Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo Floto+Warner. 

laura mulleavy takes us behind the scenes of the rodarte exhibition

100 magical looks by the designers are on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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Dec 3 2018, 9:23pm

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo Floto+Warner. 

Thanks to the current administration, Washington D.C. isn’t typically seen as a land of magic and fantasy, at least not in a utopian sense. But one exhibition is bringing the good kind of drama to the nation’s capital. Rodarte, on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through February 10, features nearly 100 looks from the independent American brand’s runways, acting as a survey of its first 13 years.

Rodarte, founded by sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy in California, is often associated with a timeless, otherworldly sense of romance. But the Mulleavy sisters’ designs also interact with the cultural landscape around us. Rodarte’s spring/summer 17 collection was inspired by a Spanish Film titled El espiritu du la colmena ( The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973). The film was, by chance, released the same year that the North American rusty patched bumblebee ended up on the endangered list — prompting audiences to reflect on climate change and the future of our world. Rodarte’s fall/winter 18 lookbook — featuring Tessa Mae Thompson, Rowan Blanchard, Kim Gordon, and a pregnant Kirsten Dunst — reimagined real-life icons as artfully costumed fantasy characters.

i-D spoke to Laura Mulleavy about what dressing the American woman means today.

The exhibition is the first of its kind at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. How did it come about?
The museum reached out to us because they wanted to do an exhibition on fashion with a female designer. They wanted, I believe, [to bring] the two worlds [of fashion and art] together, since they are an art museum. They wanted to introduce their audience to fashion through kind of a more artistic lens so the audiences could then understand the construction [involved] in textile art, and the different things that go into the many layers, and the meanings of the clothes.

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner
Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner.

Did you find any differences or similarities putting together an exhibition as opposed to putting together, say, a more traditional fashion show?
For me going through all the different seasons is very different then working on a singular collection. This was kind of an emotional experience – going through the different years that you have been creating, and uncovering the threads that started when your voice was just so new, and then going through something that is so present. I found that it was really interesting that you could see the different techniques and ideas that started within our earliest pieces that are in the show and how we could place those alongside ideas that are in our newer collections. Those two worlds kind of went together. So maybe working on this exhibition somehow influenced the way we have been designing for the last year. It was definitely just an emotional experience to really think about our work and why we make things, and kind of uncover the hidden things that make the garden of Rodarte.

Speaking of fashion shows, you showed in Paris, and then recently made your way back to New York. How was the experience of coming back to NYFW?
We had such an amazing time, the choice was partly based on working on this exhibition.

Oh, awesome.
As I said earlier, it was an emotional journey going through all the different time periods of your life, the different collections we have made, really looking at those. And then also feeling the family involved of the New York City base, and the world that we had built over the years. That was something we missed a little bit. It was also interesting because the collection feels very New York to us. You see a lot of reds, the jewelry is made up of a lot of modern shapes and metal sculpture. Everything seemed very New York to us, so it came together in the right way. And I do feel fashion has changed drastically since we first started, especially with the advent of the Information Era and what we are dealing with currently in technology.

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner.
Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner.

Totally.
The audiences have changed the way they view fashion, but you have a different audience as well. And I think people expect you to make changes because, for me, it shows an emotional experience. It is something you really think about. I don’t think of it as something at Rodarte that we need to do four times a year – it just doesn’t seem right to us. But I do feel that there is a growing phase within fashion where there is so much of it that it is losing a little bit of its meaning. So I like to think – what is the collection about? What are we trying to say? What is the right setting? How do we want to put it out into the world? Those are things we are starting to think about as a brand because, overall, I think everyone is willing to have fashion change so that it can move into a new space, and to think about the traditions of it and also break a few rules, make new rules. It is in the atmosphere, it feels very much like a community that is coming together and feeling that we should make changes. We don’t feel alone in that, that is for sure.

