It seems that Rodarte, the Los Angeles-based brand known for its artistic mixture of high fashion, modern femininity, and California influences, has been undergoing a bit of a transition in recent years. This time last year, fashion figure BryanBoy called attention to an interesting new development. Some of the brand’s major stockists (think: Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Opening Ceremony, Curve, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman) had either stopped stocking their garments online entirely, or have started stocking their e-commerce shelves with the brand's “RADARTE” emblazoned track pants and t-shirts in place of its pricey ready-to-wear, something their PR team has denied, but would certainly make a lot of sense.
Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy are easily two of the most accomplished young designers of the past decade. Their couture-like creations, which are always lavish, romantic and a little bit dark, have gained them many an award since they launched their label – from their family home in Pasandena, CA – in 2005. The first Rodarte collection, comprised of 10 hand-finished pieces, appeared on a cover of Women’s Wear Daily. Thereafter, Rodarte was nominated for its first Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Swarovski Emerging Womenswear Designer Award in June 2006, followed by another nomination in 2007.
The brand was awarded the CFDA Swarovski Emerging Womenswear Designer in June 2008, and then awarded the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award in June 2009 – arguably the NYC-based trade organization’s biggest award. The awards don’t stop there, though. The brand was given the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion in 2009; the National Arts Award from Americans for the Arts in 2010; and the Legend of Fashion Award from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013.
Rodarte’s garments, complete with the designers’ signature dressmaking techniques and sculptural details, quirky, eccentric aesthetic, exceptional attention to detail and custom hand embroidery, have attracted a horde of truly devoted fans – within the industry and beyond. Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times, for instance, has taken a liking to the brand. She once told Paper magazine, “That's what I get really excited about: when something is just clearly its own vision. It's like Rodarte. They are in their own world, their own heads.”
In reviewing their F/W 2014 collection (and objectively review, Friedman does), she wrote: “It did what really good fashion should do: recast the familiar so it becomes something seemingly unknown, and in doing so embody reinvention and possibility.” Also in the pro-Rodarte camp: Suzy Menkes, who has called the girls’ collections "intriguing.” She said they “hit the perfect fashion note” with their F/W 2015 collection – focusing on their ability to balance their dreamy gowns with “smartened up” daytime wear (read: commercially viable garments). And there are, of course, their packed front rows each fashion week that include fashion editors and celebrities (Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue; Olivier Zahm, the editor of Purple Fashion; Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia; actresses like Rooney Mara, Milla Jovovich, Natalie Portman, and Kirsten Dunst. Hell, even Taylor Swift has attended).
But like any good brand, the Rodarte design duo has their skeptics; because pleasing absolutely everyone means you’re simply not doing enough, right? [And doing enough – in terms of high fashion, they certainly are. Laura told WWD last year: “I feel like that’s the job— to push boundaries or to make people see things in a new way. You can never do that unless you experiment and try new things and you’re willing to fail or you’re willing to succeed.”]
Up there on the list of those skeptical of the sisters’ collection is none other than famed critic Cathy Horyn, formerly of the New York Times, who has not been shy in professing her qualms. Horyn wrote in her review of the sisters’ Fall 2009 show, “All those scarred fabrics are essentially ornament; the underlying shapes don’t change much, and they’re not interesting.” This past February, Horyn prefaced her review, in an article entitled, “Finding Magic in the Trash at Rodarte,” with the following: “I’ve never been a supporter of the fashion of Kate and Laura Mulleavy; they rose on a tide of ballyhoo and cloyingly naïve craft statements, without a clear aesthetic to orient the customer year after year, and I haven’t felt a need to revise my opinion.” This is bold stuff. She then went on to write: “Their show was fascinating, in part because it was awfully bad and awfully good.” (Horyn is never one to mince words.)
She continued: “The designers sent out a group of evening dresses … They were so vivid and precise, and the shapes of the (long and short) dresses were fine, too. If the Mulleavys can finesse this kind of magic, I’m tempted to say they should ditch their banally trashy daywear, or at least find a better way to unify their artistic interests and their commercial objectives.”
The Washginton Post’s Robin Givhan took a critical look at the brand in June, on the heels of its most recent CFDA Award nomination. Givhan aptly questioned: “Fashion brands can sometimes be akin to a shadow, to smoke or fog. You see something, but what? Is it a real business — one that turns a profit from what it promotes, that can grow beyond a notion and have an actual impact?” Answering her own question, Givhan stated: “Rodarte is the work of two wildly imaginative designers who dream up impractical clothes. They have a forceful point of view, but there is slight evidence of their commercial growth. Their garments are aspirational and admirable, but for all the plaudits — museum exhibits, a cache of awards, an honorary doctorate for the designers — they have not yet proved particularly influential.”
She further pondered: “Is the company profitable? The designers’ longtime spokesman, Brian Phillips, says that it is. But $10,000 coats, $15,000 dresses and $2,000 blouses — the garments that have made Rodarte’s reputation — typically do not form the foundation of a business.”
Speaking of commercial objectives, it is hardly a secret that the brand’s garments aren’t the most heavily sold. But that’s only rational. Most people simply aren’t in the market for a $21,000 mermaid-inspired dress, like the ones that the Mulleavys showed for Spring/Summer 2015. Thus, enter: the book deal, the Target collaboration, the Black Swan costumes, the sneaker collaboration with Superga, a collaboration with & Other Stories, the various other special projects – the completely typical array of things that many high fashion designers do to make ends meet before they are big enough to license their name in connection with fragrances, eyewear, jewelry, and the like à la Dior, Chanel, YSL, etc.
