Last Thursday afternoon, as fashion week came to a close a few avenues west, we sat near its former home at the Bryant Park-adjacent New York Public Library, where Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy were on hand to discuss their new photography book: Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth (JRP | Ringier).
For the project, Catherine Opie and Alec Soth, both acclaimed (non-fashion) photographers, collaborated with the Mulleavys on creating original work that explores the world of Rodarte: Opie with a series of portraits of people wearing Rodarte and Soth with landscape shots from a California road trip (the Rodarte sisters gave him a map of places to visit including Berkeley, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Joshua Tree, the Salten Sea and other places that have inspired their designs).
Catherine Opie also took part in the hour-long discussion with the Mulleavys, offering her perspective on the book's creation and working with them, but we also learned a lot from Kate and Laura about their affection for California, how they get inspired, why they would never wear their own designs, and their mostly counter-intuitive approach to designing and selling clothes.
Kate and Laura sat around watching horror films for a year after they graduated. In response to the "tell us who you are and what you do" question, Kate explained, "We both had always thought we wanted to be fashion designers and we went to school and decided not to study that. I was an Art History major and Laura was an English major at Berkley and while we were finishing school we realized we wanted to become fashion designers and we went back to our home in L.A. and pretty much just started working...one of the things we did was watch horror films while we weren't really doing anything else and later on I thought, well I guess this is good research in a sense."
They did this book as a way to show their thought process. "We haven't been working for 30 years, so it's the kind of book that for me was more an exploration of what I thought our work was about, at least in this stage," Kate said. "I thought, 'how do you do something to share a thought process with someone?' I needed the thought process to be visualized."
Everything that Rodarte is is somehow rooted in California. "When we started this book, I think we didn’t really understand what California meant to us," Laura explained. "Every emotion we have, everything we do, everything we create is rooted in things that we’ve seen or had the pleasure of exploring or traveling to when we were younger or even now...all the nature, all the colors [seen in our designs], they all exist there."
Including their spring 2012 Van Gogh-inspired collection. "If I said to you Van Gogh relates to Los Angeles, you would say, well, what are you talking about?" Kate began. "Well, weirdly enough it’s that we live down the street from a museum that has Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother--the one that's all poison green and we kept looking at this portrait, and then up on this mountain, which is right near where we live is an observatory called Mount Wilson...There's a telescope where they were recording sunspots and when we were doing the collection on Van Gogh, one of the things we did was take sunspots and transformed them into sunflowers and this connection was made."
California also has cool things like condors, which inspired their spring 2010 collection. While they were growing up in Northern California, Kate explained, "There were two movements going on in America: one was to save the bald eagle and there was a movement for the condor and the condor was such a majestic, crazy creature, but it didn’t really have the same PR company."
Living in Los Angeles prevents them from being aware of what other people are doing. "We create [the context that we work in] ourselves, so it's not necessarily a proliferation of what other people are doing," Kate explained, "Essentially, I don't really know what other people are doing."
They would never wear their own designs. Laura said, "People always wanna know, well, you’re a female designer, do you wanna wear your clothes, why aren't you wearing a gown to this event. In a weird way, I’ve really become distant from what we do...it’s nothing I would wear in my day to day life but I’m much more minimal and pared back and if I designed clothes that I would wanna wear every day, I would be very bored as a designer."
Kate added, "For us, it's like we want this blank canvas and obviously everything about yourself is somehow infiltrating what you're doing, so it would be crazy for us to say it’s not about us, but at the same time we’re not limited by the things that we personally want."
In fact, when they design clothes, they don't really think about people wearing them at all. Regarding whether or not they have a cast of characters in mind when designing clothes, Laura said, "Definitely not. I think that's what's so weird about the way we work..."
Kate added, "The idea of designing for a certain type of person has never really been...it’s not necessarily about wearing the clothes either; the interesting thing about fashion is that people can have a relationship with their clothes and they might not ever wear it, so I feel like it's become something outside of that. It’s more about the idea of a collection and the idea of trying to have a dialogue somehow with people so that means that it could be for a lot of different people."
Catherine Opie added, "I think you make things because you wanna know what it looks like."
But, at what point does making the clothes sellable come into the design process? Or does it? Kate: I don’t think we can say that sellable isn’t important, because you make clothes and they get worn, that’s the dynamic of it...I think sometimes when people respond to things, they feel like it's more sellable...if they hate it, they obviously don't think it's gonna sell."
You can pre-order the book now at Amazon for as low as $50.40 (the list price is $80). We flipped through it and it's pretty cool.