Much can happen in 10 years. Just ask Rodarte’s Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy, the sister act who took fashion by storm a decade ago from the West Coast—their family home in Pasadena, to be exact. There, the two realized a daring fashion concept that was lavish, romantic and a bit dark, with intricately wrought clothes marked by couturelike flourish and craft. It was exquisite. Quirky and self-effacing, the Mulleavys quickly became the artistic angels of American fashion’s nouveau generation. But in the real world of practicality and sell-through, brooding fairy-tale froth and eerily enticing webby sweaters are of limited range, and the designers struggled to expand their vision into the commercial realm.
For spring, it all came together in a sartorial epiphany inspired by the hues and textures of California tide pools. The designers’ collection celebrated the kind of weird beauty that made them famous, stretching it to include interesting, smart day clothes with an emphasis on denim, outerwear and the blouse, the perfection of which, Laura says, “sounds easy but it’s not.”
RELATED CONTENT: Rodarte RTW Spring 2015 >>
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Not everything changes. Since starting in fashion, the Mulleavys have been honored by museums, designed ballet costumes for a cult movie and become designer-friends to some of the coolest, most glamorous celebrities on the planet. Yet they still live with their parents—“I’m old-school,” Kate says—and retain their enigmatic eccentricity. A conversation about their most recent, stellar collection veers off to cover their father’s interest in old-fashioned tape recorders and the relatively recent discovery that Einstein once occupied the house next door. The conversation starts a bit late. The sisters selected the meeting place, Narcissa at the Standard, booked the reservation and promptly went to the hotel’s café instead.
When we figure it out, Laura offers, “This is why we can’t handle New York.”
But make no mistake. For all of their still-quirky charm, these ladies are smart and determined, with a clear vision of Rodarte’s path. They believe it can develop into an important business without sacrificing its artistic core. “With all of the great brands,” Laura says, “the two go hand-in-hand.”
WWD: Congratulations. The show was just beautiful.
Laura Mulleavy: Kate was a wreck backstage. I think maybe in another 10 years, she’ll get rid of that little nervous energy that takes over before the show. I kind of got rid of mine a while ago.
WWD: Kate, are you generally high-strung?
Kate Mulleavy: I’m sensitive, I guess. I feel like a show is intimate. There are people you see before or afterward; it’s an intimate exchange of putting [something] out there. So I get more nervous, and eventually it just kind of goes out in the world and you don’t think about it.
WWD: A show is an intimate experience. You’ve gotten amazing reviews and you’ve gotten some pretty harsh reviews. Do you take them personally?
L.M.: To be honest, we stopped reading them.
L.M.: A long time ago, even when they’re great. I feel like that’s the job— to push boundaries or to make people see things in a new way. You can never do that unless you experiment and try new things and you’re willing to fail or you’re willing to succeed. If you read too much into a critique of your work, you stop critiquing your work in your own way.
K.M.: Even with reviews that can be really great, I’m fearful of absorbing too much. I don’t want to be so scared to never push.…I just can’t be afraid of the failure part of it because I know that leads me somewhere in the end.
WWD: You certainly have gone in different directions. Do you consider this most recent collection a return to the romantic aesthetic on which you started, but with a more commercial element?
K.M.: At the very beginning, Laura and I realized certain things were very apparent. Our work is very detail-oriented and very much about texture, with a complicated vision of beauty. It’s always linked with something romantic but at the same time, I think it’s still conceptual.
Going into this show all these years later, I feel like we’ve matured. I feel like I have an understanding and more of a command of what it means to have our voice come into all of the different possibilities of what a collection is.
WWD: In terms of?
K.M.: In terms of how to do anything from outerwear to the things that we’ve always done, like the dressmaking that comes so naturally. What does that mean, and how can we translate it into other categories? Now, I understand [about directing] our perspective. We can consider everything from denim to outerwear to figuring out how to do our version of the blouse, which on paper sounds very simple.
L.M.: It sounds easy, but it’s not. I never knew what my version of a blouse would be, especially when what comes so naturally to us is making a dress that can be very expensive and time-consuming and have like 15 different textiles that are all hand-embroidered.…
K.M.: If you want us to be honest, we’ll say, “throw sand in the dress.” OK, that’s a no-brainer. But what we want is for someone to go to a rack and say “this jacket, there’s a reason I’m buying this jacket I can wear every day.” And there’s a viewpoint behind it.
WWD: Can you broaden a high-minded aesthetic?
K.M.: What’s important is following your own voice. We want to grow in what we do. We’re at a point where we’re confident and we’re saying, “let’s do this, let’s find the right strategic partner and let’s take this to another place.” But, listen, we take baby steps. In order to make something that you can put out in the market and make it big, there needs to be a really strong point of view and people need to get the point of view, especially in the sea of luxury where everything exists. What else can we bring to it if not for our unique viewpoint?
