Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy on their Greatest Inspiration—Art

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Nov 11, 2018 1:00PM

Rodarte Spring/Summer 2015. Photo © Autumn de Wilde. Courtesy of Rodarte.

Laura Mulleavy and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte. Courtesy of Rodarte.

In its early days, Rodarte was once called “the fashion equivalent of a Basquiat”—adored by a few, but “to everyone else it’s inscrutable or a little bit ugly.” This was in 2009. Today, Jean-Michel Basquiat is the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction, and Rodarte is one of America’s most important fashion houses. But it’s a fitting analogy for designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind Rodarte. For them, art has always been part of the conversation.

Take, for example, the Rodarte fall 2009 collection. The designers combined a dizzying array of fabrics and textures to create garments that appeared to be in various stages of transformation or disrepair. And their impact was only heightened upon learning about their creators’ influences: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s dissected houses. These artists and their work sparked an idea, Laura Mulleavy explained, “of how something is made and built and constructed and deconstructed.”

Rodarte Fall/ Winter 2009. Photo © Autumn de Wilde. Courtesy of Rodarate.


While it might not be surprising to learn that Rodarte is heavily art-inspired—you may be familiar with the brand’s spring 2012 Van Gogh–infused line—you might not expect that the designers take cues from Conceptual art of the 1970s. In fact, the Mulleavy sisters have been known to delve into art history’s generous assortment of novel ideas.

You could spend the better part of an afternoon matching Rodarte dresses with famous art-historical women. For example: Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) looks like she’s floating away wearing this delicate tribute to baby’s breath from the recent spring collection. And Timoclea, from a 1659 painting of the same name by Elisabetta Sirani, is empowered to exact revenge wearing something similar to this black-and-gold power-gown from fall 2016.

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., surveys all 13 years of the American fashion house’s history, and shows us how art not only inspired the designers’ work, but also taught them how to be artists. We recently caught up with the Mulleavy sisters to learn more about their creative process.

On learning from art history…

For each Rodarte collection, the sisters bounce art-historical references back and forth as they dream up their collections—obsessing over artists and exploring the canon to create clothing that, in turn, becomes part of the fashion canon.

Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2018 backstage. Photo © Autumn de Wilde. Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Mulleavys were raised in a creative California household. Their mother, Victoria (maiden name Rodart), created paintings, ceramics, and mosaics. Art and museum-going had always been “part of our culture,” Laura explained.

They both went to college at the University of California, Berkeley, where Kate majored in art history; she found studying the subject to be transformative, drastically changing her understanding of the visual world. “I just remember having my world cut open to artists like Eva Hesse,” she said. She was exposed to new ways of looking at art, and her coursework gave her the tools and language needed to develop her own original ideas. “It changed how I interacted with other mediums,” she added, nodding to the way she began to see film and literature through a critical lens.

“It certainly teaches you to analyze and decode things from a non-verbal perspective,” Laura added. “Universal ideas often come through images and color, through shared stories and knowing those things and deconstructing those things is even more exciting.” Laura studied literature in college, but she also discovered female voices of the art world that were long overlooked by critics and historians, like Hesse and Ana Mendieta.

On being inspired by artists, and in turn, inspiring their audience…

While they’re often turning to artists for inspiration, the only Rodarte collection that specifically paid tribute to artists came in the spring of 2012: a collection of gowns that honored the Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico and Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. They borrowed their color palette from Fra Angelico’s San Marco murals, and sought to recreate the feeling they got when looking at Bernini sculptures. Among the resulting gowns is a mint-green piece with a finely pleated skirt and feathered cap sleeves that evoke angel’s wings, as well as a pink dress draped in swathes of delicate fabrics and cinched at the waist by a massive golden starburst belt, recalling both Bernini and the Star of Bethlehem in a single garment.

“There’s actually very few things that I ever want to recreate a feeling,” Kate said, “but there’s something about the way that clothing was made in sculpture that I find so fascinating.” The classical femininity that’s evident in the Fra Angelico collection, they realized while preparing for their Washington, D.C., exhibition, runs throughout their work, and serves as an anchor, even in their experiments with Conceptualism and abstract art.

“Some people look at fashion through an artful lens,” Laura noted, “some people don’t, and that’s perfectly okay.” However, the sisters hope that their work as designers challenges and excites their audience, in the same way the art they love has inspired them.

“People want to know why fashion exhibits are doing so well in the museum space,” Laura mused, nodding to recent record-breaking exhibitions, such as the recent “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s because it’s the way people culturally identify with the time period.” As Stanley Tucci’s character in The Devil Wears Prada put it, fashion “is greater than art, because you live your life in it.”

On thinking like an artist…

Rodarte Spring 2012. Photo © Autumn de Wilde. Courtesy of Rodarte.

Indeed, fashion is wearable art—and Kate and Laura approach their work like artists. “When you’re thinking like a different artist, you’re thinking at a different level,” Kate said. When thinking about the importance of observing the visual world around us, “abstraction becomes, in distance, the most detailed version of seeing things,” she continued. But at times, while tapping into the work of other artists, they’ve landed on new original ideas, as was the case when they were looking at the works of famed Dutch Post-Impressionist, Vincent van Gogh.

Leading up to the debut of their 2012 spring collection, the Mulleavys had been spending a lot of time at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum. Kate recalled that Laura was “kind of obsessed” with a portrait of Van Gogh’s mother at the museum. With Van Gogh on the brain, their subsequent trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles proved revelatory.

“One of the telescopes they were showing us looks at sunspots,” Kate explained. While looking at these sunspots—dark blots that sometimes pop up on the sun’s surface—Laura remarked that they looked just like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. After some research, the Mulleavys learned that the painter’s abstracted interpretations of the flowers turned out to be incredibly realistic depictions of this other natural phenomenon.

To make the collection, the sisters digitally printed images of sunspots onto images of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Similarly, garments printed with images of The Starry Night (1889) were interwoven with pictures of nebulas. The space imagery blended seamlessly into the paintings, and according to Laura, “people think it’s his art!”

The big lesson that Kate and Laura have learned from looking back at art history is that there’s always the possibility for work to take on new meaning through the passage of time. Kate asserted that an artist’s most important asset is their point of view—“and it’s not always the point of view that is accepted in the moment,” she said.

“It’s fascinating to look back at people who have succeeded in their time period, but also people who weren’t alive during their celebration,” Laura offered. She added, “It’s important to know that your voice isn’t wrong if it isn’t successful.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés