Rodarte's Creative Vision Harmonizes the Paradox of Femininity
American fashion brand Rodarte does not make pretty dresses, although their recent Fall/Winter 2018 collection might convince you otherwise. In lieu of New York Fashion Week, Rodarte released a lookbook titled “Portrait Series: Women Who Inspire Us,” featuring fresh faces like Chloe and Halle Bailey, Danai Gurira and Rowan Blanchard, and icons Kirsten Dunst and Kim Gordon posing in theatrical garments that give a nod to silver screen heroines of the 20th century. A hand-painted backdrop of a mystical forest sets the stage for never-ending cascades of scarlet flamenco style ruffles, frothy baby blue tulle, polka dots, velvet butterfly details and pussybow necklines. Accessories play a supporting role as references to the female narrative of decades past: parasols, corsages and lace gloves insinuate the “proper” roles for women in society, exaggerated by an industry notoriously oppressive to women. Rodarte reclaims these symbols and gives their characters dimension and context with a diverse, modern cast of women. Grimes pairs patent red boots with a white Victorian style lace dress buttoned up to her chin, and Ava Phillippe stares defiantly into the camera, dressed in a sugary pink tulle gown adorned with red floral details. Rodarte explores the paradox of beauty and proves there is always more to the story than meets the eye.
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Rodarte was founded in 2005 by California grown sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who made the decision early on to keep their business independent in order to maintain control over their creative vision. Although this is not the most common approach in a world that favors quantity over quality, it’s the reason that the brand has become synonymous with impeccable craftsmanship, innovation and thought-provoking themes that elevate their clothing to the realm of fine art. The sisters work slowly, presenting only two collections per year, but Rodarte continues to expand as a creative force, having been recognized and supported by some of the most significant figures and institutions of our time, including Anna Wintour, former First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Natalie Portman, artist Catherine Opie, and the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At UC Berkeley, Kate studied 19th and 20th-century art history and Laura focused on literature and the modern novel—education that no doubt taught them to analyze connections between the visual and the narrative, which would later apply to the way they approached their design process. They had no formal training in fashion design, but instead learned to sew from their mother who introduced them to classic cinema like Gone With the Wind, The Thin Man, and Alfred Hitchcock films. The sisters took a year off to study the horror film genre, which permeated their Fall/Winter 2008 collection—decorated with sprays of blood-red dye woven strategically into virginal white tulle—which represented a kind of intertwining of sin and innocence subdued by the essence of a ballerina costume. They also experimented with texture, incorporating deconstructed knitwear as tights and sweaters, some unfurling in thick layers of yarn to form a skirt or jacket à la Raggedy Ann. This collection would later be regarded as the beginning of Rodarte as we know it: exquisite and often macabre.
Having grown up on the edge of the Redwood forests of Northern California, the sisters developed a close relationship with nature, and in turn, a sensitivity to and interest in the ethereal. Their first collection consisted of ten-pieces, primarily dresses and a few coats constructed with layered details that mimic the way a cluster of mushrooms ascend the bark of a tree. Kate and Laura brought the collection to New York during fashion week and presented it to Women’s Wear Daily who promptly featured one of their looks on the cover of their February 2005 issue. This sparked the interest of Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, who personally flew out to Los Angeles to meet the young designers. She famously advised them to stay in their home state and keep their work personal.
The California landscape remains a consistent source of inspiration for the sisters who seem to be compelled to seek out untouched, otherworldly environments. They made a special trip through Death Valley to visit the critically endangered California condor, and were moved by its fragility and beauty and aimed to pay homage to the bird in their Spring/Summer 2010 collection. These designs were an in-depth exploration of the many dimensions of black and the different textures found in the feather plumage of a condor, in some cases achieved by burning the materials. On the runway, fabrics appeared to be sculpted around the model’s bodies, extending into black painted geometric designs on their arms and trailing behind them in various states of decay, transforming them into ancient creatures of the desert. In hindsight, this collection was the perfect preparation for their collaboration with director Darren Arronofsky on the ballet costumes for Black Swan, which were included in the exhibition, “States of Matter” at the MOCA Los Angeles in 2011.
It seems that in every Rodarte collection there is tension between reality and fantasy, but recent collections have been slightly more palpable for everyday wear. Combining punk aesthetic and Baroque details, their take on tried and true separates like the studded leather motorcycle jackets in the Spring/Summer 2017 collection demonstrated an interest in making the brand more accessible to a wider range of collectors. This may have been a tangent, or because Kate and Laura were simultaneously entrenched in the creation of their first film Woodshock, where they found themselves back in the Northern California for filming in the redwood forests and the small town vibe influenced their designs.
Still, 2018 is turning out to be a year of bold moves for Rodarte, who presented their Spring/Summer 2018 ready-to-wear collection for the first time in Paris, a city traditionally associated with haute couture. The show took place in the manicured garden of a 16th-century hospital, accentuated by wildly arranged bouquets of roses lining the runway. Models wore see-through lace dresses finished with flamenco ruffles, loose-fitting leather moto jacket and pant sets with exposed midriffs, floral prints and sweet pastels, sky-high cowboy boot heels and gold bow accents on the belts. All dimensions of femininity were embraced through aesthetic narratives that balance both the darling and the daring. Laura Mulleavy described this as “the most Rodarte show we have ever made,” which may be why they chose to follow up with the portrait series for their Fall/Winter 2018 collection, which is essentially an extension of the show in Paris—one collection so true to their spirit was simply not enough. By exploring the many dualities of womankind and the binding connection between women and the natural world through creative and artistic direction, Rodarte celebrates femininity in an exemplary and complete way—a feat many fashion designers have yet to successfully achieve.