, and this whole other world. It’s a part of you that maybe you didn’t know you have an interest in it, but it satisfies something else. I don’t feel like we finish a collection and say, okay, we’re done for the season, let’s start planning for the next one.
I think our creativity is pretty limitless. We’re always wanting to be challenged. I respect all art forms, and I think it’s so interesting to apply what we do to into those worlds. If we can; if people will let us. And I feel a sense of satisfaction. People ask about our proudest moment, and for me it was when one of our dresses was in an exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Met. Because what I want out of design is for people to respect what I do. That might not be what everyone wants. But for me, the end-all, be-all is for someone to say, that’s a designer who designs purely. I think that’s an important thing.
How do you justify living in L.A. with New York being the fashion capital in the U.S.?
Laura: It was easy for us to find a world that we could create for ourselves, and then our friends all do different, interesting things that are not involved in our work.
Kate: L.A. is kind of a strange, beautiful creature. When we moved from Northern California it was overwhelming. But when you get to know L.A., you find hidden treasures.
Tell me a bit about your relationship with Ikram Goldman. She was one of your first supports and must be one of your biggest.
Kate: This is an industry of extreme highs and extreme lows. I feel like Ikram is someone that has been there with us since the beginning and she’s the person I look to after a show.
Laura:I feel like she’s such a visionary in this industry. On a retail level, I know she always picks the most exciting things, and that’s amazing because not everyone will get those things that you love the most. On a personal level, I feel like I could tell her anything.
Kate:It’s undeniable. Everyone knows in the industry that she’s a visionary, she’s one of the few that everyone looks to, not only for direction but because she’s a champion of the artistry behind fashion. She understands the heart and soul of it.
Laura: She doesn’t halfway believe in something.
Kate: She’s one of those people who will stand up for what the heart and soul of fashion is. We wouldn’t be here without her. It’s that simple.