WWD: The blouse, the outerwear, the denim. At some point did the bell go off and you thought “we have to do these things?”
L.M.: That’s the thing. We always imagined we were doing it. We just weren’t doing it yet, and that’s why
WWD: At some point, did you make a conscious decision to start?
L.M.: I look back at [spring 2014], I would have never put jeans in a show had I not done that show. I would never have had our highest-selling shoe without that show, and that’s a huge market to break into. We reached a different group of people with it.
WWD: You also got some very harsh reviews. It seemed for a while that you were distancing yourselves from your romantic past, this time in almost a take on mainstream.
L.M.: That definitely wasn’t the intent. We were doing something very specific. I thought it was still romantic, but it just had a different approach.
K.M.: We were obsessed with this idea of the Sunset Strip and wanted to do a collection that really explored L.A. style and indigenous popular culture. But that kind of style is a little bit off for people; it’s not chic.…Listen, I do think that was pushing out of our comfort zone. In fact, working on it, I said to Laura, “I bet you people are going to hate this show.”
L.M.: A friend said that, too: “You are going to get so slammed for this show.”
WWD: Did that scare you?
L.M.: It made me more excited.
K.M.: Not me, the opposite.
L.M.: Like I was saying, I’m not so sensitive to it. I’m inspired by something. I’m not someone selling 1,200 pairs of black pants in a Neiman Marcus; that’s not what I provide into the market place. I feel like we’re still in that place where we have freedom to express things that we find interesting.
K.M.: With that show, we were beginning to explore a lot of the things that influence us as designers; where we come from, California, and streetwear in general has a huge influence on us. I think in a weird way we were starting to put feelers out. Then it comes back to OK, it’s got to be about our point of view…
You get to a point where you’re searching out, how do we tell this story in a different way? How can this work for someone’s everyday life versus more fanciful events limited to a certain amount of people?
With this [current] collection, we worked out, “OK, this is how we do outerwear; we’re going to do jackets and this is how we’re going to do jackets.”
L.M.: We can do them and still be experimental, keeping our voice. A designer’s job is to be experimental with ideas.
K.M.: But at the end of the day, we have to be realistic about the stages of growth that you go through. One of the things we’ve had to figure out was, OK, everyone knows there are these rarified beautiful pieces, but what does it mean to make that commercial? How do we have that and not kill this other part? Because we know in a great brand, it all goes hand-in-hand. What’s interesting about this time period was realizing, especially in this [spring 2015] collection, we were able to do the artistic and the part that was more commercial in a sense and have it not be a compromise.
WWD: You arrived in fashion with those amazing artful dresses, and an aura of dark romance. Were you pigeonholed as artist designers?
L.M.: I never felt that way. But I feel like if we were pigeonholed, then I don’t think that’s a bad thing in the beginning because I feel like that means people would believe in you, and want to figure out how to grow what you’re doing.
K.M.: The artistic part is a huge part of what we do. It’s a huge part of our voice, our vernacular as designers. What’s interesting is that misconception that that [artful approach] can’t then lead to something that is brand-building. Because we’re labeled as more artistic, some people don’t think about us in terms of brand building and strategic. But, of course, our biggest supporters do see that. They always champion us and want to see Rodarte grow, because they do believe.
Some of the greatest brands in the world have an artistic conception. The fact of the matter is that you do need a strategic partner. You need to understand how to grow the business.
WWD: What categories do you want to do?
L.M.: I would like to do everything. I want to have a great handbag. I want to have a perfume. I know there are things we would translate into very wonderfully. But that requires an infrastructure. It takes a different type of growth that we can’t [handle] just by what we’re doing now.
WWD: Are you looking actively for a strategic partner?
K.M.: We’re at the point where we’re really confident. We know where Rodarte is. We know the things it can be and will be. It’s just about finding the right partner. Laura and I believe in what we do more than anyone. We’re passionate about it and we want to see it evolve. So it’s about finding the right business voices and the right partners that can go on that journey with us.
WWD: Have you had any outside investment?
K.M.: We’ve done this for almost 10 years now on our own, slowly, intently running our business, and that’s really hard. Our shows literally go up online and people compare them to billion-dollar companies. That’s a lot of pressure.
L.M.: Going back to your question about pigeonholing, one thing I’ll say is that when you have an artistic point of view, people never think that you care about business. I don’t know why because the only thing I think about is business.
WWD: Luxury is hurting right now.
L.M.: I think it could be, too, that luxury hurts because you feel like you have to keep up with the fast fashion. I think you have to remember what makes you luxury, and that is having the idea first. I really do believe the more you try to normalize high design and make it compete with fast fashion, the more you’re losing the thing that will always make you be special.
K.M.: This is why I hang out with her all the time.