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Patt Morrison Asks

Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy: Fabricators

Behind the cerebral and tactile couture of the Mulleavy sisters.

April 16, 2011|Patt Morrison
  • Designers Kate (in blue) and Laura Mulleavy holding a fabric they designed. The Pasadena sisters are behind the huge success of the Rodarte fashion line. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / March 30, 2011) Photo gallery: Dresses, sketches and fabrics by Rodarte
Designers Kate (in blue) and Laura Mulleavy holding a fabric they designed.…

Their story is like a "once upon a time," but envision Cinderella in a lace gown that's been painted on by Caravaggio and then run through a paper shredder. There are actually two Cinderellas, Kate (with bangs) and Laura Mulleavy, sisters who don't yet have 60 birthdays between them. They famously still live with their parents in Pasadena, and in half a dozen years, the exquisite, subversive couture of their Rodarte label, created and produced in their downtown L.A. studios, has taxed the style cliches of critics and fashion lovers alike (see the fashions at This year, they've been invited to Florence for the women's branch of the influential Pitti Uomo trade show in June. A forthcoming book, "Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth," displays some of the California images that have inspired them. And almost anything, from a lapidary dessert display in a downtown bakery to the menacing light of a Tornado Alley wheat field, can fire the imaginations of the young ladies from Pasadena.

Your label, Rodarte -- Ro-DAR-tay -- is based on your mother's maiden name. How did you choose it?

Kate: When we were trying to think of names, my dad [had gone] to the Salvation Army store. So he comes home with an old directory from Pasadena from the 1930s. It would say so-and-so, occupation and other things. We found our grandpa; the family had come from Mexico and had changed the name, they dropped the "e" so it became Ro-dart, but in the directory it had the full name. We thought: This is a sign. This is perfect.

Your work is in the permanent costume collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and is on exhibit at MOCA's Pacific Design Center space now. You love going to museums; what's it like to be hanging in them?

Kate: The dynamic of that museum -- it was really amazing to be asked to do something. For each piece we ended up having to cut away part of the [mannequin] because we wanted it to look like the clothes were suspended. Instead of just hanging garments on mannequins, we did something that challenged the idea of form and gravity. What's amazing about the mission of MOCA is to get people to think about art in a different context, [like] the challenge of looking at fashion and design and [their] relationship to art. When you're confronted with pieces as objects, when they're removed from the human form, it really makes you look at them in a completely different way.

Laura: It was fun for me because it was nice to be able to look back and say, "Oh, I see how we build things." You study things from season to season, and how [one] leads to another. Walking into the exhibit space, you feel like you have a blank slate; it's like a cleansed palate. When we do a show, it's like you're controlling the environment.

You work a lot with light and shadow.

Laura: Maybe it's because we spent time in the redwood forests. You do have a different relationship to light and shadow because you're under a canopy of trees taller than any other living things in the world. My favorite time of day is when the sun goes down, everything looks kind of blue, but you have one spot where the sun comes in. I've definitely spent time thinking about [such images].

Kate: Also, our idea of neon light or manufactured light really sums up Los Angeles. It explains the last show we did, all about [filmmaker] Terrence Malick versus "The Wizard of Oz." We did a collection off the idea of a prairie landscape, and we built dresses like wheat fields at different points of the day, like a study of almost serene calmness, but the weird anxiety is knowing that at any moment that could shift, you could have something like a tornado, and that's where we referenced "The Wizard of Oz," talking about these two kinds of light, natural versus artificial.

Sounds like you both could as easily have picked up paintbrushes as fabric.

Laura: I feel like this is what we were meant to do. I don't think our ideas ever really stop with fashion design, but if you asked us to draw something, what we would draw would be a dress. It's like second nature. I always say we're storytellers. Sometimes the stories are very abstract, and sometimes I don't think the meaning is really clear for either of us. The medium that works for us is fashion.

Your work is cerebral and tactile, and you don't just use fabric -- you sandpaper it and scorch it and shred it.

Kate: [As a child] I was obsessed with wallpaper, [with] carpeting. My mom's a weaver; she did these huge wall hangings. [In] our home, one of the walls was all broken rock. Everything I remember about my childhood has to do with the way things look and what they were made out of.

Photo gallery: Dresses, sketches and fabrics by Rodarte

There's already this legend about you: scraping together money for your first collection, going to New York like Willy Loman with a full suitcase, and three days later you land the cover of Women's Wear Daily.

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