Amongst such efforts is their collection of sweatshirts, t-shirts, and track pants (read: sweatpants) emblazed with the word, RADARTE, that has become far, far more famous amongst a larger audience than any of their collections that have hit the runway. Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jay-Z (or wherever you put the hyphen these days), Will Ferrell, Mindy Kaling, Katy Perry, Anne Hathaway, Kirsten Dunst, Emma Watson, and Kanye West, among others, have been spotted in the RADARTE gear, spawning “it” garments of sorts, complete with press attention, spins-offs, and an expansive array of copies.
In fact, the RADARTE wear and its more recent, ROSARTE spin-off, has become so successful that it has somehow eclipsed the designers’ main collection, at least in terms of the vast majority of retailers and the general public. As I mentioned above, even the most upscale of retailers are only stocking the RADARTE collection online – the $125 t-shirts and $200 sweatshirts. Is this problematic?
The spokesman for the brand certainly does say so (of course). "Rodarte's ready-to-wear business and private client sales are going strong and they have a loyal global network of bricks-and-mortar and online stores supporting this," a spokesperson for the brand said last year. "In addition, they've also, on top of this and not replacing this, seen a strong growth in more accessible items including T-shirts and sweatshirts, which has added to their brand's offering — which is very exciting."
And I do not really think so, either. Stockists, such as Bergdorf Goodman, Selfridges, Ikram and Colette, carry the sisters’ intricately crafted designs in-store. And not all e-commerce sites have taken the RADARTE route. Antonioli.eu, for instance, is currently stocking an array of Rodarte garments for sale on its site (as well as a RADARTE sweatshirt or two). Moda Operandi also stocks garments from the brand’s main collection, including its $790 denim. As such, it does not seem that they business is in trouble.
The thing with Rodarte is two-fold: Primarily, the brand is positioned – with its very pricey dresses that can actually be found in museums, and its still-developing ability to provide commercially viable daywear – in a manner that likely requires an additional source of income, at least for now. This is not inherently alarming.
As I noted above, for high fashion brands, this is completely commonplace. Take Christian Dior, which was one of the first big houses to really pioneer licensing as a means of achieving growth and revenue. The house started by licensing its name for fragrances, and by 1950, its licensing program, which was devised by Dior General Manager Jacques Rouët, put the brand’s name on dozens of accessories, including ties, furs, hats, gloves, handbags, jewelry, lingerie, and scarves.
Since taking the executive reigns, President and CEO Sidney Toledano has significantly trimmed away at the company’s list of licensees, but license revenue is still a significant source of funds for the brand. Also consider Balmain. As of 2012, fifty percent of the Paris-based brand’s total income comes from license royalties, such as eyewear, fragrances, etc. Chanel has worked with Luxottica for years to design, manufacture, distribute and sell eyewear, as does Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Burberry, Miu Miu, and Versace, among others. In fact, Louis Vuitton and Hermès are almost absolute outliers with completely in-house operations – aka without a single licensee, distributor or franchise. As you can see, it’s just not that uncommon for brands to rely on licensing as a source of revenue.
With this in mind, Rodarte’s main collection is even more like couture than we give it credit for. The sisters’ garments have some of the hand-sewn elements of couture, but from a business perspective, their brand’s likeness to the couture model is even more interesting. At this point, they are essentially showing their collections during New York Fashion Week to maintain their position in the echelon of high fashion. This is not to say that the Mulleaveys do not sell runway looks, because that’s not true – they do, according to the brand. But there’s more to it than that. Like some couture houses, such as Dior, which actually do sell quite a bit of couture, the revenue they directly gain from those sales is not the only objective.
As we know, despite the immediate monetary losses that most houses endure in connection with couture, which actually amounts to less than 10 percent of the output of the French clothing industry, it is a moneymaker, albeit indirectly. Couture collections set the stage for many houses’s ready-to-wear business and their lucrative licenses, as they allow brands to build (or in most cases, maintain) an image of luxury and attract consumers. Specifically, couture serves as a sure fire way to garner international press, as the garments gain maximum exposure on the runway and on the world's most heavily watched red carpets - the Oscars, Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Met Gala. This was perfectly exemplified by Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of YSL, who said: "We don’t make a profit from couture but it’s not a problem. It’s our advertising budget.”
While the RADARTE collection is not a license, its aim is not far off. As such, the Mulleavey’s casualwear endeavor may be the perfect thing to infuse the brand with any additional revenue it needs. And it certainly appears to be working. It puts the brand’s name out there and as a result of its high fashion cache (thanks to its runway shows, etc.), the girls are able to charge $150 for a t-shirt.
Second, the shifting status of the brand’s sales, particularly online, is not terribly surprising. Sure, there is data proving that shoppers are increasingly choosing to spend money online in comparison to in brick-and-mortar stores, and yes, Amazon has learned from its acquisition of Shopbop that consumers are willing to drop $10,000 for a Zac Posen dress online. But Rodarte appears to be a different case; it seems like the brand would fall in the Céline/Chanel/Hermes camp that just doesn’t really fit online (with a few exceptions). It’s like Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of global fashion, said not too long ago: “Fashion is about clothing, and clothing you need to see, to feel, to understand.” Similarly, Céline’s CEO Marco Gobbetti told WWD that the company prefers to engage with customers directly in the store. Having said this, it seems surprising to me that Rodarte has sold its main collection online in the first place.
If we take these two points into consideration, it actually makes a lot of sense that Rodarte is choosing to simultaneously push its lower-end RADARTE wears online and well, anywhere, for that matter. In fact, this move is not only not alarming, it is probably a very smart business move, especially because logo-printed t-shirts and $23,000 dresses are at such different levels of the spectrum of fashion, the girls run little, if any, risk of warding off top paying consumers with their casualwear.
* This article is based on a version that was initially published in September 2015.