Exclusive Interview with Northern Californian Sisters
Rocking the Fashion Industry
Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s journey into the world of fashion has been an unusual trip down a rabbit hole to a place even more surreal than Alice’s in Wonderland. Stepping back in time, we learn that their grandfather was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, immigrated to California, and fell in love with a young lady from Rome. His last name was Rodarte, hence the name of their brand. The pair grew up in a closely knit family on the edge of an old growth forest in Aptos, near Santa Cruz. It was here that their father, a fifth-generation Californian of Irish descent, enjoyed his life as a mushroom botanist, and their artistic Mexican-Italian mother took the girls to movies and taught them how to sew.
The first thing I ever sewed was white overalls with red pockets and turtles on them. That was also the last thing I sewed until we created our first collection many years later.
– Laura Mulleavy
While Kate, a year older than Laura, studied art history at UC Berkeley, Laura planned on becoming a neuroradiologist. They took one costume design class together in college and quit it two weeks into the course. Alas, Laura switched her major to English after accepting she could not endure calculus on a daily basis. After graduation, the sisters set a course to figure out what they wanted to do, including taking a year to study the horror film genre. In 2005, they designed 10 pieces that were mushroom-inspired and decided to take the collection to fashion week in New York. That collection landed them on the cover of WWD. From that moment on, it’s been a wild ride.
Along with years of accolades and awards for their creativity–including their costume designs for the Black Swan–they ventured into the world of film making. In 2017, they wrote and directed Woodshock, a psychological thriller set in the redwoods and starring Kirsten Dunst as Theresa, a young woman struggling with a deep sense of loss and isolation caused by a confluence of regrettable events. “We set out to tell a story about the redwoods and what they make us feel, and we told a story kind of like a creation myth or rebirth about a character who could represent so much about the landscape,” says Laura.
The two sisters live together in Los Angeles and work, play, travel, and create as one. It is this closeness that has built and reinforced their superpowers. While solo designers can get burned out and emotionally discouraged by the whims of the fashion industry, the two of them have a unique ability to adapt. While one ebbs, the other flows: together they can balance their hectic schedules and sometimes overwhelming obligations. When asked about not being together during the design process, Kate shares: “It’s like trying to play the piano without having a piano.”
For a brief moment, the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte took a break to chat with Haute Living about their lives, influences, and favorite things.
HL: How did two girls who graduated from Berkeley decide that they wanted a career in fashion?
K&L: At a young age, we were exposed to costume design. Our grandmother sang opera and our mother showed us early Hollywood films. Through these mediums, we understood fashion. We realized how design was a means to tell a story, and after attending UC Berkeley where we studied art history and English literature, we realized that we wanted to take what we learned about analysis and apply it to fashion.
For our creative process, we look to be inspired—and keep our eyes open—for a seed of an idea to become relevant to our current state of mind. Once we have that feeling, we start constructing a visual narrative that we can develop within a collection. Often, nature plays a role in the development process.
HL: You grew up in the Bay Area in Aptos. How did your childhood influence your fashion philosophy?
K&L: We have been inspired by California in many of our collections. This state has always brought so much creativity to our work. Color palettes, textures, narrative ideas all came from our growing up in Northern California and our choosing to stay in Los Angeles as we started Rodarte.
HL: Your mom is Italian-Mexican and your dad is Irish, correct? How does your family’s heritage manifest in your work?
K&L: Growing up, our mother spent her summers in Mexico with her family. Our favorite stories of hers are from her time spent there. Our grandfather was from Zacatecas, Mexico and grandmother was from Rome, Italy. Both of her parents raised her to love art and craft … nature. Both cultures are incredible and affect the way the way that we create.
HL: You two also wrote and directed the movie Woodshock. How did that come to be?
K&L: We wrote Woodshock, in 2013, for our friend Kirsten Dunst. We wanted to create a world that was reverential to the beautiful, old growth redwoods of Northern California. Having grown up among them, we felt our first film as directors and writers should be about exploring the natural world and an internal dreamscape.
HL: What kept you occupied this past year during the pandemic?
K&L: We spent much time going on walks, documenting nature … and cooking. We watched films, picking up our Janus Collection box set and watching the Criterion Channel. We also worked on three collections for Rodarte.
HL: Are you working on new ventures beyond fashion?
K&L: Yes, we are, but all are confidential for the time being. We are also working on our next film.
HL: What do you enjoy doing outside of Rodarte?
K&L: We love to spend time with our friends. We love traveling to Big Sur and spending time in nature.
HL: For others striving to manifest their dreams—as you have—do you have some sage advice you can share?
We were told by Anna Wintour, after she saw our first collection, that what we did was personal and we should keep it that way. We have stayed true to this advice and our brand, Rodarte, is unique, because we share stories that are from us and our experiences and interests. We would pass along this advice to any young talent.
1. Happiness is: Family
2. I never leave home without: My iPhone
3. My favorite beverage: Coffee
4. I can’t wait to get back to: Big Sur
5. Pet? Our Westie, Teddy
6. My favorite brand that’s not Rodarte: Chanel
1. Every woman should have: Chocolate
2. My guilty pleasure is: To quote Fran Leibovitz, “I have no guilty pleasures, because pleasure never makes me feel guilty.”
3. My favorite book: One Hundred Years of Solitude
4. My biggest influence in life: Film
5. My go-to shoe is: A Chanel flat
6. My favorite brand that’s not Rodarte: Vintage YSL
The 2021 Spring/Summer collection is a reflection of the creative spirit and artistic interaction that we have shared as sisters over the years. This season we found inspiration in our creative process. Having more time together allowed us to distill the codes of Rodarte and further expand them. Rodarte is about romance and dreaming, and our dynamic is the center of its creative spirit.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rodarte Spring / Summer 2021 by Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Images shot by Daria Kobayashi Ritch. Featuring: Ayobami Okekunle, Chloe Tang, Fernanda Oliveir, Licett Morillo Montero, Nariah Nicolle, Olivia Forte. Hair by Rachel Lee using ghd. Make up by Uzo using Nars Cosmetics. Styling by Shirley Kurata and Ashley Furnival. Produced by Connect The Dots