In general, in more recent years a lot of brands are gravitating towards a more street-wear and unisex approach to clothing. Do you feel that this external shift influences your creative process at all? Or not really?
I don’t think so – I do feel our creative world is kept very much in a bubble, although I am aware of the shifts in fashion and how [fashion] is becoming more broad. I do believe the term “fashion designer” is changing and that is really exciting. It is becoming broader and not just one sensibility is being focused out of design, and that it amazing. I always say that Levi’s are just as an important of a design idea as a very famous Coco Chanel suit, so those worlds coming together and people really talking about them in a discourse set – I see [that] as powerful and is going to take us forward. But I do think that you should be protective of the things that are singularly you as a designer. We also have our own personal experiences - it’s our own brand, it’s our own voice. I do think the way that you would care for your voice can be different in different spaces, that’s all. But I know that living in California, in Los Angeles, we both kind of kept a little protective bubble of what we felt was our creativity, and wanting to really believe in that – because our voice is all that we have that we can offer in the marketplace that distinguishes us from other brands.

Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2018 runway; Courtesy of Rodarte; Photo © Greg Kessler/Kessler Studio.
Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2018 runway; Courtesy of Rodarte; Photo © Greg Kessler/Kessler Studio.

Your collections are so magical, the first word that always comes to mind is ethereal, all the designs have so much depth and emotion, and there are so many layers to it – what is the inspiration process like for you?
You know they change? It’s funny because it changes every time we work on something. In the past we definitely wanted to think narratively through the clothes, tell stories. So there would be different stories we would tell, whether it was involving Van Gogh meeting the Hubble Telescope, or the Wizard of Oz meeting Days of Heaven and cinematic white. Those things kind of came out in our own earlier collections.

But in the more recent ones we were going with a gut feeling, which I think just really comes with the confidence of your age within an industry. I just feel that I can understand what we do and what comes natural to us more now than I did before. I also feel that every year I kind of understand design more in-depth and I feel like I am better at it, I always have something to learn, and can grow as well as have something to grow with. So I guess it just changes depending on our moods, where we are in our lives. I definitely think in the last few runway shows we did we were [also] working on a film and putting that out into the world, and I think that affected our mindset on some level. I definitely think we became more quick on our feet and how we were choosing what we wanted to make, I also think it made us better. It is an interesting process.

Going back to the films you have done – you have collaborated with so many amazing women, from Kirsten Dunst to Rowan Blanchard, that all encompass the multifaceted idea of the modern-day American woman. How do these collaborations usually come about? What makes you think “Wow, I want to work with them?”
I think that goes back to studying at UC Berkeley, being an English and Art History major. I always felt that part of your creative voice would be to interact with other creatives and to build a community. I really do feel that I don’t think our community that we built was on purpose to include a lot of creative women. That’s what happened naturally because there is something deep within us that understood that women’s voice, in the very broad sense, has been marginalized in the world of art as well as in the world of the creative process. So I think that was just something in us that we felt like, “Oh, we need to band together”.

And you look at the communities [in the past] that have [come together and have] come to the forefront – you had Francis Ford Coppola with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma. Those things were interesting to me because I saw it [present] in other fields. Also, I guess I always looked at women for inspiration. I get really inspired by my mom, who is an artist, and am inspired by the different women who raised us, as well as writers. I always look at that viewpoint as being something that, not that I understood more, but could relate to it. I don’t think that in art you ever really have to relate to something or identify with it because I think that is dangerous, but I think I could understand the layered process behind it when working with women. We’ve definitely had friendships develop over the years, too, as designers making clothing. We’ve always struck up friendships and relationships with people who are drawn to what we do, and we are drawn to what they do.

Beyond the exhibition, has there been anything else you are working on?
Right now we are working on our second film, we are working hard on the new collection, and just preparing for the holidays!

Kate and Laura Mulleavy
Kate Mulleavy (left) and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte; Photo © Clara Balzary.
Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner.
Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo Floto+Warner.