Last night in the flickering candlelit nave of St. Bartholomew’s church in Midtown, Manhattan (what a venue!) Rodarte marked a memorable return to New York Fashion Week after a brief hiatus that had the designers showing first in Paris in 2017, then in LA, and then not at all, opting instead for artful, celebrity-filled lookbooks. A show in New York symbolises a new chapter for the brand. Sending models out in gowns shimmering with bejewelled spiderwebs, long beaded fringe that looked like lit cigarettes, and billowing floral capes, sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy made sure this collection struck an emotional chord.
The goth-adjacent collection, which took its notes from mythical female monsters like vampires and witches, was — in true Rodarte form — intensely pretty, though, this time, it was so pretty it hurt, by design. And while the looks heavily relied on the themes Rodarte does best — tiers, statement sleeves, storybook tulle — there was a new sense of darkness, as models in sheer gowns were draped in huge, deep purple orchid leis and had spiderwebs like cages marking their torsos. Beauty, yes, but mystical and a bit sinister, too.
Gothic gowns for autumn are about as groundbreaking as florals for spring, but even so, the collection stood out in the midst of a week that has been pretty much safe. The Mulleavys cited the 1992 Coppola film Dracula as their inspiration, and while the show was a masterclass in fashion as storytelling, it was also brimming with wearable pieces. You don’t have to practice dark magic to wear the bishop-sleeved, floor-length white-and-silver gown (this writer's favourite moment); nor do you need a taste for blood to want a dramatic hood atop your shiny black dress.
Criticisms levelled against the Mulleavy sisters in the past have had a distinctly sexist undertone; that their designs are too whimsical and imaginative, that they have no business sense — one particularly scathing headline from 2016 questioned whether or not the brand existed at all, while another critic famously called the sisters “cloyingly naive.” And so, by using their New York return to honour fantastical, powerful, dark female tropes, the sisters seem to be saying, call us what you will, but we’re so much more.
The collection, which will surely be talked about as the best of the entire week, was an unflinching reminder that a serious depth of femininity — the frilled, bedazzled, artistic kind — should never be mistaken for weakness.