NEW YORK — As Irving Berlin once wrote, “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters.” Like any pair that spends a little too much time together, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sibling designers behind the new line Rodarte, finish each other’s sentences. “We can’t believe this is happening,” say the Pasadena, Calif., natives — in chorus — of the past two weeks that they’ve spent in New York, showing their collection to top editors and buyers.
For them, Rodarte (their mother’s maiden name) offers a tiny yet oh-so-chic capsule of seven satin dresses and three tailored coats — just the combination that should be the foundation of any girl’s wardrobe, the Mulleavys believe. “We wanted to do something small and concentrated,” says Kate, who turns 26 on Feb. 11. “Something bohemian and sophisticated.”
The two have little straightforward fashion training. Both graduated from the University of California at Berkeley: Kate, with a degree in art history, and Laura, 24, with a degree in English literature. “But we always knew we wanted to do fashion,” Kate says. “When I was five, I would draw dress after dress….”
“And her designs were crazy,” Laura interrupts. “Like Bob Mackie insane.”
After graduation, the sisters moved back in with their parents and started scouring design-school Web sites, looking through course syllabi to find fashion books to read. From there, with the help of two seamstresses and a patternmaker — neither sister can sew well — they started work on the line.
“This is our Catherine Deneuve dress,” Laura says, showing off the pintucked details on the bodice of a little black dress. Indeed, the sisters have a style icon for every one of their pieces. The fluid rust-colored frock, featuring peacock feathers laced into the black ribbon trim, would be perfect for Natalie Portman, they think. The black wool coat, with blousy sleeves like those of a graduation robe, could work for Grace Coddington. Most of the dresses, all done in Italian silk and wool crepe, feature exposed pinked seams that add a bit of detail without getting too tricky. To wit, it’s the small details — the lone giant pocket on a tailored, matka silk trench — that anchor the collection. Wholesale prices run from $1,200 to $1,600.
To date, the Mulleavys say they’ve had a good response from Roopal Patel, women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, and Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus.
But it’s Cameron Silver, owner of L.A.’s Decades, who’s been their biggest champion since the duo showed him Rodarte a few weeks ago.
“If I were a traditional retailer, I’d buy the collection in a minute,” Silver says. “It’s very sophisticated. It looks like it has international standards of fashion-forward design, and yet it’s made by two young girls from Pasadena.” He’s just as charmed by their story as he is by them. “They’re totally classy, sweet, somewhat nerdy girls,” he adds. “That’s a nice mix in fashion — nice and nerdy.”
The sisters, meanwhile, are delighted by Silver’s endorsement and send him regular e-mail updates of their adventures in New York on the eve of fashion week. Looking at Laura, Kate says, “I mean, we’re like the Little Old Ladies from Pasadena.”