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Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s ‘Swan’ Song

By now, the world knows that the Rodarte designers are getting their big movie break Friday when Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” hits theaters.

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By now, the world knows that Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy are getting their big movie break Friday when Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” hits theaters. One costume for Natalie Portman’s character already figures prominently in a promo shot. There are teases in the trailer, too — a flash of a dress here, a close-up of another there. But what about the rest? WWD gets the exclusive sketches for some of the other looks.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Introduced to Aronofsky via Portman, a Rodarte customer and friend, the Mulleavys created 40 costume pieces for his film. Most appear in the onstage performances of “Swan Lake.” Prince Siegfried wears a distressed velvet outfit overlaid with an embroidered floral cheesecloth — “so it looks like a spider web that’s taken over him,” Laura remarks — while Odette dons a flat pancake tutu covered in broken white angora wool, which, the designer adds, gives the appearance of “tree branches growing on [the skirt].”

Complicating matters, however, was the fact that each main character required two looks — a dark and a white version, in keeping with the overarching duality theme. Von Rothbart’s evil alter-ego, for instance, is a wickedly wonderful Maleficent-type creature — all theatrical black feathers and broad, mangled shoulders. “We imagined him like a mechanical bird — his breast is even padded out like a bird,” Laura says. “He’s like a demon.” To keep his horns light and dance appropriate, the sisters crafted it — and Portman’s crown — from burnt copper plated in black metal.

In case it’s not clear, this isn’t your classic take on “Swan Lake.” Aronofsky’s film is a thriller with tinges of horror, which seems tailor-made for the Mulleavys, who often cite films like 1931’s “Frankenstein” as an influence. In fact, for one of the early brainstorming meetings with the director, the sisters brought along images from their fall 2008 collection, a gorgeous mash-up of ballet and Japanese horror motifs.

Curiously enough, they skipped those obvious cinematic references when it came to the ballet and instead zeroed in on artist Eva Hesse’s “Accession II” sculpture, which features a metal cube bristling with nail-like plastic tubing inside for inspiration. “That in and of itself describes the ballet world to us perfectly,” explains Laura. “It’s perfect and beautiful and, yet, terrifying inside. That world is competitive and gritty, your feet are ruined….” Another influence: Edgar Degas’ bronze ballerina, though not for the reasons one might think. “We always loved the distressed skirt,” Laura remarks.

In addition to the more theatrical ensembles within the “Swan Lake” production in the film, the Mulleavys designed the various knitwear worn throughout the film — gray leotards, shawls, leg- and armwarmers — as well as the silk tulle-and-chiffon gown Portman wears for a scene in which her character, Nina Sayers, is introduced as the prima ballerina. “It was custom designed, because her mother needs to undo it,” Laura says. “We designed it with bandage [details] in the back.

“What’s interesting is that, as designers, our job is something so seasonal,” she continues, “you finish a show and you’re already thinking about your next one. In film, you make pieces of clothing that go down in history. It’s been very, very exciting for us.”

Does this mean there might be another celluloid moment for Rodarte? “This was a magic combination of all the people involved,” Laura says. “But we’re definitely open to doing it again.”

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