The Mercedes-Benz shows at Smashbox Studios may get a lot of attention, but the hottest new design duo to come out of Southern California for fall didn't even show on the runway. Sister act Kate and Laura Mulleavy wrote a letter to vintage guru Cameron Silver and charmed him so with their 10-piece Rodarte collection that he invited them to set up shop during L.A. Fashion Week at his Melrose Avenue store Decades.
And although the fledgling designers don't have any formal fashion training, their clothes will soon land in some of the best boutiques in the country, including L.A.'s Satine, Houston's Mix, Chicago's Ikram and New York's Kirna Zabete. On top of that, the Mulleavy sisters managed to score a private audience with Vogue's Anna Wintour when she was in town.
About as far from Silver Lake hipsters as you can get, the twentysomethings live in a cottage in back of their grandparents' Pasadena house. They moved in shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley, Kate earning a degree in art history and Laura a degree in English literature.
Rodarte -- their mother's maiden name -- is about Hollywood. Carole Lombard is a heroine of the designers, and their bias-cut dresses -- one in a sage green silk with a blouson top and a double layer of pinked georgette strips for a skirt -- are definitely starlet garb. And a black wool crepe coat with saffron satin-lined angel wing sleeves bears a passing resemblance to the work of costumer Gilbert Adrian.
But the collection -- priced from $1,300 to $2,025 -- is also about the romantic naturalism of the West. The sisters grew up in Santa Cruz and are obsessed with Sequoia National Park. One of their best dresses has a black wool crepe bodice constructed from staggered strips of stiff fabric that bring to mind tree trunks, the skirt in a delicate flowing satin. The brown raw silk "Amelia Earhart coat" is a one-pocket trench with a curved vent in back. And a military coat comes in black double-faced wool with a thin row of pheasant feathers down the placket and delicate organza inserts at the sides.
"Some designers are great storytellers," Kate said. "And some are more like architects. Our approach is personal, almost as if we are opening up to everyone our family history, our love of art and film, and our relationship to California."
On a recent visit to the pair's house, decorated with Mexican dolls, quilted pillows and an antique chest, tales about the Mulleavy family -- half Mexican and half Italian -- tumble out. "Our grandpa arrived from Mexico on a stagecoach," said Laura, who works as a waitress at night. "Our grandma came to L.A. during World War I from Rome, and her uncle owned the Marcell Inn, an Italian restaurant in the Valley that all the stars used to go to. They wrote about it in Harper's Bazaar."
"Our great-grandmother, she smoked cigarettes out of a bobby pin," Kate added, producing a black-and-white photo of a diva-like figure standing in front of a horse. "It's the small things that fascinate you about people."
The designers' rapid ascent has prompted such questions as "who do you know?" But so far, they have achieved success on the goodwill of the fashion industry (yes, apparently it exists).
"Without any formal fashion training, they have created a collection that is on the pulse of what a stylish woman wants to wear and are succeeding because their talent is genuine, their personalities are infectious, and they have the perfect blend of charm and chutzpah," said Silver. "If I were a traditional retailer, I would have bought every piece. And when we had the collection on display at the store during L.A. Fashion Week, clients were so gung-ho that they wanted to buy the entire collection for their personal wardrobes."
After the sisters contacted him last year, Silver got look books from their first collection to Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and other retailers. The initial response was positive, so the designers headed to New York with their second collection in February and another batch of look books -- sets of paper dolls that Kate made by hand.
They didn't have a single appointment scheduled until Women's Wear Daily called them in. The meeting went well, and Rodarte ended up on the cover of the fashion industry bible, which is almost unheard of for a start-up label.
"Then everything started to fall into place," Kate said. "And when Cameron called us and said Anna Wintour wanted a private viewing, Laura and I drove off the road."
A boutique for the underdog
There's a new avant-garde boutique in town. Housed in a 1920s warehouse in the Mid-Wilshire district, Des Kohan stocks such hard-to-find designers as Hussein Chalayan, Sophia Kokosalaki, Jasmin Shokrian and Pegah Anvarian.
In addition, proprietress Desiree Kohan (whose family owns the Wilshire Beauty Supply next door) has launched her own line of separates in peach, taupe, cognac and plum, including draped silk jersey tank tops with organza sleeves, dresses with rolled hems and reversible linen boleros.