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Style / Spring Fashion Issue

Two Of A Kind

The Mulleavy sisters approach high art with their handmade Rodarte line

March 04, 2007|Elizabeth Khuri

Laura and Kate Mulleavy stand side by side in front of a dress form, 32-23-34, propped on a metal chair so that it seems nearly 6 feet tall. The form wears a half-completed gown for their fall 2007 collection. At the moment, it looks like a chiffon sheath with a seam across the bust and a row of knife pleats at the calf.

Laura begins to pin long strips of pinked-edge chiffon, organza and heavy-weave gauze along the neckline. She exhales heavily and seems slightly exasperated as she pins and re-pins. Each strip is placed one inch from the next, and they hang in loose columns from neckline to hem. The effect is precarious: Even a hint of circulating air causes the pastel fabrics to shiver and wave.

"For me, that's really pretty," Laura says as she holds up the next strip, a rose chiffon. "You don't think it's too candy-stripey?" Kate asks. "Well, if it doesn't work for you . . . "

Laura holds up a blush-pink organza, then the gauze, then another shade of chiffon. Finally she tries a paler color, a strip of ivory.

They stare at the strip of ivory for a long time.

"I think the happy accident works better," Kate concludes. Laura continues pinning.

"People don't realize how long it takes to make a dress," Kate says.

It takes a long time for these two. The Mulleavy sisters' attention to detail has been described by critics as "couture-like," "obsessive" and even "relentless." A Rodarte gown might incorporate 100 pleats, hand-sewn roses in 25 fabrics, burnt ostrich and pheasant feathers, and thousands of Swarovski or antique crystals from the Czech Republic. Frothy tiers of organza might be layered over what looks like a chain-mail tunic made of beaded lace, and a sihouette might swell into poufs at the bust and hips. These are otherworldly creations in the flimsiest materials, suitable for mermaids or nymphs--and very few women.

On a Saturday morning, the twentysomething sisters are sewing in their skylighted studio not far from Staples Center. Their father has just left after dropping off some suitcases he didn't want them to store in the house anymore--the girls still live with their parents in Pasadena, and seem to keep their loved ones close. Sitting among the handmade flowers, piles of pleated fabric, stuffed lions, a black lacquer male bust and stacks of fat coffee-table books on geishas, turn-of-the-century toys, fashion, dance and art history, they describe their idyllic upbringing.

"It really affected us, all those magical places where we grew up," Kate says. Their most important memories are of a one-story house in Aptos, an academic town near UC Santa Cruz where making money was "almost looked down upon," not far from the famed monarch groves of Capitola. Their father was a botanist specializing in fungi; their mother painted and wove Navajo-style wall hangings. The girls were encouraged to explore, and when their grandfather (a World War II veteran) would visit, he'd take them marching through the mustard fields and apple orchards at dawn. The sisters start giggling. "We thought it was fun, but when you're little you don't really realize that you're . . . well, marching," Laura says.

When the girls were teenagers, the family relocated to a house on their grandmother's property in Pasadena. The new locale offered a different kind of visual stimuli. "It's amazing," Kate says of the architecture in the area. "You have '60s modern, Craftsman, cottage homes, the Gamble House, Frank Lloyd Wright, crazy stuff like French Tudor, English Tudor and French country houses all next to each other--and bungalows." They also haunted the Huntington Botanical Gardens and the Rose Tree Cottage tea shop. After attending UC Berkeley, where Kate studied art history and Laura English lit, they returned to the same house.

As they talk about their influences, they sound alternately brainy and childlike. They're fans of the great American couturier Charles James and French icon Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn and Wong Kar-Wai movies, and costume designers Adrian and Karinska. They read books on antique toys and visit the children's section at the main branch of the Pasadena Public Library for its "warm room" and comfy pea-green chairs. They've always felt a deep connection with their surroundings, and Kate elaborates on their California roots. "[It's] one of the major influences that we have, growing up in that natural landscape," she says. "I talk to other people who grew up in that area, and like anyone who does stuff on a visual level, they have this weird obsession with shadow and light, and how can we emulate certain natural forms."

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