Behind the Collection: Rodarte

With an emphasis on feeling rather than concept, Rodarte's natural textures, organic forms, and valiant femininity are rooted in intellectual heroines both legendary and maternal. Refinery29's Andi Teran caught up with Rodarte designers, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and discovered that much like those who passionately came before them, it isn't the rules you follow but the implementation of imagination that creates a history to last.
What is the story behind the name?
Rodarte is our mother's maiden name; we chose [it] because we're inspired by our mother and grandfather. Our grandfather immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, on a stagecoach after the revolution and supported his family. He was a self-taught aeronautical engineer. He was a bit rough and a bit refined. Kate and I loved his imaginative spirit. Our mother is the same way. When she was a child, she would see her surroundings and immediately want to paint them.
You both attended UC Berkeley and studied art and literature. How did you make the transition to fashion?
Kate and I have always loved fashion. Our grandmother would share her opera costumes with us and our mother would school us in the history of American cinema and art. It seemed like second nature to adore women like Kate Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, CZ Guest, and Mona Bismarck. Kate began sketching figures when we were young. Of course, I would steal them, and like I did with her books, I would sign my name all over them. I guess our partnership started at an early age. We were definitely meant to design, but we still decided to attend a school that was not geared for that type of education. We both attended UC Berkeley. Toward the end of our time there we began to focus our attention toward [designing]. We truly believe that our obsession with art, film, music, science, and history has shaped our way of viewing fashion and how we approach design. From everything that we have studied, we definitely focus more on the feeling that we want to create with our garments, than on how much our collection is merchandized.
What was the first piece you designed together?
[It] was a celadon green bias-cut, silk-satin and silk-georgette dress with a knotted back. We were beginning to see how we were inspired by bark, and by the textures and abstract sculptural forms that we saw so much as children. We grew up in green houses and in Muir woods, being that our father was a botanist.
How else does your environment influence your collections?
We live and work in Pasadena. Kate and I will sketch for months before beginning to drape and build the actual garments. When we are not working in our own space, we will sit on the campus at Cal Tech, in the Orange Grove, or work at the Pasadena Public Library. Being in Los Angeles has allowed us a certain freedom. It is very calming in Pasadena, very quiet. We live in our own little world while we are creating, and it allows us to focus on [bringing] our vision to life.
Tell us a little about what's inspiring your current collections?
Overall, it's the romantic history and landscape of California. For spring, we were inspired by Charis Wilson—everything that she wore, looked weathered and lived in. While in a dress, the perfect accessory for her would be a wood-burning stove and a black painter's sweater. It's the mixing of the rough and refined that is what defines our approach and draws us to her. She was witty, charming, and extremely intelligent. She lived with Brancusi sculptures in Carmel, California. Her community defined the Californian landscape—Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Spring 2006 is a study of the natural and mathematical forms of trees. For fall, we were again interested in a primordial landscape, yet with this season, we wanted to explore the textures associated within the myth of Persephone. Our garments are chaotic, and yet contained. They are linear and narrow forms, with soft abstraction. There is a hint of melancholy, in that we wanted to explore the beginning of winter, and how that in mythology, it is related to the history of mother and child. For us, it was important to have textures that are like ice, the underworld, the hearth, and blossoms. We decided this season to do our own beading as well as to build our own silk flowers.
What is on the Rodarte soundtrack right now?
Michael Andrews, Lou Reed, and Phillip Glass' score for "La Belle et La Bete"—we gave out the Criterion DVDs at our Fall 2006 show.
Rodarte is available in New York at Bergdorf Goodman, in Los Angeles at Maxfield and Neiman Marcus, in San Francisco at Susan, and in Chicago at Ikram.
Portrait by Autumn de Wilde
Inspired by the fabric of family and growing up in the shade of the Pasadena Orange Grove, the languid sophistication of Rodarte mimics the rich California landscape from whence it came.

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